Starved for funds, the United States Postal Service recently considered cutting its mail delivery service down to five-days a week–not a huge surprise considering their losses over the last couple of years and the fact that Americans are relying more and more on electronic measures of communication.
In short, letter writing is becoming a dying art. Blogger Shaun Usher intends to preserve as many beautiful remnants of this fading form as he can, and publish them on an elegant blog called Letters of Note. Simply put, Letters of Note publishes “Scans/Photos where possible. Fakes sneered at. Updated every weekday.”
Usher has managed to obtain hundreds of written messages from literary celebrities, famous musicians, soldiers, political figures, and ordinary people and published original scans as well as meticulous transcripts (so we can read illegible handwriting) on his website. This epistolary ensemble is not to be missed, and the collection includes plenty of humor mixed in with heartache.
An entry from March 24th includes a copy of Jack Kerouac’s letter to Lucien Carr and his wife Francesca after Kerouac spent a couple of harrowing days with the poet William Burroughs in Tangier. “Feel great but Burroughs has gone insane,” writes Kerouac. “I sit with him in elegant French restaurant & he spits out his bones like My. Hyde and keeps yelling obscene words to be heard by the continental clienteles…I’ll be glad when Allen gets here.” Kerouac was, of course, referring to none other than his friend Allen Ginsberg, who was to join him a few days later, a fact we understand only because Usher curates his entries with useful contextual information and an explanation of his sources. In this case, he found the letter within Columbia University’s online exhibition “Naked Lunch: The first fifty years.
Another letter, scrawled in the unsteady hand of a young child, comes from a boy who benefited from Frederick Banting’s discovery of insulin in the early 20th century. The boy, Teddy Ryder, suffered from diabetes and wrote to Banting to thank him for his discovery. “I wish you could come see me,” writes Ryder. “I am a fat boy now and I feel fine.”
The list of compelling letters goes on: an account of Aldous Huxley’s death by a man who was administering him LSD during his last days, a note from a humble Elvis Presley while he was stationed as a soldier abroad, a desperate note from engineer Nikola Tesla as he unearths signals from life on other planets, and an “absolutely filthy” memo from South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut creator Matt Stone to the MPAA about alterations of particularly lewd content. In his postscript, Stone writes: “This is my favorite memo ever.”
Usher’s project exposes us to an inner world of the personalities that make up history. The letters illuminate these writers’ candid concerns, unfiltered ideas, and vulnerabilities, and also make clear how important it is to save and preserve the fragile written form. Usher tries to infuse his website with varied people and topics, and many of the letters come from readers who submit noteworthy content. To find out more about Usher and his project, read an interview of him on True/Slant.