The Art of Writing Letters: Prominent Figures
Letter writing isn’t just historically important in understanding the psychological and physical toll war takes on a soldier, as I wrote about in my previous blog “The Art of Writing Letters: Wartime Correspondence.” Some household names’ art and contributions to society are common knowledge. The reason we can write biographies and essays and blogs about these individuals, however, is not solely because of their contributions. We can write about these people because of the letters they exchanged between friends, family, and loved ones, in which they share their emotional journeys and growth as people. We as individuals gain a different perspective and deeper insight into the lives and thoughts of prominent figures through their letter correspondence. Since three makes the holy trinity, I’m going to be focusing on three prominent figures that we know about through letter writing: Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Vincent Van Gogh.
Emily Dickinson is recognized today as one of the great American poets. Born on December 10th, 1830, in Amherst Massachusetts, Dickinson spent most of her life living in Homestead, the Dickinson family home. Despite her sedentary lifestyle, Dickinson’s writing was anything but stagnant. Her poems are infamous for breaking the traditional styles of poetry. Her use of dashes, enjambment, and slant rhymes encouraged readers to think about poetry in a different way, pushing beyond the boundaries of poetic tradition, and to find the pauses in her poem from “sense,”¹ rather than punctuation. The themes and subject matter of her poetry included a vast range, as she wrote about psychological turmoil and happiness, life and death, nature and spirituality, and in response to the events of the 19th century, such as the Civil War and everyday life.
The reason we even know about these poems is because of the letters she sent to her loved ones, in which many of these poems were enclosed. Dickinson wrote over 500 letters to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, her sister-in-law. The two often discussed Dickinson’s poetry, and Susan provided feedback and criticism for the poet.
It’s important to note that Dickinson was published during her lifetime and sent some of her poems out for publication, but only a handful were actually published while she was alive. Her published poems at the time did not receive the amount of attention her letters and poetry received after death. Many publishers saw her stylistic choice to break from tradition as mistakes in her poetry, often dismissive of her writing. Dickinson had sent correspondence via writing letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, editor for the Atlantic Monthly, in which she asks him: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”² Ironically, Higginson never published her work while she was alive, despite their correspondence that bloomed into friendship over time, but worked with Dickinson's’ family after she died to publish her poetry.
Her brother’s mistress, surprisingly enough, Mabel Todd — who Dickinson never actually met face-to-face but developed a friendship with through writing letters — transcribed many of Dickinson’s poems. An unlikely candidate to do so, Todd found Dickinson’s writing to be intelligent and of talent, so she initiated the publication of Dickinson’s work. Todd went on to publish three volumes of her poetry that sold very well after her death, and Susan Dickinson and her daughter published some poems, as well. According to the Norton Anthology of American Literature:
Taken together, the editorial labors of Todd, Higginson, Susan Dickinson, and Bianchi [her niece] set in motion the critical and textual work that would help establish Dickinson as one of the great American poets. They also made her poetry available to the American modernists, poets such as Hart Crane and Marianne Moore; Dickinson and Whitman are the nineteenth-century poets who exerted the greatest influence on American poetry to come (1250).
While we can assume that Dickinson might have shared her poetry with friends and loved ones in person, she was known to be a reserved woman who spent most of her time in Homestead. Her friends and family knew about her poems from what she wrote to them in letters, either talking about poetry or through the inclusion of poems within her letters. The people who knew her knew that she had a gift and wanted to share that genius with the rest of the world. Thus, they published many of her poems following her death in 1886. The reason we can write about Emily Dickinson and have even a glimpse of understanding about her life and why she wrote what she did, is because of the surviving letters she wrote to friends and family. Today, we get to know Emily Dickinson because of those letters. We get to read about her emotional journeys and see how she develops as a human being (and as a poet!). Many of the letters Dickinson received from loved ones were destroyed. According to the Emily Dickinson Museum:
Very few letters to the poet remain. Dickinson had asked that her sister Lavinia, upon the poet’s death, destroy the letters she had received during her lifetime. It was while fulfilling this request that Lavinia discovered Emily’s poem manuscripts. Even Dickinson’s earliest editors recognized the significance of Dickinson’s correspondence to understanding the poet behind the verse. All those enlisted for this first stage of introducing a remarkable poet — Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson — quickly identified the letters she had written to family and friends as too closely identified with the poems to be disregarded (Emily Dickinson Museum).
Despite many letters to her not remaining due to the customs of the time, over a thousand of the poems she sent to family, friends, and potential lovers remain. Dickinson’s letters not only show us the importance of letter writing, but also how poetry is an intimate form of communication, one that — for Dickinson — co-existed with letter writing, as the two could not often be separated. In our present-day, poetry is often viewed as something done publicly, especially with the rise of “Insta-poets” and YouTube compilations of spoken word poetry. Dickinson’s use of sharing her poetry via letter writing suggests that poetry is also an art done among friends and loved ones, and that sharing poetry that way makes it just as real as the way we share poetry today.
Martin Luther King Jr. and the “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
Writing letters has changed the course of history in the past, as well. While Emily Dickinson and Vincent van Gogh are better known because of the publication of letters they received and sent to people, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” remains an important part of American history.
Martin Luther King Jr. was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1929. Raised in part by a civil rights activist, MLK Jr. was heavily influenced by Martin Luther King Sr. who guided his son’s perspective on the subjects of activism and equality. MLK Jr. was a minister during his adult life, while being a civil rights activist. He fought for equality for all Americans, and in the ’60s began leading nonviolent demonstrations, sit-ins, marches, and wrote about civil rights with the goal to bring positive change to America and to the lives of black Americans.
In April of 1963, as MLK Jr. sat in jail for his role in the nonviolent demonstrations against racism and racial discrimination in Alabama, he wrote a letter to 8 religious leaders of the South who condemned his efforts for change. As King notes in the letter that was later published on a larger scale in August of ‘63, they had labeled the nonviolent protests as “unwise and untimely.” King continues in this letter to outline and specify why efforts to end injustice are never “unwise and untimely,” but rather wise, timely, and desperately needed.
King continues the letter by explaining his reason for writing it in the first place — to address those religious men who he believes to be “of genuine good will” with “patient and reasonable terms” regarding the nonviolent demonstrations in the South. He outlines for these religious men how waiting for justice and morality to be delivered to black Americans has never worked. Waiting never brought change or improved the lives of black Americans.
Time is an important topic that King addresses in this letter in relation to the idea of waiting. Many white moderates who may have supported the goals of black Americans in striving towards justice and equality did not think there was ever a right time to make those changes. King argues that to wait for elected officials to make these changes will result in no change at all, as they are concerned with preserving the “status quo,” which is important to politicians who want to appeal to the white masses so they can be voted into office. These individuals are not concerned with progressing as a society on the issues of equality or perspectives on race.
He addresses that while Southern religious leaders and many white Southerners in general find the nonviolent demonstrations to be “unfortunate,” (meaning inconvenient to white people) these individuals need to look at the bigger picture to see the injustices that made those demonstrations necessary, citing racist signs that merchants had been putting up, as well as the oppression of black people throughout American history that has endured past and in spite of the Supreme Court’s decision in 1954 to outlaw segregation. The lack of social and judicial progression for black Americans has created the need for nonviolent direct action, to create “tension” in the community that is “necessary for growth” and that forces America to “confront the issue” and work towards a negotiation (King).
The reason this particular letter is so important is that King touches on the importance of nonviolent demonstrations in making social and political progress and the importance of acknowledging the injustices black people have faced for hundreds of years in America, as aforementioned. But this letter also marks the evolution of King’s political and philosophical thought. In the early 1950s, King participated in many bus boycotts to make a statement against segregated seating. However, in the 1960s, King moved more towards the political mobilization of black Americans and used his writing to move the country towards change, including his famous “I Have A Dream” speech he delivered in Washington, just months after writing this letter. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom pushed for economic equality and civil rights, and many marches he did after that were with the intent of registering black Americans to vote and to have a voice in society. His reflection on the importance of breaking unjust laws so that fair and moral ones can be put in place marks the emergence of his voice as a writer and civil rights activist.
This letter also demands that readers understand that King was a human being at the end of the day, not the untouchable and almost mythological being we learned about in history class. In the same way Emily Dickinson’s letters show her humanity, this letter MLK Jr. wrote shows his humanity and thoughtfulness in the respectful ways in which he addresses these Southern religious leaders, but never backs down from his fight for racial equality. We’re often taught about MLK Jr. through his “I Have A Dream” speech or through moving quotes and phrases he had said as if he was some kind of quote generator, or through the portrayal of the American education system’s choice to make MLK Jr. the protagonist to Malcolm X’s antagonist (despite MLK Jr. not viewing him and Malcolm X that way during his life, and the history books inability to teach Malcolm X’s story in a fair way instead of villainizing him). All this is to say that while we’re taught a bit about MLK Jr. and his contribution to society, we’re not often taught to see him as a human being. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail” allows us to see the growth in his thought process regarding civil rights activism from the ’50s to ’60s, how he felt about the ways in which the white South handled racism, and how patient and kind he was in regards to addressing these issues, despite being thrown in jail for fighting for basic human rights.
Never before have I written a letter this long — or should I say a book? I’m afraid that it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else is there to do when you are alone for days in the dull monotony of a narrow jail cell other than write long letters, think strange thoughts, and pray long prayers? If I have said anything in this letter that is an understatement of the truth and is indicative of an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything in this letter that is an overstatement of the truth and is indicative of my having a patience that makes me patient with anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me (King).
Writing a letter can change history.
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh is one of the most famous painters of all time. While his use of color, brush technique, and paintings are known all over the world, the person behind the painting was a bit more elusive to the public than his brush strokes. Without the abundance of letters he sent to family and friends — mostly to his brother Theodorus van Gogh — we would not know the mental health and financial issues he struggled with, or what his views on art and life were that help us better understand him today.
I had read a biography called Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith many years ago, and all I remember from reading his biography and specifically the letters between himself and his brother Theo, is the impression of what a sensitive soul he was, and how heartbreaking the relationship with other family members were for him. I suggest for anyone who is interested in learning more about this almost mythic painter, you check out the biography on him that Naifeh and Smith wrote.
Brain Pickings highlights a passage from a letter Vincent sent to his brother Theo, reflecting on the importance of companionship in relation to mental health, purpose, and self-respect:
It’s better that we feel something for each other rather than behave like corpses toward one another, the more so because as long as one has no real right to be called a corpse by being legally dead, it smacks of hypocrisy or at least childishness to pose as such… The hours we spent together in this way have at least assured us that we’re both still in the land of the living. When I saw you again and took a walk with you, I had the same feeling I used to have more than I do now, as though life were something good and precious that one should cherish, and I felt more cheerful and alive than I had been for a long time, cause in spite of myself life has gradually become or has seemed much less precious to me, much more unimportant and indifferent. When one lives with others and is bound by a feeling of affection one is aware that one has a reason for being, that one might not be entirely worthless and superfluous but perhaps good for one thing or another, considering that we need one another and are making the same journey as traveling companions. Proper self-respect, however, is also very dependent on relations with others (Gogh).
Reading Vincent van Gogh’s perspective on isolation during our present-day pandemic rings so true and is perhaps a little too relatable. This letter humanizes this man to those who idealize or mythize his existence as a legendary painter and bring him closer down to earth in terms of how we can relate and empathize with him. We can understand how isolated he felt as the black sheep of the family who didn’t graduate high school, and failed as a preacher for being too good at his commitment to solidarity (which seems backwards to me because how can one empathize too much with the poor?).
We know that Vincent van Gogh suffered from intense bouts of depression, anxiety, and possibly bipolar disorder because of the letters he sent to his brother Theo, as well. Both in the biography and on the Van Gogh Museum website, letters Vincent sent to Theo include feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, and emotional turmoil. He wrote to Theo:
I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless (Gogh).
In most of Vincent’s letters, he writes about emotional turmoil mixed with a sense of life purpose that keeps him going — that is, until he allegedly committed suicide in the summer of 1890. As time progressed his sense of life purpose became muddled, and his mental breakdowns increased. During one of his breakdowns in December of 1888, van Gogh cut off his ear, wrapped it in paper and brought it to a brothel to hand over to a prostitute. He was later admitted to an asylum in Arles, as documented by the letters between him and Theo, and Theo and confidants in relation to his brother.
You might still be wondering why letter writing is so important to his story and why I’m telling you all of this. There are 2 reasons: a) without the letters Vincent sent primarily to his brother, we would not know any of this information about the famous painter, and b) writing letters provided the lonely painter with companionship, helping his psychological state.
Except for perhaps medical records from the asylum Vincent stayed at (which would only tell you he suffered from a mental illness, not about him as an individual outside of that), we would know next to nothing about one of the most influential artists in history. We wouldn’t be able to even try to understand why he painted what he painted, how he became that artist in the first place, or how much courage it took him to lead a life that veered away from the Church and tradition and steered towards individual expression and creativity, whilst being the oldest of his parents’ children and having more pressure to be what his parents wanted.
Also, it’s important to think about what letters provided for Vincent psychologically. He was a very isolated individual. His family didn’t understand him or approve of his life choices. He was financially unstable. He had very little possessions and not many people that he could express himself to. One may deduce why painting was such an important art form for him, as it allowed him to express himself.
I’m not a psychologist or historian, nor can I claim that I understood the thoughts and actions of Vincent van Gogh. But I personally think that letters kept Vincent alive. I also think that had he not had that outlet, despite having art as an outlet, perhaps he would not have lived as long as he did. Writing letters provided him with a form of companionship and intimacy he struggled his whole life to find. In the first quote I provided from Brain Pickings, Vincent reflects on how important companionship is to him, and how devastating isolation can be to an individual. He talks about how he is reminded that he is alive when he and his brother share moments of affection together. He’s reminded of how much there is to cherish in life.
I think letters also allow us to understand his artwork better. He was a post-Impressionist painter whose work showed emotions in vivid colors and carefully placed brush strokes. If we look at Starry Night, arguably Vincent van Gogh’s most famous painting, we can look at the dark swirling blues he uses to portray the night sky, as well as his choice of the cypress tree in the corner which typically signifies mourning, as a reflection of his tumultuous mental state. That may just be my interpretation of it, but others have made the same conclusions. One of my favorite moments from Hannah Gadsby stand up special “Nanette” is when she gives a funny but informational explanation of why Vincent van Gogh painted certain people, flowers, and colors as he did, which related to his mental illness.
Exclusive: Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette” — YouTube
Also, for those that watched the clip: According to the Vincent van Gogh Museum, the Sunflowers painting represented gratitude, a thematic feeling Vincent has throughout his life in relation to his brother Theo and what art provided him with, which heavily related to his psychological state and the way he viewed the world.
Letter Archives and Further Reflection
All this information leads me to the conclusion that not only are surviving letters from prominent figures important towards our understanding of them (and perhaps even a deeper understanding of their work), but letter archives are important, too. The archives of Vincent Van Gogh and Emily Dickinson allow us to trace their evolution as people throughout the years they sent letters and to see how they internalized and reacted to personal and worldly events that may have influenced their artistry. These archives provide us with a glimpse into the private world and thoughts of these figures.
These archives can also be used for scholarly research in the historical, literature, and psychological pursuits. A notable project that launched recently is called “The Complete Letters of Willa Cather” in which several organizations have come together to compile and provide a digital repository for readers and scholars to view her letters. Just the suggestion that a letter archive can be created for scholarly research shows how important letter writing is in understanding someone, how they think, how they communicate with others, and how they respond to the world. Oftentimes, it’s reflected in the contributions they make to our culture and society.
Emily Dickinson, Martin Luther King Jr., and Vincent Van Gogh wrote letters during moments of solitude. For Dickinson, she was often alone and isolated in Homestead because she never married or had kids, but still established deep connections with people through her letter writing and poetry. I know many people who have turned to poetry as a form of solace during this isolating year, much like Dickinson. For King, he was isolated in a jail cell and put there for fighting for human rights and wrote a letter in the hopes of bridging the gap between the ignorance of the South towards understanding the importance of nonviolent demonstrations. He was talking about human rights, as well as fighting for them, which has become so important to today’s Black Lives Matter Movement. Many individuals have written letters to government officials and signed petitions as a form of activism in response to the horrific events that have occurred.
For me, Vincent van Gogh’s use of writing letters strikes as the most obvious relation to what writing letters provide people today. In this pandemic, we’ve all been isolated from our friends and family. We can text or Zoom or whatever online, which is important in remaining connected. But those types of communication often lead to burnout and exhaustion from staring at screens all day in a world that has also had to adapt many work and school settings to online. Writing letters allows friends and family to remain connected, without feeling burnout — allowing for the companionship that Vincent felt so heavily with his brother. Writing letters isn’t just important in understanding these three prominent figures, but also in continuing to fight for activism during a pandemic and remaining connected to loved ones during isolating times.
 “Emily Dickinson, 1830–1886.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, Shorter 9th ed., W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, pp. 1246–1250.
 Dickinson, Emily. “Letters to Thomas Higginson.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Robert S. Levine, Shorter 9th ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2017, p. 1273.