Old School Correspondence Gets a Digital Audience
Correspondence just ain’t what it used to be.
At least it hasn’t been since September, when freelance writer Shaun Usher launched Letters of Note. The blog, as Usher explains on the homepage, “is an attempt to gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos.”
And fascinating they are. Among the pieces Usher has recently posted: a letter sent by an Australian schoolboy “To a top scientist at Woomera’s Rocket Range” in Australia, an expletive-laden fax sent by Hunter S. Thompson to a film producer he called “you lazy b*tch”, Elvis Presley’s handwritten note requesting a meeting with President Richard Nixon, and South Park co-creator Matt Stone’s memo in response to the MPAA’s request that he edit the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut so it could get an R (rather than NC-17) rating. Needless to say, many are worthy of Twitter and Facebook LOLs. But the narratives that appear at Letters of Note aren’t mere exchanges of words (or abbreviations): Because Usher includes scans of the original correspondence whenever possible, messages often appear to layers of meaning and feeling that can be impossible to decipher in text messages, tweets, and emails.
As part of an ongoing series of interviews about projects related to literacy, literary matters, and society, I interviewed Usher last week about Letters of Note and its significance in an age where written correspondence is becoming increasingly rare. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell me a little bit about what inspired Letters of Note.
I work as a freelance writer, mainly producing content for companies’ blogs, and I had the idea one day to research the subject of ‘Fascinating Correspondence’ for one of my clients. I then discovered a bookmark folder hidden away from years ago, containing a few letters that would perfectly fit the bill. I quickly figured I could do the letters more justice by starting a blog than a single article. I was completely obsessed within hours, then couldn’t believe there wasn’t a similar blog already in existence, so I bought the domain name and had the website up and running almost instantly. In short: there was no grand plan—it just seemed to happen.
The correspondence you’re posting is incredibly varied in terms of source, date, and material. How have you managed to compile such a broad scope of material? Where do you find the correspondence you use?
One of the things I promised myself when I started the blog was to keep the letters as varied as possible. It would be extremely easy just to fill the site with letters from World War II, or concentrate on complaint letters, but I think it would get stale quite quickly, both for me and the readers. As for the mechanics of finding the letters: At the beginning I used Google to source them, and then over time built up a huge list of online resources from which to pull the letters. You wouldn’t believe just how many manuscript archives are accessible over the Internet—there are hundreds. They just don’t seem to be recognized, or they’re simply not user-friendly enough to attract a decent audience. The last few weeks, however, have seen a huge amount of readers sending in their own letters, either via email or post. It makes my job easier and more enjoyable, to be honest. I’m receiving letters from strangers most days, and the majority are extremely fascinating.
About how many of the pieces you post are reader submissions?
I’d say reader-submitted/found would be 50/50 at the moment, but I’m getting sent more each week. I have a backlog that would last me months. I’m also getting a P.O. Box as more and more people are asking to send things through the post. There are only so many times I want to give out my address to strangers.
What are your favorite pieces of correspondence that you’ve come across so far?
[The one written by] Matt Stone [that he] called “my favorite memo ever” [is one of them]. My personal favorite at the moment—it changes daily—is the message Stephen Fry wrote to a depressed fan, in reply to a letter she wrote him concerning her mental state. The way he so eloquently compared the human mood to weather was beautiful, and a reminder of just how important letter writing can actually be. I also love how his distinct voice— accent, tone, rise and fall—can almost be heard through his writing. It’s an art.
In collecting and sorting through all of this correspondence, what sorts of epiphanies about letter writing and technology have you had?
What’s interesting is the contrast between generations with regards to correspondence. Generations before us only really had letter writing, and it was very much a private affair, from one person to another. When you write a letter to someone you don’t expect anyone else to read it and therefore you tend to open up to the recipient. These days most people seem to communicate via Facebook status updates and Twitter messages; communication methods which are the very opposite to private; and so it’s interesting to wonder whether private correspondence will soon be a thing of the past, let alone letter writing. It would also be interesting to know how many people have stopped using email since Twitter and Facebook arrived. Maybe that’s the next dying art.
With the dramatic shift to digital correspondence—emails, text messages, chats, Skype, Facebook wall messages, Twitter—do you think there will be any fascination with (or even archives of) correspondence, say, 50 or 100 years from now?
I’m sure there will be in some form, although an archive of digital correspondence would be far less interesting than an archive of physical letters. It’s the visual aspect of written correspondence that really grabs me. The creases of the paper, the handwriting, the odd few extra thick letters where the typewriter’s been bashed too hard. An archive of digital messages just wouldn’t be visually stimulating. All the character is in the writing itself.
In your site’s “About” section, you note that “Fakes will be sneered at.” What do you look for or do to try to guard against the possibility of posting a doctored or otherwise fraudulent piece of correspondence?
I spend quite a lot of time researching each letter before I submit it to the blog and if I can find no mention of the letter in any other place, I make a judgment call. I like to think that so far I’ve had it spot on. There are a few letters I’ve found along the way, which I haven’t posted yet, which torment me on a daily basis as I really can’t be sure of their origins. I don’t think I’ll ever post them as the fallout would be hideous should I be wrong.
You just started this blog in September. What has surprised you the most about the experience?
The biggest surprise is the response, both in its scale and positivity. I’ve not received a single negative email or comment about the site and I find that extraordinary, and I’m receiving emails daily. Also, the people who are getting in touch continue to blow me away. I’ve had messages from people who work in the world’s biggest museums, teachers who show my blog to classes, book publishers, and even people mentioned in the very letters I’ve posted. It’s been an incredible 6 weeks, and I’ve not even scratched the surface.