When was the last time you received a handwritten letter?

By Barbara Gutierrez

When was the last time you received a handwritten letter?

By Barbara Gutierrez
Letter writing is heading toward being a lost art form, which affects scholars and researchers as they do their work. Instant, electronic communication is replacing what was once an intimate connection to friends and family.

For 18 years, the artist Vincent Van Gogh wrote letters to his brother, Theo. They detailed his views on art, his search for love, his tortured thoughts as he grappled with his mental health, and his fear of dying as a poor, unknown painter. 

Van Gogh died at 37 but much of what we know about his life comes from those extensive missives, which he often accompanied with sketches and line drawings. 

“Letters are some of the most personal types of material one can encounter in an archive,” said Martin Tsang, a Cuban Heritage Collection librarian and curator of Latin American Collection at the University of Miami Libraries. “Each example is unique and can help a researcher to better understand how the subject established and maintained connections, often across incredible distances.” 

There is “nothing like handling such a letter, knowing that it is a tangible link by someone. It can be an emotional and powerful thing to encounter,” Tsang said. 

Cristina Favretto, director of Special Collections at Otto G. Richter Library, has read hundreds of letters. 

“You can glean all sorts of information from looking at an actual letter—even the letter writer's emotions based on the look of the handwriting,” Favretto said. “Sometimes, more often that you'd think, you'll see tear stains if the writer had been crying.” 

Most importantly, you see graphic evidence of a person trying to find the right words—crossed-out phrases, inserted words, and other edits—to express themselves. So, you're getting a window into their emotions at the time of the writing, she noted. 

Letter writing was once an art form. Good penmanship was valued and taught in schools. Handwritten notes were sent to friends and pen pals. Lovers would woo each other with love letters, and soldiers at  war hungered to receive news of their loved ones. 

A “Dear John” letter was dreaded because it meant the sender was a girlfriend breaking up with a boyfriend. Today, many people use texts to end relationships. 

Indeed, the art of letter writing has been lost in this digital age of emails and texts and the ever-present social media. Communication now is more immediate as it is sent from computers, cell phones, or other electronic devices. 

“With digital tools, convenience and time—or lack of—have removed letter writing from our habits and needs. We can more easily send a text or email and it will be received instantly rather than in three days,” said Mary Avalos, research professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the School of Education and Human Development. 

Although handwriting is part of Florida’s learning standards, many high school students Avalos has interacted with acknowledged that they never learned cursive. And many wished they had, since they do not know how to sign their names on signature lines. 

For researchers and historians, the dearth of letter writing poses a challenge. They must rely on electronic communications gathered from in-boxes of prominent people. 

Archivists are collecting emails and while that can reveal a lot about a person, especially what is contained in someone's email outbox, emails are a different type of communication altogether, Tsang pointed out. 

Favretto said she dreads the future when we'll have to rely solely on electronic records to document our correspondence. 

“Paper is a very permanent, stable medium unless you burn it, but emails are very temporary. They’re not meant for longevity,” she said. “Think about it: what happens to our emails after we leave a job? After a computer meltdown? After the 900th software update?” 

Fortunately, students and scholars can still peruse hundreds of letters held by the University in its various collections. 

Among the most prominent:

  • The correspondence of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an American journalist, author, women's suffrage advocate, and conservationist known for her campaign to preserve the Everglades.
  • Letters by Ezra Pound, the poet, to Pound scholar Clark Mixon Emery. Mixon Emery was a University of Miami professor who corresponded with the poet during the poet’s stay at St. Elizabeth Hospital where he was treated for mental illness.
  • The letters and documents of Irma Goebel Labastille, an intrepid intellectual who traveled and discovered South American folk music and brought it to a wider audience in Europe and the Americas.  

The Library’s Cuban Heritage Collection has an extensive trove of letters and documents of interest to anyone wanting to delve into Cuban history, culture, and its arts. 

These include:

  • Several letters by José Martí, Cuban patriot, writer, and poet who fought and died in Cuba’s war of independence against Spain. Notable letters include one to Máximo Gómez, military commander during the war, where he tells him that he is awaiting his orders. He also comments on the courage and capability of all Cubans, those in Cuba as well as those in the diaspora.
  • The letters and documents of Lydia Cabrera, a noted Cuban writer and ethnographer, who became famous for her work documenting Afro-Cuban religious practices and history. Her 1954 book “El Monte” is considered a seminal work in the study of herbalism, Santería, and other Afro-Cuban traditions.
  • The Gerardo Machado y Morales Papers contains correspondence, financial records, documents, and photographs of Machado and his family in their years of exile from Cuba. Machado was Cuba’s fifth president. 

As the decrease in letter writing increases, Favretto and other educators are fighting back, even if it is in a modest way. 

“When we host classes in Special Collections, I'll often ask students if they still write ‘paper letters’ and some hands always go up,” she said. 

So, following the idea of a colleague at Florida Atlantic University, she hopes to hold "Real Mail Fridays" where people can come together to write letters and chat. The library will supply paper, pens, and various other art supplies—the writers will supply the stamps and the sentiments.