I always feel a little strange reading collections of correspondences by famous authors, artists, or other persons of interest. It feels a bit like snooping, like peering in on private words and lives that were not meant for me. I often find myself wondering what the author of the letters would have thought of having words intended for one specific person being read by the world at large. Certainly if we thought that one day anyone in the world might have full access to our privately written letters we might be more careful, less revealing in what we put down on paper. And this is precisely what makes reading someone’s correspondences so fascinating–they are a largely uncensored window into the life, inner thoughts, and mind of another human being. They are a peek behind the masks that all those in the public eye (and all the rest of us to an extent as well) must wear in daily life. Reading someone’s letters can give remarkable new insight into a person’s character and can reveal a previously hidden sense of humor, mischievous streak, a crankiness, loneliness, or sentimentality. These brief missives put down in rare unwatched, private moments when a famous person was allowed to be just a person can reveal whole new depths to those we thought we knew so well. Whether or not it is ethical to read correspondences of this kind or if it is more akin to rummaging through someone’s trash is a far thornier question than can be answered in a humble blog post such as this.
But if you are able to swallow any such possible qualms you may have, then I highly recommend that you visit the website Letters of Note. In the creator’s own words, “Letters of Note is a blog-based archive of fascinating correspondence, complete with scans and transcripts of the original missives.” The letters, memos, and random scraps of correspondence collected at the site are absolutely amazing. There is something wonderfully tactile about seeing the actual hand-written (or typed) letters as they were lovingly (or not so much) composed, sent, opened and read. Spend some time (or lots and lots and lots of time–it’s a highly-addictive time waster) playing around on the site and you’re sure to find something to make you smile. Some personal favorites are Marlon Brando’s advice to Michael Jackson, a fan letter to Andy Warhol from Campbell’s Soup, and a note sent home to his family in 1944 from POW Kurt Vonnegut in which the unique voice he would later find as a novelist can be seen peeking out. Letters of Note is a treasure trove of rare, beautiful, interesting and illuminating correspondences. So, the next time you’re itching to waste some Internet time, forget about Facebook and YouTube for awhile and head on over to the site. And for more information on Shaun Usher, the man behind the project read this fascinating interview.