Culture TEDTalks

Great moments in letter writing

A letter — be it handwritten or typed — feels like an unpremeditated revelation, a glimpse into the writer’s subconscious. Letters are, also, often rooted to the place where they were written: a cozy armchair, a backyard hammock, the corner desk of a classroom, a train. It’s this physical and temporal presence that enables a special kind of opening-up, even when the recipient is a stranger.

Hannah Brencher knows the letter’s power. Her organization, The World Needs More Love Letters, facilitates letter-writing between strangers. In today’s heartfelt talk, given during the New York leg of the TED Talent Search, Brencher explains how she found this unique calling. Because her family has always communicated by letter, when she found herself depressed after college, she did the only thing she could think of — she penned pages and left them in libraries and cafes where strangers could chance upon them. The idea snowballed into a global exchange.

“Most of these letters have been written by people who have never known themselves loved on a piece of paper,” says Brencher in her talk. “They’re the ones from my generation. We have grown up in a world that is paperless, and where some of our best conversations have happened upon a screen. We have learned to diary our pain onto Facebook and we speak swiftly in 140 characters or less. But what if it’s not about efficiency?”

Brencher’s talk deeply resonated when we posted it on the TED Talent Search website. One commenter declared, “Hannah is an anachronism, a much-needed reminder of our need to slow down and pay attention. Outstanding! I wonder if she needs a Nana…”

Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Gmail and AIM, there were ink and paper. There were people who dedicated time to writing correspondences, and then waited for a reply. After the jump, excerpts from five of the most delightful, beautiful or simply intimate letters we’ve come across.

1. William James, a psychologist and philosopher (and brother to the writer Henry James), penned a letter to his wife, Alice James, from Vienna on September 24, 1882:

Dear, perhaps the deepest impression I’ve got since I’ve been in Germany is that made on me by the indefatigable beavers of old wrinkled peasant women, striding like men through the streets, dragging their carts or lugging their baskets, minding their business, seeming to notice nothing, in the stream of luxury and vice, but belonging far away, to something better and purer. Their poor, old, ravaged and stiffened faces, their poor old bodies dried up with ceaseless toil, their patient souls make me weep.[…]All the mystery of womanhood seems incarnated in their ugly being—the Mothers! the Mothers! Ye are all one! Yes, Alice dear, what I love in you is only what these blessed old creatures have.

2. In 2009, after Barack Obama was elected for the first time, Bill Adler published a book of kids’ letters to their president. So much of the writing in this book is moving (or hilarious); one example comes from Kiana, a 12-year-old from Anderson, South Carolina.

As a Black female, I’m going to try to be the first woman president, and the first Black woman president at that—that is, if no one beats me to it.

3. In an 1897 editorial in New York’s Sun, journalist Francis Pharcellus Church (anonymously) replied to a concerned eight-year-old, who had written to ask whether Santa Claus exists. This letter has rightly become famous—and inescapable during the holidays, when it’s printed and posted every year.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. […]The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. […]Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

4. In 1882, several years before they married, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud wrote to his fiancée, Martha Bernays, from Vienna:

If only I knew what you are doing now. Standing in the garden and gazing out into the deserted street? Ah, I am no longer passing by to press your hand, the magic carpet that carried me to you is town, the winged horses which gracious fairies used to send, even the fairies themselves, no longer arrive, magic hoods are no longer obtainable, the whole world is so prosaic, all it asks is: “What is it you want, my child? You shall have it in time.” “Patience” is its only magic word. And in saying so forgets how things get lost when we cannot have them then and there, when we have to pay for them with our own youth.

5. On a book tour in 1942, the writer Vladimir Nabokov wrote letters to his wife, Vera Nabokov. In November, on a stop in St. Paul, Minnesota, he wrote:

Yesterday after the trip into the country I went, having got awfully bored, to the cinema and came back on foot—I walked for more than an hour and went to bed around eight. On the way a lightning bolt of undefined inspiration ran right through me—a passionate desire to write, and to write in Russian. And yet I can’t. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced this feeling can really understand its torment, its tragedy. English in this sense is an illusion and an ersatz. In my usual condition, i.e. busy with butterflies, translations, or academic writing, I myself don’t fully register the whole grief and bitterness of my situation.

I am healthy, eating plenty, taking my vitamins, and read the newspapers more than usual now that the news is getting rosier. St. Paul is a stupefyingly boring city, only owls at the hotel, a bar girl who looks like Dasha; but my apartment is charming.