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The Virtues of Handwritten Letters in Peace, War, & Pestilence

“Woman Reading a Letter,” Johannes Vermeer, c. 1663, Rijksmuseum.

If I may make one simple proposal during this time of grave danger and accompanying uncertainty and change, it is to write letters to your family friends.

By this I mean write them by hand, on real paper, and send them even to those who are only a mile or two distant. You can’t–or shouldn’t, barring emergency or other in extremis–visit them in person. But you can send a memento, a physicality, a material example of your own nature, even of your soul if you’re up to it.

The joy of opening a personal letter remains unmatched even in this day of high technology in communication. Inevitably there is a shallow patina of something somehow impersonal laid over even the most sensitive, evocative missive when sent via an email, text, or message.

Not so with a handwritten letter.

The slower pace of the pen permits more reflection–and thereby more honest emotion.

Writing a letter by hand creates a material artifact, a memento that can opened, read, put away, to be later read and re-read.

A physical object creates a physical, and therefore emotional, attachment, in both the writer and, especially, the recipient.

The Love Letter, Johannes Vermeer, c. 1669 – c. 1670, Rijksmuseum.

Any paper and pen will serve. For decades I’ve used an antique laid 24 lb. watermarked business paper, and lately I’m attached to a simple fountain pen with a stub nib and sepia ink, with a sepia signature icon printed on the top of the page, an image borrowed from a late nineteenth century book on fencing.

But letters need not be so formal or involved. Again, any paper and ink will serve: plain paper, legal pads, used paper with a blank side, note pads, even brown paper bag–all are perfect. In fact, the more quaint, the more character.

And to write with: ball point or gel pens, fountain pens or Sharpies, even cut quills or calligraphy nibs with a variety of inks, including the classic iron gall ink so favored by our ancestors of prior centuries.

Your handwriting is illegible? Don’t worry, your letter will have an infuriating charm. You can’t write in cursive? Print your letter by hand. Soon enough the letters will flow one to the next. Voilà! You’re writing cursive.

Make corrections, write additions in the margins, write postscripts and post postscripts. Doodle in blank areas. Write a line in secret code. Illustrate what you have difficultly putting in words. Put messages on the back of the envelope.

Refuse to write by hand? Do you have a typewriter? Many of us still do, or have access to one, they’re even a small fad these days. If you have one, use it. I have a collection of old letters from my first fencing master, most of them written on his old typewriter, many of the individual letters of uneven height and ranging from light to dark depending on which finger struck the key, with corrections to his Hungarian-English made with white-out and ball point pen.

They are as charming as any handwritten letter.

If you don’t want to wait the days, even weeks, for an international letter to reach your correspondent, then scan or photograph it, and email it. Drop the original in the mail as a backup, and also so its physicality–its material evocation–will reach its intended.

Man Handing a Letter to a Woman in the Entrance Hall of a House, Pieter de Hooch, 1670, Rijksmuseum.

I’ve more than half a century of letters sent to me, all stowed in shoe boxes and bins, all half-organized at best. They’re on all sorts of paper and matching and mismatching envelopes: formal embossed letterhead, white notepaper with my father’s scrawl, thin airmail stationary written finely on both sides to eek out as many words as possible, heavy antique stationary, even common typing paper.

My mother has kept my father’s letters written when he was in Vietnam during the war, and two years later when he was off the coast aboard the USS Constellation. I wrote many letters during my overseas deployments in the US Navy in the 1980s. They are physical, material mementos of difficult days–and often they were the primary means of long distance communication, making them even more precious.

Re-reading them is a physical and psychological insight into the past: mine and my friends’ and my loved ones’ pasts, and the connected world we lived in–and still do.

To open one is briefly bring the past present again.

They are no less precious today as this great pestilence rages. And with profound sadness, for some may be the last physical memory left in the hands of friends and loved ones.

You’ve got pen and paper. Start writing.

The Letter Writer, Frans van Mieris (I), 1680, Rijksmuseum.

Copyright Benerson Little, 2020. First posted April 1, 2020.