The art of letter writing is one that ebbs and flows throughout the centuries. No matter when a letter is written though, it provides context to historians about the reality of the world outside of more formal media, like textbooks or official documents. Preserving these letters, both for current and future generations, allows everyone to peer into the past and interpret it through the eyes of those who truly lived it.
The Power of a Letter
Many people might balk at the idea of someone else reading their private letters. The words, penned during good times and bad alike, are often full of intimate revelations. For amateur and professional historians alike, though, these famous letters have become a source of biographical information for famous people of every variety. Unsurprisingly, it’s often the letters of poets or other readers that are most prized.
These texts are both a form of artistic expression and research for those who study the past. Sometimes, it’s the only way to have a true understanding of the writer, particularly if they eschew the limelight. For instance, Pulitzer Prize-winner, Elizabeth Bishop, left behind a vast canon of letters that have helped establish her writings as some of the finest of her generation. This couldn’t have been done without the help of her letters though.
As a private person, she developed a reputation for being quiet and thoughtful during her life. She rarely made public appearances, and her poems were deemed relatively narrow in terms of scope. People were far more likely to pay homage to people like Sylvia Plath, who was more confessional in her writing.
When Elizabeth passed away in 1979, it was her letters that displayed her true humor and complexity. They also shed light on the real power behind her voice. Even in early letters, long before she would establish herself in the literary world, she had a sharp imagination and strong ambitions. She would later go on to teach at Harvard about how famous letters were written in the past to convey strong messages to the reader. As an LGBTQ+ poet, she’s now celebrated for the person she was instead of being passed over.
The Truth of Personal Relationships
Whether written to woo a lover or exchange discourse on a topic, letters show how two people relate to one another in ways that couldn’t be gleaned in any other form. These private trades can be filled with anything from expressions of adoration to the evolution of some of the most important texts today. Most famously, John Adams would write to his wife Abigail about what should be included in the Declaration of Independence, and this is far from the only historical document that would be developed in this fashion.
Reading a letter, particularly if you’re able to read a series of them all at once, is one of the best ways to dissect some of the more defining aspects of the time and world that a person lived in. In indelible ink, a letter relays popular opinions of the day. It records major events, both personal and otherwise, in real-time and captures how the writer feels about the reader. Short, terse letters stand in direct opposition to those that are full of wit and written with a tender hand. It can reveal what was happening behind closed doors during important moments in history. Without that context, it would be easy to misunderstand the past, the person, and even the present day. It opens our eyes to the real person behind the fame.