Out of Left Field: The letter lovers

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Out of Left Field: The letter lovers

I am borrowing this headline from a recent major newspaper story. It speaks directly to the “epistolary” theme I have been trying to develop in recent columns.

Unaccustomed as I am to making protests toward good staff folks at Blank Media, I am very unhappy that the aides assigned to my recent columns have consistently eliminated the word “epistolary” from my titles. Why? Does the word seem too esoteric to them? Often editorial aides have improved my titles, but by dismissing “epistolary,” they take focus off significant developments that have occurred over centuries.

No need to go back to the New Testament and St. Paul’s “Epistles to the Romans.” Throughout history “epistles” (usually handwritten letters) have built bonds among people, deepened their relationships and contributed to shared, social change endeavors.

Close to home, “The Letter Lovers” story had the sub-headline: “LIers find creativity and community in correspondence.” When psychiatrists warn about “loneliness epidemics” during the pandemic, most folks relish getting a hand addressed postal mailing.

Part of the problem now is that the U.S. postal system is in decline, with slower deliveries and higher costs. In some nations annually, there were “a billion fewer letters than a decade ago!” Business and government mail account for 95 percent of all letters.

The movie “You’ve got mail” highlights how rare personal epistles are, especially for young people, whose resource is most often not just email, but text. There are many more themes to be explored in the long, significant epistolary relationships; several that will be considered are emotional and intimate.

But, at this very moment, the potential power of handwritten letters is a major focus of political parties. It is not a new idea to have a complete stranger send a handwritten, hand-addressed letter to a stranger and urge political connections – to register, to vote and to take strong stands on particular issues.

Both parties have done this in the past, but now Democrats have made such epistolary appeals a major part of their political strategy. At a time when our political powers are nearly equally divided, can these epistles to (and from?) strangers make a difference in power and policy?

Democrats, especially, have developed plans to recruit thousands of party letter writers who will mail tens of thousands of handwritten letters. Democrats hope the written letters will be welcomed and readers will relate to the spirit and advocacy of the political writer.

It is hard to imagine a more propitious time to seek to mobilize voters (critical gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey in 2021; more than 20 governorships in 2022, as well as control of the House of Representatives where Democrats cling to a five-seat margin, and the Senate, divided 50 to 50.

I wish that Gallup, Pew, or some other polling group could check on how the thousands receiving unsolicited letters respond going forward the next year. Perhaps we will only get a glimmer of impact from election results.

In a larger sense, to what extent can these interactions build stronger, lasting relationships?
The “Letter Lovers” story shows expanding satisfactions with epistles, contributing to in-person associations. Maxine Karmily-Etessami (35) of Great Neck said pandemic isolation was a spur to pen pals. Like fellow Long Islander, Gosia Olszewski, Maxine shares the view: “When the time comes and I travel to Europe, I have a list of snail mail friends I will be visiting.”

That is precisely what Benjamin Franklin and others did in the 1700s – their handwritten letters, often delivered by friends, began a bonding process that became a force in history. In Franklin’s case, he coordinated protests and quests for social justice. Those endeavors contributed mightily to the American Revolution and to a highlighting of the Bill of Rights and emphasis on the First Amendment.

In my coming “epistolary essays” I will highlight more of the romantic, personal and intimate aspects of those written exchanges. You will be surprised to learn how many relationships began (sight unseen) with written letters.

Some of those epistolary intimacies are also unique when folks rarely, if ever saw one another. It is dramatically impressive to read how words alone fostered sweetness, deep caring and shared social values.

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