The lost art of letter-writing

The demise of hand-written letters and real greetings cards is to be lamented. E-mails and e-cards are just not the same and the sight of familiar handwriting (legible or not) can be uplifting. A joy, therefore, to find a blog that unites the old and the new by collecting remnants of a vanishing age and republishing them digitally.

Letters of Note gathers and posts fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos. In short, “Correspondence deserving of a wider audience”. Of course, there are already countless collections of letters by eminent and famous people – some more or less interesting depending on their author. One of my favourites is Loving Letters (1989) the whimsical and beguiling dispatches written by Ogden Nash to his fiancée (later wife) Frances Leonard and to his daughters Isabel and Linell.

Shaun Usher, the compiler of Letters of Note, has collected 406 fascinating examples to while away a weary hour. Among them I found the following request for a job interview by the American writer Robert Pirosh (photo right). When he arrived in Hollywood in 1934, eager to become a screenwriter, Pirosh sent the following letter to all the directors, producers, and studio executives he could find. The approach worked, and after securing three interviews he took a job as a junior writer with MGM.

Pirosh’s cinema career took off and went on to include ‘‘A Day at the Races’’ for the Marx Brothers (still left); ‘‘I Married a Witch’’; the 1944 Danny Kaye comedy ‘‘Up in Arms’’ ; ‘‘Hell Is for Heroes’’; ‘‘A Gathering of Eagles’’; ‘‘What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?’’; and ‘‘Go for Broke,’’ the 1951 recounting of Japanese-American soldiers who fought in Europe during World War II; ‘‘Valley of the Kings’’ and ‘‘Spring Reunion.’’ Here is the letter that got him started.

“Dear Sir,

I like words. I like fat buttery words, such as ooze, turpitude, glutinous, toady. I like solemn, angular, creaky words, such as straitlaced, cantankerous, pecunious, valedictory. I like spurious, black-is-white words, such as mortician, liquidate, tonsorial, demi-monde. I like suave “V” words, such as Svengali, svelte, bravura, verve. I like crunchy, brittle, crackly words, such as splinter, grapple, jostle, crusty. I like sullen, crabbed, scowling words, such as skulk, glower, scabby, churl. I like Oh-Heavens, my-gracious, land’s-sake words, such as tricksy, tucker, genteel, horrid. I like elegant, flowery words, such as estivate, peregrinate, elysium, halcyon. I like wormy, squirmy, mealy words, such as crawl, blubber, squeal, drip. I like sniggly, chuckling words, such as cowlick, gurgle, bubble and burp.

I like the word screenwriter better than copywriter, so I decided to quit my job in a New York advertising agency and try my luck in Hollywood, but before taking the plunge I went to Europe for a year of study, contemplation and horsing around.

I have just returned and I still like words. May I have a few with you?”

The “great art o’ letter writin’” – as Charles Dickens has Sam Weller opine in The Pickwick Papers. Who could resist?

Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

2 thoughts on “The lost art of letter-writing”

  1. When my mother died we found among her possessions a batch of letters written to her by her father in the year after she had married my father and moved with him to an airforce camp during the Second World War. Though my grandfather was a sawmiller with little formal education, the letters were written in an elegant hand and with grammatically structured flowing sentences, telling his obviously missed favourite daughter the events of the day, the state of the garden, the goings on of the other daughters and their dalliances with visiting servicemen, concern about how she was managing, and how much he missed having her around. They include a fascinating passage congratulating her on the birth of their first child, noting that it was only seven months since their wedding (“Is there something we’re not aware of?”), but moving on quickly to affirm her and warmly embrace the new life in the family.

    I consider technology is most effective when chosen to suit the purpose, and for that reason I still use hand written letters (only with a fountain pen) when the personal in personal communication is important.


  2. I am one of the few people who still write letters. I call them “real” letters. Letters that take time to write and are meant to last. I have boxes of those which I have received myself over the years. And I have a binder of letters that I wrote to my parents when I was an au pair girl in France at age 18. They may one day form the core of a memoir I plan to write about that formative year abroad. Had I sent email messages, I doubt I would have those words available all these years later. The friends with whom I still exchange handwritten letters are precious. The boxes in my storage room are a testimony that their words live on.

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