Monday, September 7, 2009

Please Mr. Postman

At times separated by an ocean or by hundreds of miles, John and Abigail Adams wrote thousands of letters to each other, covering personal matters such as their farm, family, health, and hopes, as well as their views of freedom, the American Revolution and government, and its participants. Despite the distance, quite possibly their correspondence benefited from postal efficiencies introduced by fellow revolutionary and occasional nemesis Benjamin Franklin, who was appointed Joint Postmaster General of the colonies for the Crown in 1753 and Postmaster for the United Colonies in 1775.

Adams wrote prodigious numbers of letters throughout his adult life, to Abigail, children and grandchildren, and friends on both sides of the Atlantic. Through letters, he and Thomas Jefferson, past their primes and their ambitions, rekindled their friendship and their dialogue about the rights of man and the role of government. Adams finally quit writing in extreme old age, when his eyes were nearly sightless and his hands shook too much to manage a pen. Only physical infirmity deterred him.

As revolutionaries, then as president and president’s wife, John and Abigail had a great deal to say. Like Benjamin Franklin, they were keenly aware that what they wrote would become part of U.S. history.

I happened to be reading John Adams by David McCullough when I saw the Washington Post story about vanishing blue U.S. mailboxes that had become a fixture on city street corners and in the downtown area of many a burg. With e-mail, texting, social media like facebook and twitter, 24/7 mobile phone access, and other instant, on-the-go ways to communicate, who today takes the time and effort to write letters? Many seem to be able to communicate what we have to say in twitter’s 140 characters (even John Quincy Adams), except when we’re texting cryptic messages back and forth: “whr ru?” “*bcks.” “b thr sn.” If you feel you need to communicate at greater length, you might start a blog, which, without a theme of general interest to the world or of particular interest to a special niche, will probably quickly fizzle out from lack of participation on both ends, readers’ and writer’s. Of course, you might not want to say to the world what you would to family, or to family what you would say to friends.

Although she did not have much to say, my mother wrote letters to sisters and brothers spread out across the country—Pennsylvania, Arizona, California. She didn’t like writing letters. I don’t think any of them did, because letters she wrote and received invariably began with an apology that the writer had not written sooner, followed by numerous apologies for having nothing to say, descriptions of the local weather, a bit of news if there were any, e.g., “Diane starts school in two weeks, Where did summer go?” Why write when there was so little to say and it was such a disliked chore? The answer—long distance was relatively expensive and reserved for truly important and immediate news, like deaths. Usually only one aunt, more affluent and urbanized than the others, called once in a while just to chat—and possibly to avoid writing a letter.

My mother also kept a diary, one of those old-fashioned small books with psychedelic covers popular in the 1960s. Five years of entries for, say, April 8, fit on a page, with perhaps three to five lines on which you could summarize the day for posterity. “A.M. Sunny but snowed in P.M. Insurance man called.” Writing didn’t come naturally to my mother, and she seemed painfully aware of it. She told us that, when she died. she wanted her diaries burned—clearly not for their lurid content or insights into her thoughts, but, I suspect, because she didn’t want anyone to see how mundane they were. I complied, although of course now I wish I hadn’t. I did keep my own two equally dull diaries from my childhood, although I rarely look into them—there is that little of interest in my colorful childish scrawls.

As someone who is paid to write, I’ve found that most people, even those with advanced degrees, are not comfortable expressing themselves in writing. Ostensibly, they worry about such things as grammar, flow, and polish. Could I make them sound better, more intelligent, more interesting, please?

I don’t think people are afraid of their technical shortcomings as writers, whether of professional communications, day-to-day diaries, or letters to family and friends. I suspect there’s a deep-seated fear of revealing our thoughts and how we think to those who know us personally. Unlike John and Abigail, my mother didn’t have congressional congresses, wars, courts, diplomacy, or politics to write about from a firsthand viewpoint. That left her feeling like most people, who think they have nothing worthwhile to say or are afraid to say anything worthwhile from fear of offending or causing an argument or a break (something that troubled Adams less than Jefferson). So they talk about TV shows and tweet about the weather, what they’re listening to or watching, where they’re eating, perhaps what they’re reading. We’re afraid to write, or are unable to write, paralyzed by our lack of material or the unwillingness to be ourselves. We’re afraid to be judged by what we say and how we say it.

I write letters—lots of letters. For all I know, they bore the recipients. But I love the sensory experience of writing, the glide of pen across paper and the appearance of writing, which is almost magical. I may start out on one mundane topic, which leads to another, and another, and, on occasion, sometimes a broader topic of more general interest. A comment about a Victorian novel may lead to a different perspective about some aspect of contemporary life. Writing—not typing—helps me to think questions through and to remember details. Knowing that I am going to write letters keeps me on the lookout for things to write about—the lack of fireflies this summer, neighborhood news, overheard conversations, interesting perspectives on the news and the world, quirks of human behavior, including my own. Sometimes a seemingly ingenuous observation launches me into what I hope is a worthwhile digression, making me perceive a topic or problem differently. Letters allow me to think out loud in a way that a journal, with its audience of one, can’t. Even without a dialogue, I can imagine my audience’s reaction, just as perhaps John, Abigail, and the other assorted family members thought of each other centuries ago as they sat at their desks, dipped their quills, and looked out over the bleak fields of winter and the ripening fields of summer.

Communication doesn’t have to be instantaneous or uninterrupted for the emotional connection to remain strong. To remember this, read some of the most poignant letters from any war—or the letters of John and Abigail Adams. When Abigail reminded John that he was sixty years old, he replied, “If I were near I would soon convince you that I am not above forty.” Could John Adams have conveyed his feelings and the implicit compliment to Abigail so eloquently in a text message? One can only imagine how Abigail’s heart rose as she held the paper and read of his love and lust for her in John’s own handwriting.

My heart still rises in the same way when I receive a handwritten letter, no matter who it is from or what it proves to be about. It’s an old habit that dies hard—and I’m not the one to fight it. Long live the blue U.S. mailboxes.


  1. I got up this morning, prepared a pot of coffee, sat down, found this link on OfficeSupplyGeek's site, and read my way through what I have been trying to say about letters for quite some time. It's rather difficult to convince anyone to take the time to write a letter, and this is a good thesis as to why we should continue the practice. Unfortunately referring some of my friends to this site will require getting them to read, which is also alarmingly difficult in recent years. "Why are you reading? Are you bored?" No, as a matter of fact, I actually set aside time for reading AND writing letters. Crazy, huh?

    Thank you for putting together this blog/article. It good to know there are still die-hards out there.

  2. Welcome, Alex, and thank you. Every day I hear "bang it out," which shows how much thought goes into life. Faster and faster, and less and less productive. You can bet that John and Abigail Adams didn't "bang out" letters, but put some thought into their thoughts.