“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence, but also as a work of art.”lover of old letters, I have a special soft spot for the lost art of letter-writing — an art robbed of romance and even basic courtesy in the age of rapid-fire, efficiency-obsessed, typed-with-one-thumb-on-a-tiny-keyboard communication. So I was utterly delighted to discover a rare and remarkable little book titledHow To Write Letters (UK; public library; public domain) — a “manual of correspondence, showing the correct structure, composition, punctuation, formalities, and uses of the various kinds of Letters, Notes and Cards,” written in 1876 by J. Willis Westlake, an English Literature professor at the State Normal School in Millersville, Pennsylvania. From how to address the recipient and sign your name to the conventions of business vs. social vs. personal letters to the most elegant way to fold the sheet, Westlake presents a guide not only to the craft of writing letters, but also to the conceptual elements of composition and the role of letters as social currency.
At once delightfully dated in many of its cultural assumptions — particularly the epistolary norms for the sexes — and charmingly urbane in its practical prescriptions, this tiny treasure tells us as much about the long-lost era of its origin as it does about the standards we’ve chosen, and chosen to leave behind, in our own. Above all, it reminds us that sentiment lives not only in what is being communicated but also in how it is being communicated — an osmosis all the more important today, when cold screens and electronic text have left the written word homogenized and devoid of expressive form.
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