15-20 Story 1: The Importance of Letter Writing

 

Synopsis: When was the last time you wrote or received a real, handwritten letter in the mail? It’s sad that there are young people today who will never experience the joy of getting or writing a personal letter during their lives. We talk to a writer and editor about the importance of letter writing, and what we can learn from reading letters from notables and unknowns of the past.

Host: Gary Price. Guest: Shaun Usher, writer, editor of the book, Letters of Note: An eclectic collection of correspondence deserving of a wider audience.

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The Importance of Writing Letters

Gary Price: When was the last time you received a letter in the mail? Not in your email box, but your mailbox –, the one attached to the outside of your house? And not a solicitation from some insurance company or reminder from your bank, either…but a real, handwritten letter from a friend or family member? If you’re like most people these days, it’s no doubt been awhile. And, come to think of it, there are probably tens of millions of young people who have never gotten much more than a manufactured birthday card in the mail – and never will. Today we resort to email, tweets, texts and social media posts to deliver our love letters, diatribes, happy and sad announcements to our loved-ones and friends. This makes Shaun Usher very sad…

Shaun Usher: I know, it’s tragic. There’s nothing more satisfying that reading a hand-written letter. Well, I don’t think so anyway. The same goes for writing them as well. When you sit down to write an email, or a Facebook message, or a Tweet or a text message, it’s just far too easy.

Price: Usher is a writer and the editor of the book, “Letters of Note: An eclectic collection of correspondence deserving of a wider audience”…

Usher: What happens is you don’t focus as much as you would if you wrote a physical letter, you rush the job. So it’s a far more considered process when you actually write a physical letter. Then you open up more, you’re more willing to be honest. It’s just a completely different frame of mind. So as we lose our selves to the digital world we’re losing so much. Our relationships are weaker for it as well I think.

Price: The book is a collection of 125 letters from notable people such as presidents, royalty, Hollywood actors and famous writers; as well as people you’ve probably never heard of before. Usher says that the physical letters say a lot more about the writer – and recipient – than a tweet or an email ever could…

Usher: And it’s so unromantic, you know? There’s just so little charm. With a physical letter, even looking at the type of paper someone’s chosen, which is the beauty of the book as well because you can see a lot of the letters themselves. We put a lot of photographs in there of the actual letters, you can tell what paper they’ve chosen, you can look at their handwriting, you can look at the smudges, you can look at the mistakes they’ve made. It just adds so much character. A book of collected emails, it really does depress me just imagining how bland it would be visually.

Price: The first letter in the book is a handwritten, chatty one from Queen Elizabeth to President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1960. It’s an apology from the queen to the president for not sending Ike the drop scone recipe she promised him when he and Mamie visited Her Majesty at Balmoral Palace the year before. Usher says it shows a side of the queen that the world rarely sees..

Usher: I think it’s lovely to see her in a different frame of mind. You never see the personal side of the queen, and this is her in a very relaxed moment speaking to the President of the United States. And it’s just such an unusual situation to see her in. I think it’s really endearing and I love the fact that she was meant to send this recipe and then she forgot about it, and then her memory was jogged when she saw him on the TV. It really kind of normalizes the queen. I think it’s lovely. And I love the fact that you can see the actual recipe in the book as well. And it does work. I’ve tried the scones from that recipe.

Price: Following that letter is one in stark contrast to it – the “from hell” missive written in October, 1888, and addressed to George Lusk, chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. It was signed “catch me if you can.” Any mystery buff knows that this is the famous letter sent from none other than “Jack the Ripper” and accompanied by a small box containing half a human kidney…

Usher: it’s a terrifying letter to look at before you even read the message. And yeah, they love that letter as chilling as it is. The message within it is pretty horrible. And, yeah, it was a perfect way to follow the queen’s letter. And then I think the next letter after that is from E.B. White, so it really is kind of an emotional rollercoaster.

Price: An 1865 letter included in the book is from a freed slave, Jourdan Anderson, to his former master, Colonel P. H. Anderson in Big Spring, Tennessee. Apparently the Civil War took its toll on the colonel’s plantation, and he asked Jourdan to return to help him restore his business to its former glory. The ex-slave and his large family were doing well in their new home in Dayton, Ohio, but Jourdan said he’d consider coming back if the colonel would give him his back pay for the more than 50 years combined that he and his wife, Amanda, worked on the homestead…a sum of more than 11-thousand-six hundred dollars, plus interest…

Usher: Jourdan Anderson, which is the name of the former slave, dictated this incredibly eloquent and restrained letter back to his old master, and essentially said we’ll come back to your farm as long as you give us back pay for the past 40 years, and he makes a little calculation. There’s some dry humor in it, considering how angry he must have been to get a letter like this it’s such a restrained and eloquent letter. He ends it with, “Say howdy to George Carter and thank him for taking the pistol from me when you were shooting at me. From your old servant, Jourdan Anderson.” Just the most incredible letter. It’s one of two letters from ex-slaves in the book, actually. There’s another one in there that’s equally as powerful. One I put on the website, we have three million hits in 24 hours from people looking at this one particular letter, and it’s at that point that I realized that this Letters of Note Project really have legs.

Price: There are a number of very touching, very tragic letters in the collection, such as those from poor mothers who had to abandon their babies on the doorstep of the New York Foundling Asylum. Though poorly written, Usher says these letters convey the extreme sadness that these mothers must have felt leaving their children in the care of others. Although some mothers said they’d come back for their children some day when they got back on their feet, few ever did…

Usher: Hand-scrawled, a lot of them very difficult to read because quite a few of these mothers were close to illiterate. Just the most devastating letters to read. And they’re held by the New York Historical Society and they were very helpful in supplying some of these letters of which they have hundreds from this time. I think in the first few years of them being open in the 1860s, two-and-a-half thousand children were left on the doorstep, which is just a horrifying thought.

Price: Usher included the letters of a number of Hollywood celebrities in his collection, and one from Katharine Hepburn to her long-time lover Spencer Tracy is especially interesting. Hepburn wrote it 18 years after Tracy’s death. An excerpt reads:

There you were.– really the greatest movie actor. I say this because I believe it and also I have heard many people of standing in your business say it. From Olivier to Lee Strasberg to David Lean. You name it. You could do it. And you could do it with that glorious simplicity and directness: you could just do it. You couldn’t enter your own life, but you could become someone else. You were a killer, a priest, a fisherman, a sportswriter, a judge, a newspaperman. You were it in an instant.

Usher says that it’s amazing that Hepburn, and other famous people whose voices we know, write just the way they sound when they’re speaking…

Usher: There’s a video of Katharine Hepburn reading that letter aloud, you can find it on YouTube. It’s a beautiful thing. But yes, their voices often do come through in their letters. It’s really quite strange, but it’s a lovely thing.

Price: There are several letters in the collection from the living to the dead. Usher says these beautiful – and heartbreaking – correspondences serve a purpose for the writer…

Usher: It’s basically a goodbye, isn’t it? And in pretty much all of the cases with these letters they’re saying things they couldn’t say or they didn’t say when their loved-ones were alive. It’s desperately sad, but it’s also quite beautiful that they did manage to find some closure, particularly in the form of a letter, which is, I think, why I find them so appealing.

Price: Along with the sad, angry and heartbreaking letters are many that are very cleverly composed. Take this excerpt from Robert Pirosh, an ad agency copywriter who wanted to work in the movies…

Usher: What he did was he wrote a standard-form job application letter and sent it to all the Hollywood studios, producers, directors that he could find addresses for. And this letter was so perfectly written that it got him quite a few interviews with different studios, and he took a job with MGM and then 15 years later he won an Oscar for one of his scripts. It goes:

Dear Sir,

I like words. I like fat, buttery words such as ooze, turpitude, gluttonous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words such as straight-laced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave, “v” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like wormy-squirmy mealy words such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp. I like the word “screenwriter” better than “copywriter” so I decided to quit my job at a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood. But before taking the plunge, I went to Europe for a year of study, concentration and horsing around. I just returned and I still like words. May I have a few with you? Robert Pirosh.

Price: In addition to making us think more about what we write, and taking the time to “craft” a communication rather than just pounding out an email, Usher says letters help us understand the world — past and present…

Usher: I find that there’s no better way of learning about history than through the letter of the people that lived it. These are first-person accounts of what, in many cases, first-person accounts of some incredible moments in history about which we wouldn’t have learned were it not for people’s letters. So I hope people come away with it nourished in an intelligent sense. I hope people learn a few things about the world around them, and history. But most of all I just, I hope people decide to pick up a pen and paper and maybe write a letter of their own, ‘cause it’s such an important thing to do. What we don’t want to be doing in the near future is rather than handing down boxes of letters to our loved-ones before we die, we don’t want to just be handing across passwords to Gmail accounts that are filled with spam. It’s such a disappointing future. So I hope it promotes the art of letter writing even for a few people.

Price: You can read all of the letters from famous, infamous and unknown writers in Shaun Usher’s book, “Letters of Note,” available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to visit his website at Lettersofnote.com. You can learn more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

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