“…I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m[ight] be in my power, by action rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you. I shall only tell you that ‘till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you.” –Alexander Hamilton to John Laurens, 1779.
Do you ever think about the feelings you have that you would never share? In my experience, what we’re comfortable saying to people – even the people we know best – is but the crust of the large, dense core of human emotion.
Take this example: I text my little sister every day. However, even though (or perhaps because) we speak so often, we’re not exactly pouring our hearts out.
We talk about our classes, or the latest episode of Game of Thrones, or ask each other for petty advice like what to wear or what to eat.
There’s no way for me to slip into the conversation that she’s grown into a beautiful, strong woman that I admire above all other women in my life (aside from our mother). Or that a sizable part of my subconscious worries about her constantly, and that the distance between us hurts my heart.
So these sentiments between us build up, with no outlet and few socially acceptable ways to admit it without being brushed off as sappy or overly romantic. (Already I’m looking forward to my siblings’ weddings, where I get a pedestal and an excuse to say any and every poetic thought that I’ve been saving for years.)
“You turn my life into something light, amazing, rainbowed – you put a glint of happiness on everything – always different: sometimes you can be smoky-pink, downy, sometimes dark, winged – and I don’t know when I love your eyes more – when they are open or shut.” –Vladimir Nabokov to his wife Véra, 1924.
Once upon a time, all communication was done by letter.
Of course, this was massively inconvenient; a lot of things used to be. But before it was possible to shoot a quick text, or even just to pick up a phone and settle in to a long-distance conversation, writing was the only way you could really communicate with someone. Imagine the stakes.
Not only would you have to have a knack for words and somewhat-decent penmanship (or someone to dictate to), but that relationship you were building would exist almost entirely outside of the realm of the real world.
Today, our Facebook and our Twitter and our email and our texting are so interwoven with our everyday lives that it can be hard to distinguish between the public and the private. But there’s something about letters that is so naturally intimate.
Letters let you wax romantic; they let you create a permissibly fantasized version of reality. You can indulge yourself in your own words, and lose yourself in those of your confidante. Once upon a time, if people were talented enough wordsmiths, they could fall in love with nothing but the sentiments in a letter.
Can this ever exist again?
One hundred years from now, there will be almost no physical first-hand evidence of the words of our contemporaries’ greatest writing.
There will be no collections of letters written in scrawling cursive from great authors and orators and poets to the ones they loved, displayed tenderly in museums and fawned over by literature students.
No one’s handwriting will be documented, studied, and treasured. What will we have instead, to record the great love stories and odysseys and revolutions of our time? Transcripts of iMessage exchanges? Screenshots of 140-character tweets?
That begs another question: Can there be a truly romantic exchange over social media? Texting? Have we lost something that was vital to our culture?
Perhaps this loss is why we have trouble connecting with our partners. It’s true that with our phones, we are always in touch with the ones we love in a way that is entirely unprecedented and, most of the time, a blessing.
But with each exchange, you’re only allowed so many words. And the more frequently you speak with someone, the less thought tends to go into each message.
Call it social convention, call it a sign of the fast-paced times. Does anyone really write poetry to their partners while their checking their phones during lunch? Ruminate on the depth of their feelings in the interim of social interaction?
There is no interim, because we are always connected. And therefore we are disconnected from something much deeper.
“By what right do you drink from my flagon of life? And when I put it to my lips – lo, they are yours and not mine. I feel that the Godhead is broken up like the bread at the Supper, and that we are the pieces. Hence this infinite fraternity of feeling.” –Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851.
But let’s say we decided to experiment and start writing letters again. First of all, what do you put in a letter when you can tell anyone, in any part of the globe, anything you want in the blink of an eye?
It would have to be something really personal, wouldn’t it? It would have to be the kind of thing that builds up inside you, something that you don’t just say offhandedly if you miss someone or if you’re feeling particularly lonely.
It would have to be your own musings; a part of yourself that you don’t usually reveal, the kind of sentiment you’d scorn to see someone else put in a giant Facebook post for all to see.
It would have to be something incredibly intimate – too intimate for an email or a text, but not urgent enough for a phone call. It would have to be something worth the wait.
If I told my sister how much I loved her in our daily conversations, she’d probably get a little bashful, change to subject, and wonder why I’m being so emotional.
But if I told her in a letter, it would be a different story.
I think that it’s because a letter isn’t just another way to connect with someone. It’s a whole class above that. It’s a different dimension of poetry and feeling that we simply can’t express in our day-to-day lives.
That’s why we should start writing letters again. It’s not just a forgotten form of communication. It’s a forgotten form of human expression.