The art of letter-writing is a has-been because we’ve rejected contemplation

In the mid-19 Century, news from family members living away from home came by letter, an experience many relished, as James Campell’s painting, “News From My Lad,” illustrates.

If you surf the Internet for “letter-writing,” you will find a scad of links bemoaning the disappearance of the “art.” That’s what they say, they say letter-writing is an art, a competency that’s gone by the boards.

When the American poet, Hart Crane, stumbled on the letters of his mother’s mother, Elizabeth, in the attic one rainy evening, as he tells us in “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” he saw packets “That have been pressed so long/ Into the corner of the roof/That they are brown and soft/And liable to melt as snow/.”

As he sat in the dim-lit space caressing the hand-writ delicacies, he realized that, “Over the greatness of such space/Steps must be gentle./ As is the case with any treasured love.”

My late Uncle Neal — who fought in World War II and Korea, retiring as a Commander in the United States Navy — married a Florida woman, Eleanor Perkins, in June 1944. She had two children by a previous marriage whom Neal took on as his own.

I searched and searched and found the children, one of whom was still alive, in his eighties, Frederick Perkins. He didn’t take my call at first; he said that he thought I was the Conservative Party looking for money. I told him who I was and how I got there.

He was a first cousin, at least until Neal and Eleanor divorced. My uncle was a handsome rugged athlete with considerable gravitas but never seemed to have success with women.

As we talked by phone, Frederick said Neal treated him like a son. He did not mention his biological father; he intimated Neal was his dad.

Frederick said Neal wrote to him after he was drafted in the Army. He said he still had the letters and, after a minute or two, asked if I would like them. I was dumbfounded: the revelations of an uncle I hardly ever met or talked to.

In a few days, a packet came with 10 handwritten letters in their original envelopes. Neal was always asking “Freddie” how he was doing, what his plans were, and sometimes offered advice. As I perused my treasure, I knew how Crane felt.

But, as I said, the competency for sharing who you are by letter has all but disappeared; the “art” is a has-been. If I asked how many letters you wrote this month to a friend or someone in the family, what would you say?

Nearly a century ago, Emily Post offered in her 1922 edition of “Etiquette In Society, In Business, In Politics and At Home”: “The art of general letter-writing in the present day is shrinking until the letter threatens to become a telegram, a telephone message, a post-card.” And now there’s texting, Instagram, and all the other modes of surface-revelation.   

In a February 2016 article in Odyssey, “Why Don’t We Hand-Write Letters Anymore?,” Ashtyn Leighann said: It’s because we’re lazy. She also mentioned the price of stamps, but where can you get a letter delivered 3,000 miles away for half a buck? Her reasons are facile.

I’m not trying to set up a straw woman here to knock it down, I’m saying I have not seen anything that hits the “why nail” on the head. The answer is: We no longer write letters because letter-writing is a contemplative activity and we — Americans are not alone in this — have rejected contemplation as an integral part of our lives. A jaded critic would say we despise it.

When you listen to the voice that speaks in a handwritten letter — not about the weather — you hear an entirely different voice from what you hear on the phone. The letter-voice comes from a whole other place of being than where the chief-operating-officer-self does business. The letter-voice is open and vulnerable as the soul reveals itself freely.

And the contemplative dimension that allows the soul to write will not return until we embrace (or re-embrace) solitude; solitude provides a safe space where the heart can feel and say things as they are.

When we think of the voice we listen to a letter with, we know it comes from a deeper place than where we listen to a TV show.

I go by the old Irish saying, “If a thing is meant for you, it won’t pass you by,” so I am not about to tell anyone they ought to start writing letters by hand, much less with a fountain pen, though writing by hand is well suited to the tempo of the thoughtful tongue.

Stephen King tells us he wrote his 900-page novel “Dreamcatcher” with a Waterman fountain pen; elated he said, “To write the first draft of such a long book by hand put me in touch with the language as I haven’t been in years ... One rarely finds such opportunities in the twenty-first century, and they are to be savored.”

I write letters. I write them by hand. I write extended notes on 100-pound Strathmore Bristol, the 300 Series, cut in 5-by-11-inch strips. I use a fountain pen. I have one in each room where I write to those I care for.

I find the ballpoint pen an insult. Its leaky nose pales in comparison to the sensuous movement of a nib skating across a sheet of paper made for art. As the ink soaks in, I can hear the sigh of relief: está bien.

Younger people’s handwriting is so atrocious these days because they do not know what it’s like to speak by hand. If you think of what you say as art, you will create beauty on the page and, as John Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

I get notes sometimes penned in chicken-scratch. I always feel the writer wanted to be somewhere else. I’m not saying someone need adopt Spencerian script or give a nod to Palmer, only that how we put our thoughts on paper, is a reflection of who we are, a measure of our discipline.

Read the letters of Emily Dickinson to her sister, Lavinia, or the letters of Thomas Merton, to the great (still-living) Nicaraguan poet, Ernesto Cardenal — one of his novices at Gethsemani in the 1950s — and you will see an openness that is disarming. The artful letter disarms.

Will America ever regain its lost contemplative spirit and feel safe enough to say who we are and what we think in handwritten letters? If such letters are in fact disarming, might they ease our current civil(ity) war?

I’ll continue to write mine. I derive great satisfaction from it. But then you’ll have to ask those who get them, what they think of a soul speaking from the solitude of his being.