The World of Letters
It has become a commonplace to refer to the writing of letters – real letters, with stamps on them – as a lost art. People who say this usually are self-consciously literary types. They reflect on the beautiful correspondence carried on by great authors.
Letter-writing is embedded, however, in the history and culture of ordinary people on the Great Plains. Pioneer settlement was driven by the America letters of venturesome immigrants who wrote home to their friends and relatives in the old country and told them to come.
Another of the most notable letters in prairie history is that of the artist Charley Russell, who wrote and illustrated it during the hard winter of 1887. As a report on range conditions, he painted a gaunt longhorn in a blizzard, wolves gathering around, and entitled the illustration Waiting for a Chinook, or sometimes later, The Last of 5000.
I wrote a couple of real letters this week, but mostly, like everyone else since the 1990s, I have gone over to digital communications. We should remember what a recent change this is, and perhaps think about its effects.
It was two years ago, I think, that I was startled by a mini-protest erupting among my students, having to do with letters. I had given them an assignment requiring their use of original documents in the university archives. Their protest was, this isn’t fair, these are handwritten letters, we can’t read them.
They didn’t mean, the handwriting is bad, we can’t read it. They meant, the letters are handwritten in cursive. I was surprised and skeptical, and on cross-examination, determined that the students could read cursive, but they didn’t want to. I told them to go back and do their assignments.
Now I have another gang of students at work harvesting letters written by soldiers and nurses during the Great War, 1917-18. The letters were published in local newspapers, so we’re not encountering the cursive issue, but I am left with the realization: most of the students never have written a letter.
I am asking them not only to compile facts from the letters, but also to consider their significance. What were the circumstances of the writing? Who was the intended audience? Why was it published in the newspaper? What are the things not said, and why not?
I realize further, many of the students never have read a newspaper printed on paper, or experienced the commonality of information that bound the reading community in a country town with a weekly paper. How will my scholars grasp the import of personal letters published in weekly papers, when they have no experience with either?
It would be easy at this point to harrumph and become an old grouch. Actually, that was exactly what I did, first.
Now I have rethought the situation. I have the opportunity to lead my scholars into another world, the epistolary world of plains folk a century ago. This is like guiding explorers into a new land, where I know the way, but they are bewildered. Now you’re thinking you’d like to make this journey with us, aren’t you?