Photo via Harvard Gazette
I always loved the allure to writing letters. It’s a conversation that stretches over continents. There’s something incredibly romantic about that (at least to me). When I was younger, I had a penpal in New York. We wrote letters to each other often. I told her things I wouldn’t dream about telling anyone else because it felt like, even though what I put on paper lasts longer than any conversation, it felt safe.
Letters feel very safe.
So how about let’s exploit that a little?
So we are going to start with the hipster to end all hipsters – Oscar Wilde. While he’s known for a hell of a lot of sordid letters, most of them make me chuckle, but this one breaks my heart. While in prison, he wrote a letter to this then-lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who helped send him to jail. He was a jerk, and Oscar finally saw that. Best line: “You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.” If that’s not the most eloquent break-up you’ve ever read, then please excuse yourself from the room.
Another favorite of mine is one of John Keat’s letter to his then-lover, Fanny Brawne. In it he quotes poetry to her while detailing how incredibly lonely he is without her even though they’ll see each other the next day. Best line: “Send me the words ‘Good night’ to put under my pillow.” Ugh, bestill my bloody, beating heart.
Any good English major knows that Lord Bryon was one kinky cleft-footed son-of-a-gun. He was suave, debonair—girls fainted at the sight of him. He was the Tom Hiddleston of romantic poetry. He also knew how to charm the bloomers off a woman. In a letter he wrote to Teresa Guiccioli in English (she spoke Italian), he explains why he didn’t write it so she could understand it. Instead, he placed it beside her favorite book in hopes that she could understand the meaning anyway. Best line: “But I more than love you, and cannot cease to love you. Think of me, sometimes, when the Alps and ocean divide us, –but they never will, unless you wish it.”
When Aldous Huxley died, his wife sent a letter to his older brother detailing his death. It’s very tragic, but very beautiful as well. Best line (when Aldous’s wife is recalling what she told him as he lay dying): “Go, go, let go, darling; forward and up. You are going forward and up; you are going towards the light. Willing and consciously you are going, willingly and consciously, and you are doing this beautifully; you are doing this so beautifully - you are going towards the light; you are going towards a greater love; you are going forward and up.”
Emily Dickenson is best known for her poetry, but she also wrote some seriously breath-taking letters as well (which were published first). Many of these letters are to her sister-in-law, Susan, and there is definitely some speculation as to their actual relationship. The rumor is, most of Emily’s passionate material was inspired from Susan herself. Best line: “I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider, and dear ones fewer and fewer, every day that you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie.”
James Joyce, the king of sordid love letters to his wife. Oh, what, how sordid, you ask? They can’t be that bad, right? Oh, young padawan, you are in for a treat. Best line: “I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.”
Another from the great Oscar Wilde, again to his home-boy Lord Alfred Douglas. Fun fact: the letters to Lord Alfred Douglas are what landed Oscar in jail for “gross indecency” (aka homosexuality)… but not Douglas. What a cad. He didn’t deserve the beauty of these letters. Best line: “Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry.”
Benjamin Franklin was a really dirty old man, to be honest. In a letter to Madame Brillon, he pretty much says that he’ll cheat on her and she should be perfectly posh with it. Best line: “What am I receiving that is so special as to prevent me from giving the same to others, without taking from what belongs to you?”
John Steinbeck gave his son, Thom, some dating tips in 1958. Thom thought he was head-over-heels smitten with this chick, Susan. His father, best known for Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, wrote a fantastic response. You can read the full here. Best line: “And don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens—The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”
I’ve always loved Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s devotion toward each other. A lot of their fame came negatively—through their bouts with alcoholism and depression—but there was no doubt that these two loved each other. In a letter Zelda penned to her soon-to-be husband, she details how much she misses him, like any other love letter ever written but there’s just something… I don’t know. Something beautiful about it. Something incredibly sincere. Best line: “Don't you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered -- and I was delivered to you -- to be worn -- I want you to wear me, like a watch -- charm or a button hole boquet -- to the world. And then, when we're alone, I want to help -- to know that you can't do anything without me.”
Writing letters is not only important so that we know how other people lived, but also because writing letters preserves a truth about humanity that we often forget—the perseverance (and raunchiness) of the human soul. Even in the age of email and texting, I think letters like these will still find ways of clinging to history, like stickers on a suitcase. My man William Shakespeare said it best, “In black ink my love may still shine bright.”
Cheers to the written word.