Dec 032014
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old fashioned letter

Letters, modern communication, and the epistolary novel

When is the last time you received a personal letter via regular mail? When is the last time you sent one?

The Internet and affordable long distance rates have reduced the need for old-fashioned letters. We communicate with those dear to us, near and far, via email, Skype, social media platforms, text and phone, a change likely welcomed with relief by those who hated writing letters.

Over the years, I have enjoyed writing letters, but admit that these days often the only personal letter I write in a year is the annual Christmas letter. And I send out fewer and fewer each year. It seems silly to recap the highlights of the year for those who have already see them all on Facebook or somewhere else online.

While preparing to downsize this summer, I came across box of old letters. Letters written thirty-eight years ago by a close friend, who had moved halfway across the country, brought back memories I’d forgotten. Letters between my husband and his parents and siblings when he was nineteen and travelling through Europe amused me and highlighted how personalities and relationship dynamics are revealed through our correspondence. My husband, in the cavalier way of the young, did little to alleviate his mother’s worries about her son so far from home, sometimes ending his letters with things which would only intensify her concern, such as the earthquake he experienced in Spain or the knife fight down the road from his London flat. His mother’s letters usually ended with the latest deal on airfare back to Canada.

Novelists understand how letters and personal documents reveal character and relationships. Epistolary fiction is narrative told via a series of documents, usually letters, but may include journal entries, telegrams, newspaper accounts and other similar items. Famous examples include Dracula by Bram Stoker and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. A favourite of mine is In the Hands of the Living God by Lillian Bouzane because of its poetic language and the way what isn’t said reveals as much as what is.

Fiction is often a reflection of our times. Many novels now incorporate the new ways we communicate. Antagonist by Lynn Coady is told via emails. Life on the Refrigerator Door by Alice Kuipers tells the story of a relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter as they weather a family crisis via notes exchanged on the fridge door.

While the literary world adapts to new ways of communication, it is not clear to me how the change will affect our personal histories. I have trouble accessing Facebook status updates or tweets from a few weeks ago. I’m not likely to be scrolling through years of online posts and reminiscing. Although my husband claims I do not clean up my mailbox often enough, it is also unlikely old emails will be readily accessible for a trip down memory lane. Even if they were, I can’t imagine it would feel the same as pulling a paper letter from a box and instantly recognizing it as one from my great-aunt by the scrawl that winds up and around the border of the page, using every inch of real estate to squeeze in one last thought.

And what about the biographies of famous people, biographies enhanced or told solely through letters written and received? Will we see collections of emails in the future?

I don’t have time to ponder these questions right now. I must check Facebook and Twitter, answer my emails, and maybe write a Christmas letter.

Do you still send old-fashioned letters? What do you think about the changes in written communication?

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  25 Responses to “You’ve Got Mail”

  1. I’ve pondered exactly the same questions when I look over my box of saved letters. My mother gave me back all the letters I wrote to my grandparents and my parents over 50 years. My then boyfriend saved my letters from Bogota, Colombia that I wrote to him when studying there in 1974. I no longer send handwritten letters and I used to love to hand write letters. It was a planned activity to which I looked forward. I am also very concerned about the historical record we are losing because our communication is mostly electronic these days. In the US, government workers are required to archive their official emails, but that isn’t going to produce copies of President Obama’s letters to his sister in 50 years. Another book I enjoyed based on letters (fiction) was the “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society”. I was also moved to write about this subject on my blog:

    • I also loved “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society”. It was a great book. I don’t have any old letters that I wrote – reading the one you wrote to your parents and grandparents must bring back a lot of memories.

  2. Last time I sent a resignation from lectureship in my last university via mail in 2010 and then I received a mail from my friend who sent my wishes after birth of my daughter in 2011 along with gifts.
    That was my last experience with emails. Before facebook Twitter I was sending a lot of mails on each occasion to my friends but that is history now. Sometimes I open old letters from my father when I was in hostel during my studies and uncles friends. They always bring back , love , memories and joy for me.
    This is true that letters reveal characters and relationships. They are reflection of our times.
    It was nice to read about letters.

    I am thinking , do not know what our children will be using for communication in future as our parents have never thought that how we will be communicating in our time.

  3. I DO send letters and notes…I am a big believer in Thank-you notes in particular. I too have a box of saved letters…the one’s I wrote my parents from camp, and even the ones I wrote to my grandmother who I loved beyond words! I can’t throw the away…though I am sure one day they will be discarded. I loved “Notes On The Refrigerator Door” as well as “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” What I love most is that these letters and notes are little snapshots of time and where we or our loved ones were in that particular time..both physically and emotionally.

  4. I think the last time I wrote a letter, not just a thank you note, was in the 80’s. One thing I remember about letters is the anticipation of receiving one and the excitement when it finally arrives. Email happens so often that it doesn’t generate the same enthusiasm.

  5. hi Donna….i love to send letters but sadly i do not receive so many in return….it’s much more excitement than a text. my uncle worked in hong kong for six months in the 80’s and wrote a letter every day to my aunt. She still has them all…it’s beautiful.

  6. Sending personal letter to potential customers or whover you want to reach is far more effective than an email. More businesspeople should try that strategy.

    • I certainly would sit up and take notice if I received a personal letter from a company I dealt with – one that was obviously written especially for me, not a form letter with my name at the top. It’s never happened.

  7. Interesting post, Donna. I really don’t write letters anymore. But you’re so right. Online comm’ns will be deleted and gone forever. I do print off e-mails that are special or really important and keep them in a special file. But sentiment is really getting lost in today’s world, isn’t it?

  8. I have to agree with you that feeling a personal note leaves a lasting impression that an email doesn’t. I think we write emails so fast that the emotions are lost or sometimes you think you later, boy I wish I hadn’t sent that. Or you will receive and email and think, is that how they feel? When you put it writing and look at it on paper you tend to reread it and then make the changes. I still send out personal letters and love to receive them in return.

  9. I think my first comment must have disappeared when I hit submit. If not, just delete this one. It was a good comment too!

  10. Hi Donna, I really miss the piles of Christmas cards with the beautiful letters full of all the years highlights from friends and family members or the lovely birthday cards in the mail with the handwritten well wishes. Many of those I’ve saved for years. Much better than a post on Facebook of happy birthday. I remember the excitement as a kid and sometime even as an adult of getting something in the mail. It’s too bad this seems to be a thing if the past.

    • Even with all the connections and near-instant communication available online, there is still a thrill to receiving a personal letter in the mail. Maybe you need to be of our generation to feel that.

  11. We came to Canada from Holland in 1953 – 61 years ago and I shared letters with my friends and family back in Holland continuously until the computer age when we started with the emails. I do miss the long newsy letters but on the other hand it’s nice to just sent a quick email when something happens, but while I have a number of the letters, I have very few of the emails. I think it will be much harder for historians and novelists to set a time period with all the missed information.

  12. I never send letters anymore, but I still have all my old ones from school and to pen pals etc. I love being able to look back on those times through reading the letters. 🙂

  13. Letters seemed to contained so much more information than emails. Nowadays we tend to abbreviate everything. I think we miss a lot, and may be short-changing the next generation. I’ve started mailing my grandchildren postcards when I travel. The love receiving mail, are interested in the foreign stamps, and forge a closer connection with far away places. 🙂

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