Letter writing, the endangered species of correspondence, is responsible for nurturing some of history’s most celebrated relationships. Thankfully, it has also documented them.

Most of our written correspondence happens quickly, urgently. A few words appear; we respond; they disappear. Sometimes, though, a real letter arrives, and that invites attention and time. Personal, handwritten correspondence, so common only a generation ago, has now become unexpected, and, while not quite a lost art, it is rare enough to provoke some examination.
To begin, consider the letter as defined five centuries ago by Flemish philologist Justus Lipsius in Principles of Letter-Writing. “A letter,” he says, is “a message of the mind to someone who is absent.” Letters travel over distance and time to bind people together. And, with their very physical presence, they convey thoughts, feelings and emotions in ways not possible using other means.

Subtle cues in structure and language control expression in handwritten letters. Because a letter is composed rather than extemporized, it shapes statements more deliberately than conversation. And the flow of the pen can hint at passion, authority, reserve, desperation—encoding more than words can offer. A letter thereby exceeds its explicit message; it communicates, as Lipsius suggests, some crucial unstated intention of the mind. Each part of the letter—date, address, salutation, body, closure, signature and postscript—carries its own encrypted information, its own unstated message. A recipient’s address placed before the salutation reveals that this is a formal rather than an emotional transaction. With which prefatory term (My Dearest, Dear, Hi) does the greeting begin? Or does it start more abruptly—even rudely—with just a name? Is there a comma or colon after? The latter is the more assertive. But even before a letter is composed, the material upon which it is written will carry implications. Greeks sent notes to associates and friends (and curses against enemies) inscribed on reusable sheets of lead. Roman soldiers stationed in the hinterlands communicated on thin tablets of birch, alder or oak—whatever was available—using ink made with carbon black. Histiaeus of Miletus sent a secret letter to collaborators in Persia tattooed on the scalp of a messenger. Later, letters usually traveled on parchment of stretched sheepskin or calfskin. The missives with which we are most familiar, though, arrive on paper.
Occasionally, a letter appears among catalogs and bills, hand addressed and on fine paper (its rarity these days making it all the more notable). The elegant penmanship delights the eye; the texture of paper greets the fingers; the seal enforces anticipation.
As the sender has folded the letter, so do we unfold it, and our hands are connected over distance. The deliberate decoding of handwriting, spacing, salutation and closure slows the pace of reading. And whether it carries sorrow or joy, a physical letter sustains bonds as no other kind of communication can.
Letters sooth yearning, assuage loss, resolve anxiety, convey affection or negotiate difference; they inform, advise, warn. They bridge the gaps that distance enforces—whether across the the world or just across town. We see vividly in them—in their material substance and rich idiosyncrasies of penmanship and structure—how deliberate communication through letters can maintain powerful connections of the mind and heart across absence.