In Praise of the humble Letter


Letter writing has gone out of fashion. It’s a rare thing to receive physical notes anymore. One of my least favorite tasks every morning is responding to the emails I get from students and others. If only we could add drawings and doodles to our emails. It would add a bit of whimsy and flair perhaps.

That’s one of the main takeaways I have from Liza Kirwin’s terrific collection More than Words: Illustrated Letters from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. Kirwin serves as the curator of manuscripts at the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. The text offers these illustrated letters along with a short summary. The letters are grouped thematically with headings like “Bon Voyage”, Graphic Instructions, and “Thank-you”.


Here’s one of my favorites:

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to Hedda Sterne, 1943:

P.S. A nuisance delayed this letter that did not leave but — to be very honest — I am so proud of my masterpiece that I send it to you anyway.


If only we could illustrate our emails. Mine would likely not be anywhere near a masterpiece of course. Spring break for the academic is usually a busy time filled with grading or writing. But there is also usually a short window to read something good. And reading something good with nice illustrations is a real treat.

And I also like this letter from Thomas Eakins to his sister Fanny, in trying to allay her frustrations as she’s hit a rough patch in learning the piano:

As you approach perfection in your playing your progress must necessarily be very slow.Image for  2

As the diagram shows, Eakins used a bit of math to make is point, showing the slow but never perfect of the curved line at the right. One can’t help but think about Eakins and his photo-realistic works when reading his advice…

Thomas Eakins – Between Rounds 1898–99



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