The Importance of the Letter

edita kaye letterAs the world sees increased digitization, methods of communications that were once favored and cherished grow obsolete. However, there are some who seek to preserve the past, viewing pieces of history as unforgettable souvenirs of the past. With the invention of e-mail, followed by the slew of instant messaging applications like AOL instant messenger, Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, etc., snail mail is fading into the background as an unnecessarily slow form of correspondence. Who needs to sit down and write weekly updates to a friend with whom daily exchanges are customary. Dr. Martha Townsend, English professor at Missouri University is leading the campaign to not only reinstate the letter as a timeless societal icon, but also to promote it into schools as its own stylistic genre of writing that deserves exploration.

A piece in the New York Times from 2013 (full piece here) encouraged Townsend to further examine composition after it expressed the decadence of creative writing as attributed to increasing availability of forms of instant communication. Authors of the past unfailingly attribute newfound inspiration to their personal correspondences. Authors today, perhaps less.

Dr. Townsend received a grant to create the class The Letter as Genre to reintroduce the epistolary form as a socio-literary cornerstone in the development of writing. While there are few doubts as to its historical weight, its contribution to the present is increasingly questioned. Throughout history, many types of letters have served many purposes: wartime communication, love letters, appeals for social reform to name a few. All of these forms supply a peek (albeit a rather subjective one) into the world at that time. St. John writes of his life as an apostle, Washington as the first President of a nascent nation. Townsend made it her goal to bring back the letter in her effort to prove its ever importance.

Reading samples of every type, researching into the foundations and future of writing, and writing their own letters, students were given a comprehensive tour through the art of the epistle. Part of her class was designed to present students with the undeniable historical significance of letter writing, and part of her class was aimed at reviving the art at a time of rapidly changing options of communication. As hoped, her class inspired students to take up writing—some for creative purposes, others for reconnecting with old friends and family members. Townsend did a remarkable job showing how letters can be of the utmost personal importance, and also shed light upon the great opinions and discourse of antiquity.

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