Letters - 'the only true heart-talkers'

Before the anthrax scare, taking in the mail used to rank as a pleasant little routine. For most of us, it still does. Mail serves as a reassuring connection with the outside world. What friend might send an unexpected note?

Everyone can count on receiving the usual flotsam and jetsam - bills, supermarket fliers, credit-card applications, sweepstakes offers, catalogs. But mixed in among the third-class clutter - the wastebasket, please - there just might be an increasingly rare treasure, a real letter, complete with handwritten envelope and colorful first-class stamp.

In recent weeks, media organizations, in particular, have been forced to take precautions against anthrax, using isolated rooms for incoming mail, latex gloves for mailroom workers, and X-ray machines.

At The New Yorker, thousands of letters and manuscripts have piled up, unopened, while editors consider their options. For now, the magazine, like other news outlets, is urging correspondents to communicate by e-mail and fax.

But don't be too quick to play taps for the demise of handwritten correspondence. The recent postal threats, combined with the uncertainty of the times, are making some people more determined than ever to preserve the old-fashioned art of letter-writing.

As the manager of an upscale pen shop in suburban Boston says, "With things in the world as they are, people are cherishing family and friends. They are communicating differently. A lot of people are writing out their thoughts and feelings rather than using other forms of communication."

In another encouraging sign, Smythson of London, stationers to Queen Elizabeth, has opened a branch in New York City. At least among the rich, who can afford to pay $400 for 100 sheets of paper, the handwritten word is flourishing.

For the sender of a letter, there is something ceremonial about assembling the tools of a letter-writer's trade: paper, pen, stamp. Purists even take pleasure in finishing with a flourish of sealing wax.

For the recipient, there is the satisfaction of a small ritual that can be repeated again and again: removing the stationery from the envelope, unfolding it, reading it, and then refolding it and returning it to the envelope.

Letters also serve as a bridge to other generations. Where would history be without letters? Scattered through bookstores and libraries are volumes of correspondence. From Mozart, Jane Austen, Queen Victoria, and Vincent Van Gogh to Theodore Roosevelt, the Churchills, and Ronald Reagan, the titles march on. Their contents offer an intimate view of the writers' lives and the times in which they lived.

In another sign of the enduring value of letters, PBS broadcast an extraordinary program last Sunday, "War Letters." It featured soldiers' correspondence from every major American conflict. These heartrending missives, written under the most difficult conditions to wives, parents, and girlfriends, serve as poignant reminders that, in the end, all letters home from war are finally written to all of us.

In an age of mobility and paper shredders, saving letters becomes harder. But even 200 years ago Goethe lamented: "We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverably for ourselves and for others."

Tucked away in the back of a file drawer at home is a packet of 30 long-ago letters that didn't disappear. My great-grandmother wrote them to my great-grandfather during their courtship, when he was working in another town.

The stationery remains pristine, but the ink has faded to light brown.

On Sept. 25, 1870, the 20-year-old woman, clearly longing for him, wrote in her graceful penmanship, "Dear Herbert, It is a lovely day: just warm enough for comfort, but not as pleasant here as it would be if the home circle were not broken."

Over several years her chatty missives told him about daily life in their small Wisconsin town: her teaching post, threshing season, the sermon at church, spring cleaning. She typically closed by saying, "Write as often as you can. Take good care of yourself. Ever your Libbie."

What will those of us today leave for our great-grandchildren? Printouts of e-mail? Transcriptions of voicemail messages? It won't be the same.

The 19th-century essayist Ik Marvel had the right idea. "Blessed be letters," he wrote, adding, "they are the monitors, they are also the comforters, and they are the only true heart-talkers."

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