Pen a letter, for fun and posterity

Can HBO's 'John Adams' series revive letter-writing?

Dear Reader,

Have you heard of the current HBO series "John Adams" that's running on Sundays? It's received great reviews, though yours truly hasn't seen it yet (watched some excerpts on the Internet though, and read the book. Fabulous!).

Anyway, one of the points reviewers make is that the letters between John and wife Abigail form the emotional core of both the book and the series. The loving couple wrote more than 1,100 letters to each other over their courtship and 54-year marriage.

But who writes letters by hand anymore? The personal epistle began its decline with the telegraph and slid further with the telephone. In schools today, keyboarding is pushing out penmanship. E-mail and text-messages have revived the word, but in an ephemeral and truncated way. "LOL" (laughed out loud) is hardly a message worth tucking inside a folio of letters wrapped with a ribbon.

Not surprisingly, the US Postal Service would like to reverse this trend. It's teamed up with HBO on a website,, where you can order one of six Adams-inspired note cards and receive postage, both for free.

Yes, it's a gimmick that also points people to the series, but a worthy one. Because think about it: What will future generations understand about today's history and culture, really understand, without the most intimate form of communication of all – the candid letter to be discovered years later?

Letters lay out small details behind great events. They match impersonal history with the face of biography. They require a degree of contemplation to write, and often reveal thoughts that people might not admit publicly.

For instance, this writer has not watched the HBO series because, gasp, the writer views cable TV as a time and money sink.

Historians and biographers can still accomplish much with newspapers, books, and official records. But what will they do without, as Sinclair Lewis put it, the personal writings that tell "what people ate, with what weapons exactly they killed each other and the precise state of acid pomposity with which a duke or plainsman complains of his breakfast porridge"?

More important, what will our progeny understand about our lives today if our only personal written record amounts to a few sanitized year-end wrap-ups? Interest in genealogy is stronger than ever, but will successive generations be able to make anything of the floppy disks, Zip disks, CDs, memory sticks, or other electronic storage devices that we may or may not toss into a box? Even archivists can't keep up with these ever-changing devices.

I sense an opportunity here. Perhaps businesses that preserve family photos on the web can do the same for e-correspondence. Or, maybe libraries and archives will store such correspondence if individuals agree to make them available to the public. More and more, I simply hit the print button for e-mails judged worthy of saving.

And yet, putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, is not just a matter for posterity. It's the thing itself, as John Adams wrote to Abigail on an April day 244 years ago: "Now Letter-Writing is, to me, the most agreable amusement: and Writing to you the most entertaining and Agreable of all Letter-Writing."


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