Personal letters

Today, in our hyper-connected world, people send emails and text messages.  But image the days of snail mail and how good-old-fashioned letters felt to write and read. Pen, paper, envelopes and stamps: the medium is very tactile! 

  1. Study the 4 letters below. What characteristics do they have in common? What are the defining characteristics of a personal letter? 

  2. In August of 1865, a Colonel P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee, wrote to his former slave, Jourdon Anderson, and requested that he come back to work on his farm. Jourdon — who, since being emancipated, had moved to Ohio, found paid work, and was now supporting his family — responded spectacularly by way of the letter seen below (a letter which, according to newspapers at the time, he dictated).

    Dayton, Ohio,

    August 7, 1865

    To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

    Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

    I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

    As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

    In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

    Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

    From your old servant,

    Jourdon Anderson.                 

    In October of 1973, Bruce Severy — a 26-year-old English teacher at Drake High School, North Dakota — decided to use Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, as a teaching aid in his classroom. The next month, on November 7th, the head of the school board, Charles McCarthy, demanded that all 32 copies be burned in the school's furnace as a result of its "obscene language." Other books soon met with the same fate. On the 16th of November, Kurt Vonnegut sent McCarthy the following letter. He didn't receive a reply.

    November 16, 1973

    Dear Mr. McCarthy:

    I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school.

    Certain members of your community have suggested that my work is evil. This is extraordinarily insulting to me. The news from Drake indicates to me that books and writers are very unreal to you people. I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am.

    I want you to know, too, that my publisher and I have done absolutely nothing to exploit the disgusting news from Drake. We are not clapping each other on the back, crowing about all the books we will sell because of the news. We have declined to go on television, have written no fiery letters to editorial pages, have granted no lengthy interviews. We are angered and sickened and saddened. And no copies of this letter have been sent to anybody else. You now hold the only copy in your hands. It is a strictly private letter from me to the people of Drake, who have done so much to damage my reputation in the eyes of their children and then in the eyes of the world. Do you have the courage and ordinary decency to show this letter to the people, or will it, too, be consigned to the fires of your furnace?

    I gather from what I read in the papers and hear on television that you imagine me, and some other writers, too, as being sort of ratlike people who enjoy making money from poisoning the minds of young people. I am in fact a large, strong person, fifty-one years old, who did a lot of farm work as a boy, who is good with tools. I have raised six children, three my own and three adopted. They have all turned out well. Two of them are farmers. I am a combat infantry veteran from World War II, and hold a Purple Heart. I have earned whatever I own by hard work. I have never been arrested or sued for anything. I am so much trusted with young people and by young people that I have served on the faculties of the University of Iowa, Harvard, and the City College of New York. Every year I receive at least a dozen invitations to be commencement speaker at colleges and high schools. My books are probably more widely used in schools than those of any other living American fiction writer.

    If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. Especially soldiers and hardworking men speak coarsely, and even our most sheltered children know that. And we all know, too, that those words really don’t damage children much. They didn’t damage us when we were young. It was evil deeds and lying that hurt us.

    After I have said all this, I am sure you are still ready to respond, in effect, “Yes, yes–but it still remains our right and our responsibility to decide what books our children are going to be made to read in our community.” This is surely so. But it is also true that if you exercise that right and fulfill that responsibility in an ignorant, harsh, un-American manner, then people are entitled to call you bad citizens and fools. Even your own children are entitled to call you that.

    I read in the newspaper that your community is mystified by the outcry from all over the country about what you have done. Well, you have discovered that Drake is a part of American civilization, and your fellow Americans can’t stand it that you have behaved in such an uncivilized way. Perhaps you will learn from this that books are sacred to free men for very good reasons, and that wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.

    If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the eduction of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books–books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.

    Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

    Kurt Vonnegut

    On the evening of February 1st, 1924, the New York Symphony Orchestra played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony at Carnegie Hall in New York, conducted by Walter Damrosch. Thankfully for those who couldn't attend, the performance was broadcast live on the radio. A couple of days later, the orchestra received a stunning letter of thanks from the unlikeliest of sources: Helen Keller, a renowned author and activist who had been deaf and blind from a young age. It can be read below.

    Eight years later, Keller wrote an equally evocative letter in which she described the view from atop the Empire State Building.

    93 Seminole Avenue,

    Forest Hills, L. I.,

    February 2, 1924.


    The New York Symphony Orchestra, New York City.

    Dear Friends:

    I have the joy of being able to tell you that, though deaf and blind, I spent a glorious hour last night listening over the radio to Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony." I do not mean to say that I "heard" the music in the sense that other people heard it; and I do not know whether I can make you understand how it was possible for me to derive pleasure from the symphony. It was a great surprise to myself. I had been reading in my magazine for the blind of the happiness that the radio was bringing to the sightless everywhere. I was delighted to know that the blind had gained a new source of enjoyment; but I did not dream that I could have any part in their joy. Last night, when the family was listening to your wonderful rendering of the immortal symphony someone suggested that I put my hand on the receiver and see if I could get any of the vibrations. He unscrewed the cap, and I lightly touched the sensitive diaphragm. What was my amazement to discover that I could feel, not only the vibrations, but also the impassioned rhythm, the throb and the urge of the music! The intertwined and intermingling vibrations from different instruments enchanted me. I could actually distinguish the cornets, the roll of the drums, deep-toned violas and violins singing in exquisite unison. How the lovely speech of the violins flowed and plowed over the deepest tones of the other instruments! When the human voice leaped up trilling from the surge of harmony, I recognized them instantly as voices. I felt the chorus grow more exultant, more ecstatic, upcurving swift and flame-like, until my heart almost stood still. The women's voices seemed an embodiment of all the angelic voices rushing in a harmonious flood of beautiful and inspiring sound. The great chorus throbbed against my fingers with poignant pause and flow. Then all the instruments and voices together burst forth—an ocean of heavenly vibration—and died away like winds when the atom is spent, ending in a delicate shower of sweet notes.

    Of course, this was not "hearing" but I do know that the tones and harmonies conveyed to me moods of great beauty and majesty. I also sensed, or thought I did, the tender sounds of nature that sing into my hand—swaying reeds and winds and the murmur of streams. I have never been so enraptured before by a multitude of tone-vibrations.

    As I listened, with darkness and melody, shadow and sound filling all the room, I could not help remembering that the great composer who poured forth such a flood of sweetness into the world was deaf like myself. I marvelled at the power of his quenchless spirit by which out of his pain he wrought such joy for others—and there I sat, feeling with my hand the magnificent symphony which broke like a sea upon the silent shores of his soul and mine.

    Let me thank you warmly for all the delight which your beautiful music has brought to my household and to me. I want also to thank Station WEAF for the joy they are broadcasting in the world.

    With kindest regards and best wishes, I am,

    Sincerely yours, 

    (Signed)

    HELEN KELLER

    In 1947, in his book, Secrets Behind the Comics, then-24-year-old Stan Lee offered readers a chance to have their comic book artwork reviewed for the price of $1. 25 years later, shortly after Stan Lee had become head of Marvel, an aspiring artist named Russell Maheras cheekily attempted to take him up on his old offer by sending him his Souperman spoof along with a fee — kindly doubled to take inflation into account — of $2. Stan Lee stuck to his word. His response can be read below.

    Marvel Comics Group

    December 7, 1972

    Mr. Russell Maheras

    Dear Russ:

    Okay, never let it be said that sweet ol' Stan ever reneged on an offer (even if it was made 25 years ago!) A promise is a promise! And besides, I can use the two bucks. 

    However, rates have gone up in 25 years, so all your buck and the buck for postage will buy you is a footnote! Hence footnote--

    Do you have talent? Yeah, it seems that way. Have you a sense of humor? Apparently. Is your artwork of professional caliber? Not yet. Why not? Glad you asked--

    Your anatomy is still weak-- practice it, study it, work on it. Don't worry too much about inking yet. That can come later. The pencilling is the important thing to begin with. Your layouts are good. You seem to have the ability to tell a story pictorially-- which is important in comics, obviously. But, if you really wanna become a pro, you're kidding around too much. Nobody's impressed with "Souperman" takeoffs now. We were doing them 30 years ago. Do real serious stuff. For example, pick a character you think you could handle-- HULK for example. Then do a serious, no-kidding story about him-- using your own drawings and layouts (no swipes). That's the only way to really tell if you have the stuff or not. When you think your work is as good as what's already appearing in the mags, send it in to us-- or DC, or anybody. Till then, keep studying. 

    Worth $2.00?

    (Signed, 'Stan')

    Excelsior!

    P.S.-- Your backgrounds are pretty good, too. 

  3. What are the stylistic and structural features of a personal letter? What kind of features were common among Texts 1-4? Compare you list of common stylistic and structural structural features to those presented below. How are they similar or different?
  4.          
    Feature Example
    Direct opening: Letters are often to the point and writers usually state their purpose directly in the opening lines.  As Kurt Vonnegut states: "I am writing this letter to let you know how real I am." 
    Message: The purpose of a letter often relates to its message. In other words, it should say something with meaning. This may include: sharing an insight, making an argument, thanking someone, offering advice or simply telling an anecdote. Keep in mind that even though the message is private, the message may be universal and resonate with readers around the world.  Stan Lee offers a young comic artist advice in the form of a question and answer: "Is your artwork of professional caliber? Not yet. Why not? Glad you asked--" 
    Call to action: What is the reader supposed to do in response to the letter? Write back? If so, what should they say in response.   As Jourdon Anderson says in responding to writing to his former master: "In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters."
    Pronouns: A personal letter is written from 'me' to 'you'. Letters use first- and second-person pronouns to establish a relationship between the reader and the writer.  Most indicative of the relationship between Jourden Anderson and his former master is: "Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me."
    Tone: The writer's choice of words sets the tone of the letter.   

    The opening lines of Stan's letter reads: "Okay, never let it be said that sweet ol' Stan ever reneged on an offer (even if it was made 25 years ago!) A promise is a promise! And besides, I can use the two bucks." The reader, Russ, must realise that the letter will be informal and funny, as the owner of Marvel Comics most likely does not need two dollars (or 'bucks'). 

    Structure: Letters usually have a greeting, a body and a salutation, or a beginning, middle and end.  



  5. There are so many other kinds of letters worth exploring. How does the 'personal letter' compare to letters of complaint, letters of application, letters to the editor or even a letter to your future self? 

  6. Have you ever wanted to write a personal letter? How about writing a letter from one character in a novel to another character from that novel? What would they say? How would they say it?  
Assessment

Magazine covers may or may not have a 'sense of authorship', depending on the magazine. Therefore, they may not be considered a non-literary 'body of work' for your individual oral. As practices texts for a Paper 1- style analysis, they are perfect because they combine visual and written elements to construct meaning.

Last modified: Monday, 14 June 2021, 5:58 PM