December 30, 2010


I wrote a letter today to a friend in his 80s.After another debilitating stroke (Blog: 9/25/10) he’s been moved to a nursing home. At such times, only a letter will do to keep in touch because patients in nursing homes may not be well enough to answer a telephone and probably can’t receive e-mails. A letter is friendly, in any case. It waits until one has the strength to open it or a nurse has time to read it aloud. If only because of the sick and the dying, there will always be letters.

The publisher of Julia Child’s cook books is soon to release a new biography of her life, “As Always,” which is a setof letters exchanged between Child and Avis DeVoto, the woman who was instrumental in getting the first cook book published. Their correspondence began in the 1950s and by reading them, we get glimpses of the lives of two women, one living in Paris and the other in New York, as they struggle to balance their duties to their families and careers. I read the extended excerpts (Dec/Jan “More Magazine”) and, given the everyday nature of their content, I wondered how these missives came to be preserved. They read much like the e-mails I receive from a friend in Canada: “Sorry I haven’t written. Busy with the kids and grand kids. Miss you. Wish we could get together. Kiss, kiss.”  But as everyone loves Julia, including me, a person who considers the kitchen wasted space, I’m sure the book will sell. 

History is full of preserved letters exchanged between famous intimates, letters that go as far back as those of the Apostles in the 1st century and which continue to the secret exchanges of Heloise and Abelard in the 9th and Galileo’s thoughts to his daughter in the 15th. Scholars delight in these documents as they are rare and give insights not only into the author’s mind but also into the times. One has only to read the exchanges between Horace Greeley, founder of the “New York Tribune, and Abraham Lincoln just before the president signed the Emancipation Proclamation Act, to learn how a well-written letter might even guide a nation.

As I thought about the historical importance of this a dying art, I wondered what future historians might make of twitters and e-mails should they survive. A thousand years hence, what will a scholar make of our electronic communications? I suspect they’ll discover, as we did in looking at letters from the past, that human nature is slow to change. People of the 21st Century laughed and cried, loved and hated just as people did in the 1st. Maybe that discovery will provide comfort to those dwelling in the future. Statesmen or writers, lovers or scientists, we reach out with words to make human contact.