historical letters letter writing

Is Letter Writing an Art?

People refer to letter writing as a “lost art.” Is that just a figure of speech, or is letter writing really an art? Some define art as an expression of creative imagination. Others might say a work of art is anything that conveys an idea or an emotion. By those measures, a lot of the historical letters written over the centuries can indeed be classified as art.

Historical Letter Writing

Today there’s not much practical use for letter writing. To communicate or to simply stay in touch, text, phone and email are quicker and easier. Even in centuries past, however, passing along facts was not the only reason for writing letters. Quite often it was not even the main reason.

Think of the occasions on which people wrote letters. Letters to friends and acquaintances were not just a routine recitation of facts but also a true reaching out of one person to another. These messages included personal reactions to local happenings and sometimes even to historical events. Often these letters are the best window we have to look into a past era.

Then there are love letters. Their artistry lies not only in the words they contain but also in the choice of paper and perhaps even a whiff of perfume that was once attached. There’s also the penmanship. Many suitors crafted their letters to be visual works of art as well as literary ones.

Correspondence between famous people is frequently of artistic as well as historical import. That’s especially true if one party was a writer or, for that matter, an artist of any kind.

However, letters don’t need to be passed among the well-known to be of artistic and historical interest. Consider, for example, a project begun in 1903 by alumnae of Goucher College in Maryland. It was called the Round Robin. One woman wrote a letter and sent it to the next person in the group. She added her own letter and sent it on. Letters that had made the circuit were collected in a scrapbook. This living and growing artwork made its way around the group for nearly 30 years.

Keeping the Art of Letter Writing Alive

Today, since the practical reasons for letter writing have all but disappeared, avocation has more opportunity to be art than ever before. There have been several initiatives to encourage those who want to join the modern movement with personal handwritten letters. Online one can find discussions of famous historical letters and tips and templates for creating one’s own memorable epistles.

There has even been an expansion of the letter as a literary art form in and of itself. Novels written in the form of letters have been around for a long time, as have open letters published to persuade, inspire, inform or entertain. More recently there has been at least one website that solicits creative writing in the form of letters, and it publishes some of these online. In a bolder artistic initiative, Asia Wong wrote 400 letters to family and friends, then mailed them at random to people across the United States. She saw it as an opportunity to comment on the modern lack of connection and to demonstrate to people their interdependence.

If letter writing is indeed an art, it is a most democratic of arts. Everyone has the opportunity and invitation to take part.

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