Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Value Of A Letter? Consider Martin Luther King & His Letter From Birmingham Jail

   Alexandra Stoddard, in her book Gift Of A Letter, quotes Sir Walter Raleigh when she writes , The appeal of a study of the great letter writers, is that it introduces us not to literary works but rather to individuals, who satisfy our innate curiosity about other people's lives and emotions.

    Stoddard also suggests,

   Writing has permanence  and requires discipline, which makes it stimulating to our minds and senses. Whenever we extend an effort, we become aware or the mysterious workings of our brains. Writing is active. We are the creator.

    As writers, I think   we sometimes forget the value of letter writing, and how letters contribute to the subject we choose to write about,  no matter the genre: Biography, Romance, Mystery, Memoir.  Letters can help develop character, and motivate story and plot. I can't say for sure, but I bet hundreds of novels have been written because of the influence of some old letter read, some  even  lead to social change .
   Consider Martin Luther King's letter in 1963 from Birmingham Jail. The letter written in response to public concern of eight white religious leaders of the South, became a corner stone of the civil-rights movement.

     King wrote:

      I am in Birmingham because of injustice here....I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever effects one directly affects all indirectly.

      While not all of us who write letters may instill the passion and impact on society King did, our letters can serve as  tenders of memory and past events, or illicit hope for the future.  And some may simply relay a kind word and  happy greetings to a friend.

     The following  was originally posted  January 12, 2014 on my blog 2 lane highway (

                                     Is Letter Writing A Lost Art?

  A sweet, lovely gift arrived in my mailbox Saturday, a letter  addressed to me from my dear friend, Phyllis.  Letter writing is considered somewhat of a lost art these days, so it was with great delight I opened the lengthy missive to  read the salutation that began,  Dear Kath

     I curled up in my favorite  comfy chair and sat leisurely in  front of the warmth of the fire to read, to digest the newsy details of a family Christmas, a grandchild's  soccer game,  a younger brother living in Oklahoma , and  movies. It had the easy, natural telling  so familiar between trusted friends.

     Phyl also expressed her thoughts  about an article she recently read in the Los Angeles Times titled A love letter to the letter where  featured columnist, Simon Garfield laments  the loss of letter writing , and what society misses  by only texting, tweeting  and email.  I , too, lament the loss of letter writing and have blogged on this subject before.  Garfield rightly points to Keats and Dickinson suggesting what we know about their lives , their creative talent  and style wouldn't be known without the  personal letters they wrote.

    The same holds true not only for people of fame - authors, poets, politicians, but those within our own life circle.

     I thought about the box of letters I have from family and friends dating back to the late 1950's , and  how they describe place and time, activities and adventures,  mood and emotion . Sometimes they express encouragement, other times great sadness.  But what they always do is  leave a history , if even a glimpse,  of who we were, and how we lived.
    To write a letter takes some effort, it is sharing, a giving of oneself. There was a time, for  30 years or more  I received a letter from my Grandmother Vera Cooney every week. She was always interested  in how we were doing - mother,  my brother, and me. Then  she'd  write about her  activities - catering a big wedding and decorating cakes,  China painting, church,  an Altrusa club meeting, and  news about aunts, uncles and cousins, and about the weather in Council Bluffs.   I always looked forward to a letter from Grandma, and am happy I kept so many of them. There are other letters in my box - from Grandma Blanche, Aunt Nor, Dad, Uncle Lloyd,  Grandma Viv, and many cousins , including  Shauna and Nicole, and  long time friends who wrote about their summer vacation  at the beach, or some feeling of great angst or  delirious  joy.  Each letter important, and held very dear. Each one a small  part of the larger story of family and friends.
    I once considered myself  a good letter writer, too,  but must admit in recent years have fallen victim to the  quick and easy text and internet as so many others have,  where texts never linger long, and email deleted. In his L.A. Times article, I appreciate what Garfield writes:

    And if we replace simple letters with their instant always-on alternatives, we relinquish so much epistolary architecture too. The elegant opening address and sign off, the politeness of tone and the correct grammar and spelling. And before this there is the nice flowing pen and the stationery, and after it the scuttle for the stamp and the rush to the last post.

    Receiving Phyl's letter helps renew my hope for letter writing.  I'm grateful to my friend for her letter, and the joy it brought me,   and because of my friend's letter, I'm  prompted  to  take pen and paper in hand   and  write a letter, too.

To read Simon Garfield's complete article visit,0,2646801....

Martin Luther King/Letter From Birmingham Jail


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post!