Letters as private literature

“Letters are magical. I never throw out a good letter. They enable us to nurture, connect and communicate with a worldwide circle of friends--friends we otherwise might never have met. They open doors to innumerable emotions and experiences. Letters document the chapters in our lives--our discoveries, our passions, our sorrows and growth as well as all the ebb and flow inevitable in life. Letters allow us to be personal, natural and specific. More than any other medium, letters provide an uninhibited view of everyday life--the most accurate and natural form of autobiography. Like an intimate conversation between friends, they record immediate circumstances, events, news, gossip and feelings. They are detailed; they act as a zoom lens into specific moments, experiences, and emotions. When I write a letter to a friend, I bring that person into my day, describing domestic events, my mood, my attitude, colors and pleasures. A cut finger, my cold, news of my children, the weather, music, smells from the kitchen, are all shared. If I write a letter late at night in the intimacy of one lamp I tend to describe my surroundings and the stillness. If I write a letter from a restaurant I might describe what looks good on the menu. Scenes are painted, stories told that linger as long as the letter, and beyond.

“A letter can be written for any number of reasons--joy, pain, neglect, love, lust, desire, loneliness, flight of fancy, disgust, ecstacy--but always there is overwhelming need to share, to connect, to feel understood. That’s why a letter is a blessing, a great and all-too-rare privilege. More personal than even a favorite book, more alive than a favored possession, a letter is written, addressed and mailed to one, and only one, person. Consequently, a letter holds enormous impact. Whenever one needs to feel close to a good friend, all one has to do is write a letter.”

Gift of a Letter (1990, HarperCollins, 6-7)
Alexandra Stoddard

For some time I’ve thought the most important use of writing by most people was not for publication or jobs or business (the usual aims of writing programs) but to create family and community literature or scripture. It seems letter writing might be the most direct way to communicate this.

As some of you have noted in the historical letters you’ve found in your communities, many letters are not very interesting because they were not well written. Imagine how rich and wonderful the past and the future would be if people really did learn to use the lessons of literature in crafting letters that are powerful, detailed, personal and honest. (Such letters could, of course, be “mailed” via email.)

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/20 at 11:05 PM
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©2005 Montana Heritage Project

Phil Leonardi

The Devil In The Details

The use of primary accounts through personal letters and journals is much like fishing an unfamiliar creek for the first time.  First, without exploration and effort, one can never tell if there are any fish in the water.  Secondly, that next step you take in shallow water might actually be the one into a deep pool that is well over your head.  You should have left your wallet in the car if you didn’t want it to get wet!  Students, like novice anglers, should start in the slower waters, something simple so that nuance and detail are easily recognized.

I’m utilitarian.  A rock makes a fine hammer in almost any case but a hammer rarely makes a good rock.  Imagine trying to “skip” a hammer on the river while fishing.  Context and specific detail are most important in my teaching.  Below is a birthday card for “Robert” dated September 2, 1956.  Look for some of the detail.  What areas need clarification?

Sep 2 – 1956
Happy Birthday Robert
We been thinking of you all day today knowing it is your Birthday.  We are taking a siteseeing tour of Belgium and Holland it cost us 48 dolar each for the 4 day by buss with a guide explaining everything and the Hotel room and meal included.  They bought us to the vary last Hotel.  We left yesterday morning from Paris.  We treveled 7 hours throw Belgium stoping three different time.  We are now in Ansterdam Holland, we seen most of this city today it is vary nice.  Holland and Belgium are the most modern and cleen country we seen.  The people hear dress liche in the U.S. more than any other.  All the women wear hats.  We also seen a tour where people dress like the old Holland stile but very nice and clean.  We are enjoing this trip.  Tomorrow we will be treveling to a different city agin returning to Paris Tuesday night about 8.  Hoping everybody is fine at Home.

Love and best wishes,
Mom & Dad

These are the facts:
-Modernity seems to be a guide to quality
-Fashion, especially women’s hats, is important in 1956
-The cost of travel seems to be inexpensive
-If it’s “clean” then it can be “nice”

These are the areas that need more detail through exploration:
-How old is “Robert”?
-Are “Mom & Dad” frequent travelers?
-What is the condition of transportation systems in post-WWII Europe?
-What efforts were undertaken to “modernize” Europe in the post-WWII?
-What is the value of $48.00 in 1956?
-How would a trip today compare with the itinerary described in the card?

Style, voice, topic, theme, diction are important but basic statements of fact are the launching pad for additional inquiry in the social studies classroom.  This card doesn’t provide a great many details but opens the door to discussion and research.  A sequential diary is a gold mine of material but a much easier source is a postcard.  Postcards usually contain very brief but detailed descriptions along with a supporting image.  Additionally, depending upon the source, postcards are sequential in that they document different stages of the same journey.  The romanticism associated with writing is better left to the teachers of English.

The devil in these details?  Robert is my father and it’s his 27th birthday.  Mom & Pop are my grandparents, born in Italy, who are making their first trip to Europe in 40 years.  They were “tidy” people but not obsessive/compulsive by any means.  These facts are important to me but not a requirement needed by the student to initiate research.  I am never too worried that the student will get in over their head – most kids know how to swim.image

Posted by Phil Leonardi on 03/11 at 11:25 AM
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Orientation to the 1930s

We have talked at several points about instituting an Expedition to the 1930s. I’ve been advised by several wise heads who watch over the Project that this would be a good thing, and we have the wonderful Montana resource of Mary Murphy’s Hope in Hard Times, which not only covers the history but provides lots of good information and good models of documentary photography, for which I, at least, have a particular fondness.

I’ve been reading materials to help make recommendations for teachers who want to know more about this critical period in American history.

Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1929-1945 won a Pulitzer for Stanford professor David Kennedy in 2000. Kennedy offers a detailed history of the period told with a smooth narrative thrust. It may be the best one-volume (a very big volume, though--936 pages) history of the period. Though generally sympathetic to FDR, Kennedy draws on recent research and acknowledges that FDR’s New Deal policies did not reverse the Depression.

This book gives details of what life was like in different parts of the country. Much attention is given to the rural/urban divide in American politices, and the extent of the suffering in rural areas is made clear. The book tells the stories of how policies were being made and adjusted by the various players. Roosevelt appears in a favorable light in terms of his sympathy if not always his competence.

A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960 by Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz was published in 1963. Economist Hugh Rockoff at Rutgers ranks it as “the most significant book in the field of economic history in the twentieth century.” About a third of this hugely influential book is given to an analysis of the Great Depression, and Friedman and Schwartz helped convince most economists that the Keynsian interpretation of the Depression was inadequate. “The Great Depression, and the way it was interpreted by Keynesian economists, convinced a generation of American intellectuals that only socialism (or near-socialism) could save the American economy from periodic economic meltdowns” says Rockoff. But this book changed the interpretive direction of much 1930s history.

The book is written for a lay audience without specialized statistical knowledge. No formulas appear in the text. It’s a tome though, approaching 900 pages. The book’s influence is due in part to its accessible and majesterial style.

Rethinking the Great Depression is one of the more interesting of a good many books that argue that the Depression was worsened by FDRs politicies. Gene Smiley argues that the American economy had started to recover in the second quarter of 1933 and the summer of 1935, only to be stalled by mistaken New Deal policies. In his view, the Hoover administration was an unmitigated disaster, and the FDR administration compounded the nation’s economic problems through folly. Though the argument is based on sophisticated analyses, the writing is clear and concise. The book is short--only 175 pages.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/31 at 05:53 PM
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