Not long ago, after I received a small honor from my college alma mater, my friend Bob mailed me a small note of congratulations. Bob’s handwritten letter said more about him than any email ever could. The neat, straight lines of script were just like Bob — ordered, deliberate, careful. When we write a note longhand, we place a lot of ourselves in the envelope.
None of this is meant to argue for a renaissance in handwritten letters. Emails and texts are quicker and easier, which is why pen and paper won’t make a comeback anytime soon.
But the personal dimension of a handwritten letter — what the stroke of the pen or even the quality of the stationery says about the writer who sent it — can’t be replaced by electronic communication.
That’s the abiding lesson of “Letters of Note,” a popular blog operated by Englishman Shaun Usher. Usher’s blog highlights some of history’s most interesting letters, and it’s inspired a new book.
Usher’s book, also called “Letters of Note,” is a designer volume — a big brick of a thing, lavishly illustrated, and with a $40 price tag.
It’s not only a book of letters but a book of pictures. Whenever possible, Usher has included, along with the text of each letter, a reproduction of the original correspondence.
How those letters look — the slant of the script, the appearance of the paper — can say as much about their writers as their wardrobe, their hairstyle, their voice.
Take, for example, one of the funniest letters in the book, an April 5, 1898, note from celebrity sharpshooter Annie Oakley to President William McKinley. With the Spanish-American War approaching, Oakley volunteered to “place a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal” — an offer that was declined.
Oakley’s stationery, displayed full-page in “Letters of Note,” is vintage show-biz, featuring a sketch of Oakley shooting her rifle from atop a bicycle, and a letterhead promoting her as “A Success in All Countries … America’s Representative Lady Shot.”
Another one of the book’s letters, expressed in decent penmanship but halting English, comes from a 14-year-old Cuban boy writing to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The year is 1940, and the boy, who asks the president to “give me ten dollars bill green american,” is Fidel Castro.
There’s other good stuff, too. Three Elvis fans write to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, asking that their idol be exempted from a military crew cut after he’s drafted. Winston Churchill’s wife, Clementine, sends him a note urging tolerance, reminding him that “you are not so kind as you used to be.”
“Letters of Note” has been my favorite summer book, full of the kinds of letters I hope to find in my own mailbox, but rarely, these days, ever do.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.