In the last two months, I’ve started writing letters to my friends and family scattered around the country. I write most frequently to my friend who goes to art school in Baltimore; the letters she sends me are written on pink paper with Miffy stickers and Toni Morrison stamps.
We write accounts of our days, ruminations on Maryland vs. California, things we’ve read or seen that the other might like. I sent her an excerpt from Sylvia Plath’s poem “The Moon and the Yew Tree;” she sent me a passage from James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room.” I fight the urge to text her asking if she got my letter — that ruins the whole drawn-out fun of letter-writing.
Letter writing is at this point the most inefficient method of communication save pigeons and the most fragmented: you take time to write something and take time to send it, wait for a response and hope you remember what it was you wrote about in the first place. The high-above epistolary world, through which I imagine my letters float on clouds to their recipient, bridges the miles between time zones.
Most letters are love letters — “I care about you enough to spend all this time ink reaching you,” they say — and most love letters are confessional. Love letters reveal something. We even use the phrase “love letter” to mean a profession of something: “A love letter to Qwalala” or “A love letter to Pomona’s campus;” a book can be a love letter to A Tribe Called Quest and an album can be a love letter to optimism. What you are reading right now is a love letter to love letters.
Given their penchant for the dramatic confession, it’s not surprising that letters occupy more space in rom-com world than in the real world. In rom-coms, love letters are often last-act revelations.
Take the love letters of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” and “Pride and Prejudice.” In the former, Captain Wentorth confesses his love to Anne Elliott in a letter: “I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach,” he says. This is the clever beauty of a love letter — it’s within reach. It says what we cannot.
“Most rom-coms are two hours of people just trying half in vain to tell each other what they mean, just trying to get the words out. Here is where the love letter, and any of those other grand gestures, comes in handy: it’s a way to say something that the writer alone isn’t able to.”
In “Pride and Prejudice,” which is chock full of letters transcribed or paraphrased, Mr. Darcy uses a letter to defend himself to Elizabeth Bennett after his first proposal. Through this letter he defends himself to us, too and we are forced to re-contextualize the first half of the story. Here, the letter is a device for vulnerability; a way to better reveal oneself. “Please know me,” Darcy’s letter says to Elizabeth and to us.
In Nora Ephron’s 1998 rom-com classic “You’ve Got Mail,” Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan fall in love anonymously over email even though they are real-life enemies. Although emailing isn’t the same as letter writing, it’s a similar idea here, and the film uses email as a substitute for the letters of its source material, the 1940 film “The Shop Around The Corner.”
Now, at least to me, email is more a vessel for punchy ads, sale announcements and administrative jargon than for connection. But in the 1998 autumn of Nora Ephron’s making, email functions similarly to letters. The two protagonists spend time crafting their words, they wait in anticipation for a response, they delve hesitantly into sentimentality.
A call would of course be easier, but instead Hanks and Ryan’s characters make the choice to keep each other in the ether of email until the last few climactic minutes. It is through email that they fall in love because it is through email, under the guise of anonymity and pixels, that they’re able to speak with more freedom — the real challenge is in the effort to extend that freedom beyond the inbox.
Of course rom-com protagonists prefer the lengthy sentimentality of letters! Whenever there’s a choice between a frank conversation and a letter, a dance number, a love song or a public serenade, the rom-com will never choose the former. Most rom-coms are two hours of people just trying half in vain to tell each other what they mean, just trying to get the words out. Here is where the love letter, and any of those other grand gestures, comes in handy: It’s a way to say something that the writer alone isn’t able to.
Whether in “You’ve Got Mail,” Jane Austen’s novels or real life, we write letters in an effort to communicate most genuinely with each other — to bridge the gap made by distance, physical or otherwise.
Nadia Hsu PO ’27 is from Austin, Texas. She enjoys ‘Die Hard,’ going two-stepping, and sci fi love stories.