At a function over the weekend I was sitting beside a woman who mentioned that she had recently discovered a bundle of love letters written to her by her husband in the early years of their relationship. It even included one particular letter full of teenage angst when they had split up for a time. Obviously it all worked out in the end and they have been married almost 30 years. She joked that she had threatened her husband that if he did anything she disapproved of in the future she would publish the letters on the internet. She said that she had enjoyed reading them again and that he was absolutely mortified, especially given that he had burned the replies some years previously. A younger person at the table was surprised to hear that the love letters existed at all and the owner was quick to point out that these were the days before Facebook, Twitter and texting. Indeed, in her dating days landlines were few and far between and if the old fashioned phone boxes were still around they could certainly tell a tale of romance or two.
We’ve known for years that the hand written letter has been in sharp decline, however it suddenly struck me that in the future there will be a tremendous lack of evidence of human interaction for future generations to discover. We all love the stories of people who are rooting through a deceased relative’s house or even their own and happen across diaries, documents and letters that give us a huge insight into the past. Entire books, movies and programmes have been compiled using just letters and diaries written by people long gone.
I have no doubt that people still send each other romantic emails and texts, it’s just that they will largely go undocumented in any real physical way. You may keep the emails in a file on the computer but will you ever print them off and hide them somewhere to read in twenty, thirty or forty years time? And who ever keeps texts? It’s not just about love letters; it is letters from offspring, siblings and friends that are away. In the present moment the immediacy of technology is very comforting and we enjoy the regular contact but it is, in a way, robbing us of future reminiscences and material for stories.
Some people do print off every line of correspondence and while it is better than nothing there is still a loss of connection with the writer. In a handwritten, posted letter you know the other individual has had contact with the pen, handled the paper, licked the envelope, held it in their hand as they stuck the stamp on and popped it in the post box. Although we probably don’t think about it generally in such depth, that human interaction is there and it contributes greatly to what makes a letter special. Even the postmark, the colour of the stamp and the type of envelope and paper chosen add to the inherent intimacy.
When we read about people on Facebook or Twitter, the comments are there for the entire world to see. Yes we are getting broad strokes and outlines of what they are doing but we are like voyeurs; hanging around on the edges looking in. It is the difference between listening to someone give a speech to a packed room about their lives or actually sitting down with them over dinner and having a conversation about it. There is no comparison. In a personal
letter someone has taken the time to communicate with you, not the other ten thousand that are also ‘friends’ on Facebook, but just you.
Talking specifically about love letters, they are usually of an intimate nature and the writer or the recipient generally never intended them for anyone else’s eyes. I think such privacy should be respected while the author and the recipient are alive, but once passed it doesn’t feel intrusive; particularly those who you never knew personally. I have a few favourites of my own. Kenneth Flexner Fearing was an American poet and writer who died in 1961. He wrote regularly in the New Yorker and also many pulp fiction books. Here is a letter he once wrote. I’m not even sure if you could call it a love letter but in its raw honesty there is something very emotional, amusing and heartfelt.
“All right. I may have lied to you and about you, and made a few pronouncements a bit too sweeping, perhaps, and possibly forgotten to tag the bases here or there, and damned your extravagance, and maligned your tastes, and libeled your relatives, and slandered a few of your friends, O.K., Nevertheless, come back.
Because tonight you are in my hair and eyes, And every street light that our taxi passes shows me you again, still you, And because tonight all other nights are black, all other hours are cold and far away, and now, this minute, the stars are very near and bright Come back. We will have a celebration to end all celebrations. We will invite the undertaker who lives beneath us, and a couple of boys from the office, and some other friends. And Steinberg, who is off the wagon, and that insane woman who lives upstairs, and a few reporters, if anything should break.”
And it would be wrong to ever write anything about love letters without mentioning the love poet, John Keats. There are so many to choose from but just the first two lines of one in particular sums up his exuberance and rare male ability to express emotion: “I cannot exist without you – I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again – my life seems to stop there – I see no further. You have absorbed me.”
I’d like to think that even in a modern context, people put similar sentiments into their communications these days, in whatever digital form they may take. To be perfectly honest though, I’m just not that sure.