“The Abandoned Art of Letter Writing,” by Tom Harrison

Apr 6th, 2011 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

Some may call me old-fashioned. Some may call me backwards. Some may say I am standing in the way of the inevitable march of technological progress. I say to those people, “bah!” “Foh,” I say to them! Dear sirs and madams, our society is not experiencing admirable growth, as some may have you believe, oh no! We as a people are being drawn ever increasingly downward into a horrible pit of decadence, chicanery, tomfoolery, and no small amount of monkeyshines. One may be tempted to disagree. One may take the convenient path and brush off my warnings. One may lazily leave society to rot whilst he swills cheap brew and watches muscled men homoerotically grapple in an eight-sided cage. Mind you, gentle statesmen; these are no mere ravings of a madman. There is clear evidence of the backsliding of our society. One needs look no further than the deplorable state of formal letter writing in contemporary times. What was once an exercise in intellectualism and civility has all but vanished, replaced instead by communication so crass I can barely stand to think of it.

Formal letters were once many pages long, written in prose so beautiful it caused many recipients to quite literally burst into joyous tears upon reading them. These letters contained no end of information and emotional honesty, painting a rich, lucid picture of the cultural zeitgeist. Like a latter day diary of Samuel Pepys, these letters are windows into the past. Documentarians such as Ken Burns achieved fame by doing little more than zooming a camera very close on some of these letters and having a man with a deep voice read them out loud. Is Burns’s fame deservedly his? No, of course! It belongs in the hands of those people who sat down, quill in hand, and poured out their very souls on what little paper they had, all the while employing impeccable grammar, spelling, and syntax. Truly these were the halcyon days. Granted, slavery was still a respected American institution at this point, but is that too high a price to pay for gloriously crafted written correspondence? Yes, yes it unequivocally is, but still, that does nothing to sully the glorious crafting of the written correspondences.

In today’s world, speed and efficiency are held supreme. Countless terrifying and ungodly inventions litter the country for the sole purpose of expediting our daily tasks. Why, I’ve heard talk that there is even some unfathomable food dish known as a “burr-ito” in which several delicious foodstuffs are mixed together amidst an edible wrapping so that all the myriad foods can be tasted at once in a single bite. It is almost too much to imagine. Some have told me this thing is a traditional dish from some mythical land known by hermits and troubadours as “Mexico” but I am pretty sure these people were just trying to trick me for their amusement. The postal service today is mostly a means of conveying bills, checks, form letters, books of coupons, magazines, and other mass-produced paper products. But what of the personal letter? Sadly, aside from so many Christmas thank-you notes dutifully and resentfully written by children under the watchful eye of their mothers, the art has largely disappeared. When electronic mail and textual phone messages can reach a person in under a second, many have no use for the intimacy of pen and paper correspondence. In order to further save time, these electronic mails are written with the bare minimum of effort. The main point is conveyed as quickly as possible with no adherence to decorum or proper formal formatting. Spelling is atrocious, to say the least, with new, awful abbreviations used whenever conceivably possible. Indecipherable slang abounds, including dozens of puzzling and unexplainable references to the ancient Sumerian city of Ur. One wonders if the resurgence of interest in Ur is somehow linked to popularity of foodstuffs from the fabled “Mexico.” However, wonder is all one can do, for unlike written letters, electronic mails quickly fade into mere ephemera, forever forgotten, unable to be studied. Let me say this now: the documentarians of the future will have to work for their fame! The “recitation of letters” age of documentary filmmaking is nearing its end. Soon these filmmakers will have to resort to actually conducting research, and they are more likely to eat the hated “burr-ito” than willingly do that.

More than anything, the devolution of letter writing shows how society simply no longer cares. All that matters is efficiency in pursuit of the dollar. “Wasted” time is looked upon with an upturned nose and sneer, and on severe occasions, scoffs. None would willingly go through the rigmarole our proud ancestors did in order to send a letter. Why, in the olden days, letters weren’t conveyed on motorized horseless carriages like today. No, indeed! The only way to send a letter was to entrust the aforementioned epistle to the drunken near-men of the Pony Express (hereafter referred to as ponyboys). It was a wonder these ponyboys, their brains ever steeping in 120 proof alcohol, could even conceptualize the notion of mail delivery, let alone successfully deliver a letter. Many a villager could spin a yarn of a ponyboy getting into spirited arguments with his own steed, in his drunkenness believing it to be capable of speech. Some historians explain these occurrences by claiming that ponyboys were actually a separate species of hominid that could communicate with ponies, but these historians are dangerous crackpots who should be avoided at all costs as their damaged brains likely makes them prone to engage in unprovoked violence. Still, these brain-dead ponyboy fools provided the only available postal service at the time. Historians estimate that only one of every thousand letters a ponyboy was given was delivered in good condition. More probable was the letter would arrive heavily chewed or partially eaten, presumably by the pony, but given the drinking habits of the ponyboys, who can be sure? An overwhelming majority of letters was simply never delivered, their journey likely ending prematurely in a half-conscious ponyboy’s stomach.

Given that it was nearly assured that a ponyboy would eat one’s letter almost immediately after receiving it, it is even more of a revelation to hear what pains letter writers went through every time they dipped their quills. The technology required to squeeze ink out of octopi en masse did not yet exist, and the prototypes that did were not even close to cost effective. People had to hand-milk their family octopus for ink any time they needed to write. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s children had never even touched an octopus! Are these the kind of people we want growing up to run the world? What kind of society keeps their young from experiencing this essential rite of passage? How can a boy become a man without forcefully squeezing a shaft of wet, spongy flesh, and listening to the sensual rhythms of the ink as it falls drop by drop into his well?  My mind reels at the psychological maladies that will these children will undoubtedly suffer. I am almost sure such mentally stunted children are responsible for the popularity of the “burr-ito.” But I digress.

Paper was still required, and it was no easier to come by than ink. An average general store would receive 200 sheets a week, which would sell out in hours. If one was lucky enough to buy some sheets, it was almost never enough. Unlike today, people would sooner spend a week whiling away time milking the family octopus and watching the store for a new paper shipment than lobotomize their letters for the sake of saved time. When the requisite materials were finally collected, writing began. The beauty of the nigh-calligraphic text was almost as important as the words themselves, yet it had to remain legible enough for the recipient to understand it. The painstaking endeavors to achieve perfect penmanship took hours at the least, and the creation of a single letter often stretched across several days. The slightest mistake whilst dipping the quill into the freshly milked ink could (and often did) lead to large ink blotches, which would require a complete rewrite.

To think that people used to have to go through all that just to send a letter! Truly their resolve was steadfast.

Today we have no such obstacles. Sending a letter is easy and affordable, and yet the practice is rarer than ever. So what does the future hold for letter writing? Unless something drastically changes, it will only further fade into irrelevancy. Our society is infected by the virus of pragmatism, forever demanding work be done with the least time spent possible. Our culture no longer allows for someone to spend hours imprinting his soul on paper, especially when those hours could have been spent doing something “productive.” With telephones and electronic communication, there is absolutely no practical reason to use the comparatively slow postal service. While the intimacy and personal connection of the letter remains unmatched, many believe its technical obsolescence outweighs its obvious benefits. Few care to pass on the proud traditions of formal letter writing, choosing to teach instead more utilitarian disciplines designed to turn children into machines with no goal but to make money, unaware that society is collapsing around them. I’m trying to do whatever I can, kind sirs; but one can do little more than weep.


Tom Harrison is a person, and a pretty good guy. He lives in Chicago where he goes to school and writes things on occasion. Tom breathes continuously, even when sleeping. He has done so for as long as he can recall. He assumes this is some type of record.

Tom sporadically posts quickly written first drafts of things to his blog, tomisaprettygoodguy.blogspot.com, which has carved a small niche in the blogosphere, although in the interest of full disclosure, “niche” here refers to “Tom and people who were searching on Google for something else.”

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