Can the Decline in Letter-Writing be Reversed?

By Ralph Nader
April 2, 2021

When Cornell University Press sent me an early copy of my sister, Laura Nader’s book: Letters To and From an Anthropologist, a collection of correspondences compiled over fifty-five years, I wondered whether such print letter-writing exchanges assembled in books were nearing extinction.

My impression preceded young parents relating remarks from their little children asking, “What’s a letter?” or “Where do you put the stamp, Mom?” Certainly, the Internet Age is not conducive to sitting down and writing a personal letter exclusive to its recipient. It is quicker to send an email or a text message. But as we know when we receive a thoughtful letter these days, amidst the avalanche of digital messages, filters, and clutter, it is not, by a long stretch, the same sort of impactful communication.

Years ago, I read some of the vast number of letters that Thomas Jefferson wrote week after week, including some exchanges with John Adams. The book of letters between Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Harold J. Laski was especially absorbing to anyone interested in political philosophy, government, and law writ large.

A few weeks ago, I perused a translation of personal letters by the great composer Ludwig van Beethoven, starting with the prodigy’s letter at age 11 in 1781, dedicating three piano sonatas to the Prince Elector of Cologne, Max Friedrich. In a preface, the translator J.S. Shedlock writes: [Beethoven’s] “letters offer a unique biography, for studying the man in relations to his times, while such works as the Eroica and Choral symphonies certainly reflect them outwardly.”

Without such letters (handwritten using quill pens) by both famous people and the common folk, much of what is captured with ink on paper would be entirely lost to history. Fortunately, until the 20th century, masters of letter-writing enriched our knowledge with such uncensored observations, in addition to probing the depths of their own personal feelings.

The trials and horrors of war were personally conveyed in battlefield letters from soldiers to their families and friends from the Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. They provided invaluable primary sources that pierce the “fog of war” and its propaganda. A new virtual Museum of American War Letters just opened on Sunday, March 28, 2021, “showcasing extraordinary correspondences from the American Revolution to the present day.”

Letters are the writers’ exclusive media, written without external censorship, editing, or abridgement. With the arrival of the telephone and the Internet, letter writing became a luxury less and less indulged. As one of Laura’s students observed several years ago: “The only letters my generation gets are bank statements, credit card bills, or letters from colleges.” Even many of these messages are now delivered digitally.

The U.S. Postal Service has reported a dramatic decline in First Class Mail, now left mostly to requests for donations, subscriptions, and gracious acknowledgement of birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

Sadly, for the work of consumer advocates, the fading of print letters has included consumer complaints, often with documentation, that once provided a rich lode of important fresh information that Laura used in her book, No Access to Law: Alternatives to the American Judicial System (1980). Such letters have led to mass recalls of defective products, important litigation, and legislation.

Laura’s collection of letters and her responses cover much broader ground. Here you can read the felt concerns and observations of students, scientists worrying out loud, agitating scholars, military officers, prisoners, politicians, reflective workers, lawyers, and feminists. They were drawn to corresponding with Laura because of her prodigious, diverse output as a leading anthropologist and teacher who focused her discipline on controversial subjects such as global power that shaped and controlled local living.

She always insists on answering the question: “Knowledge for what and for whom?” Laura became known for her irreverent, contrarian insights because she expressed them early before they became accepted or commonplace. Her struggles over the University of California’s (Berkeley) decades-long, shocking pay inequity between male and female professors is but one of many examples of challenges to accepted norms leading to debate and change.

It is her hope that this collection of correspondences “will inspire both young and old to experience the privacy and freedom communication affords…when pen is put to paper, or when pen is put down to ponder.”

Since the book came out late last year, a culture too frantically “internetting” barely noticed. Despite Princeton University Professor of Anthropology John Borneman saying, “Her range of fields is amazingly bold…,” or how Yale University Professor of Anthropology Erik Harms described as her letters revealing “…the dignified role that disagreement can play in democratic and scholarly discourse.”

Literary journals and magazines, who received the book from Cornell University Press, greeted this testament to the societal treasures flowing from letter-writing with editorial indifference.

This is not surprising. Of my scores of timely, policy-focused letters to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, regarding what they were doing, not doing, or should be doing, 99% received no response or even an acknowledgement from them, their staff, or their departmental appointees. I collected these letters in a volume titled, Return to Sender: Unanswered Letters to the President, 2001-2015 (Seven Stories Press, 2015). Thousands of other ignored citizen correspondents to Presidents and members of Congress weren’t so fortunate. I have recently taken to writing print letters to thoughtful practitioners of the fourth estate – including friendly acquaintances – asking them about their practice for replying to letters. So far no responses! Do you ever hear anybody saying these days – “I’m catching up with my correspondence.”?

Last month, I wrote to New York Times Book Review editor and touted podcaster, Pamela Paul, wondering if she would have a thoughtful broad-gauged writer contribute an essay on the state of letter-writing within the historic traditions of this genre.

Paradoxically, the Letters-to-the-Editor space is among the most read section in newspapers and magazines. Just this February, John Stewart, an English teacher at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia received a terrific response when he asked his students to write a letter to President Biden or Vice President Harris. He called their words “heartfelt, insightful, acute and achingly beautiful.” In the midst of Covid-19 pandemic pressures, he “couldn’t be more proud of them.”

What’s that saying? “Hope Springs Eternal”.