Arts Post
Posted at 11:57 AM ET, 06/08/2012

The Art of the Letter at the Smithsonian

So when was the last time you actually sat down and wrote a letter? You know, the thing with a pen, paper, envelope and a stamp?

Thought so.


A handwritten copy of the original Sullivan Ballou letter to his wife. The copied letter is believed to be transcribed by a relative of Sullivan Ballou. (Courtesy Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum)

Alice Powers still writes letters, and more importantly, the professor at the Corcoran College of Art+Design thinks about them even more, so she’ll present her take on the once (and future?) art form Saturday, as part of the Smithsonian Associates lecture series.

For centuries, people communicated with distant friends, family, lovers, vampires, bill collectors, what have you, through hand-written epistles. All evidence says the art of the handwritten letter is fast fading, lost in the electronic shorthand of e-mails, tweets and Facebook updates.

“I was teaching a class at American University and asked my freshman students how many had received a personal letter in their lives,” Powers says, “and about half of them raised their hands.”

Her two-and-a-half hour presentation will be filled with famous and infamous letters of American history. There’s Sullivan Ballou’s majestic letter to his wife in the Civil War, famously featured in Ken Burns’s television series.


Sullivan Ballou portrait, engraved by J.A. O'Neill. Ballou was a 32-year-old major in the 2nd Rhode Island infantry regiment when he was mortally wounded at the Battle of Bull Run on July 21, 1861. He died a week later. (J.A. O'Neill - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
When Ronald Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he sat down and handwrote a note to “My fellow Americans” in 1994.

“I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life,” he wrote.

In 1950, another president, Harry S Truman, was displeased with a Washington Post review of his daughter’s concert performance. He wrote critic Paul Hume, “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

Actors will read letters from such luminaries as Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and Abigail Adams. Powers will handle the personal material, such as one postcard from her daughter at a remote summer camp in California: “I’m fine and have not been eaten by a bear yet.”

A freelance writer who’s edited several literary anthologies, she’s actually bullish on the art form.

“The letter will be treasured as evidence of the hand at work,” she says. “We crave things that look or are handmade, we treasure them. I think some types of letters — the advice letter, for example — will survive in that tradition.”

The Art of the Letter (Much More Than a Tweet),” Saturday, June 9 - 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. S. Dillon Ripley Center, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW, Washington DC. $45, general admission.

By  |  11:57 AM ET, 06/08/2012

 
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