Death of the Love Letter

As a teacher-in-training, and a product of the public school system myself, I know that one of the questions that teachers must be most prepared to answer is this: “How is this relevant to me?”

The question takes several forms, including the classic, “When am I going to use this in real life?”, and my personal favorite, “Is this going to be on the test?” These are reasonable questions, and like the true teacher that I am, I have spent significant time crafting my answers. In math, problem solving skills and productive struggle train your brain, just like sit ups train your core. In science, organized inquiry is the key to answering both the greatest and the most minuscule questions of the universe.

History, though, has always eluded me.  Either by circumstance or by nature, history as a subject has always been at or near the bottom of my list. And yet thanks to the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, the first thing I do when I get home from work these days is pick up an 800+ page biography on treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton.

I realize that this is not a revolutionary (ha ha) thing, being inspired to learn about history because of the Broadway phenomenon that is Hamilton. Countless people have beat me to reflecting on its brilliance as both an educational tool and an unparalleled cultural experience. Having made it through about 20% of the Hamilton biography and listened to the cast album upwards of 50 times, I have learned infinitely more about the first three decades of our nation’s history in the past three weeks than I expected to for the rest of my life when I left my final US History class in the 11th grade.

The most interesting part of my foray into history, however, has not been the lyrics I’ve memorized about the pros and cons of establishing a national bank, nor has it been the amount of the amount of kinship I feel with Hamilton when he refuses to throw away his shot.

Rather, I have been utterly baffled by the way that everyone, not just Hamilton, wrote like they were running out of time. In Miranda’s song, of course, it’s referring to the fact that Hamilton literally wrote 51 essays in 6 months, but as I read deeper into Hamilton’s biography, I am continually stunned by what friends, family, and lovers are willing to lay out on the line for each other in their letters.

At one point, Hamilton wrote a letter to his friend John Laurens that said, “I have written you five or six letters since you left Philadelphia and I should have written you more had you made proper return. But, like a jealous lover, when I thought you slighted my caresses, my affection was alarmed and my vanity piqued.” Basically, this is the late 1700s equivalent of “Why didn’t you text me back?”

But here’s the thing: if someone didn’t text me back after I sent them five or six texts, I would certainly not write, “Hey, I like you a lot and I wish you would text me back, because your lack of response makes it seem like you don’t care about me. That makes me feel really sad and insecure.” I will be the first to admit that the reason I have never sent that text is not a lack of truth, nor one of circumstance. It is something more akin to a lack of courage, or, more broadly, a lack of social acceptability.

Love letters have undergone a similar stigmatization. In Hamilton’s time, lovers wrote each other letters daily. Even Aaron Burr got a letter every damn day from Theodosia. And although Eliza unfortunately burned most of Alexander’s love letters in the process of writing herself out of the narrative (a shame, because love letters penned by arguably one of the best nonfiction writers in American history? Mmmmmmmmmm), we can allow ourselves to imagine that he poured his heart out to her in each. We get small glimpses of what these letters may have looked like when we read a letter to Eliza’s sister, Peggy, in which Alexander writes, “your sister has found out the secret of interesting me in everything that concerns her…She is most unmercifully handsome and so perverse that she has none of those pretty affectations which are the prerogatives of beauty.”

When I was in 4th grade in the early 2000s, however, things were different. When my friend and I were caught passing notes to each other in class, our punishment was for our teacher to ask us in front of the entire class, “Are you passing love letters?”, as if the sheer embarrassment of the notion were enough to deter us from engaging in this behavior in the future. The notes, by the way, were likely a riveting discussion about Green Day or Pokemon or some other romantic subject.

Maybe that wasn’t a perfect example, because anything regarding romance is inherently uncomfortable for an everyday 4th grader. But I also don’t think it’s too far a stretch to claim that if I were to write a love letter to a boy right now, it wouldn’t be as easily swallowed as it was in Hamilton’s time.

There are a couple of reasons why this might be the case. If we were to give our present selves the benefit of the doubt, we might say that perhaps the very form of writing letters with real pens and real paper is inherently more romantic, and thus drives us to express our truest emotions. I will admit that this has a sliver of validity – the few times I do write letters, I do feel more inclined to be a bit more sentimental than I am over text or email. But then again, maybe that’s just because it’s costing me almost 50 cents to send this note which is less efficient in both effort and time than a digital message. #technology

Or perhaps in an older age, especially in a time of war, people were more aware that this could very well be the last correspondence they would ever have with each other, and felt the need to live like they were dying. You know, like the Nickelback song. Or the Kris Allen song. Or the Ben Rector song. There are so many damn songs about this that you’d think that we’d get the message, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Maybe what we need to admit here is that we as a culture have become utterly terrified of letting each other know how we really feel. It reminds me of this article, Little House and the Art of Hiding Your Feelings, which basically says that Little House on the Prairie encourages kids to avoid expressing their emotions at all costs. I’ve been avoiding that entire book series ever since my mom tried to get me to read them in my elementary school days, so I don’t have much of a response to that claim, but of greater interest to me is a small section in the middle of the article, which remarks on the uncanny ability of contestants on The Bachelorette to turn on The Feelings whenever they are called upon to “be vulnerable” by a potential romantic partner.

I’m on my second season in Bachelor Nation, and I’ve gotta say that truer words have never been spoken. Every possible insecurity or neglect of feelings is confronted, and contestants who are unwilling to “open up” are given the boot. Words of affirmation are doled out like free Frisbees at promotional booths during a street fair. That’s not what real relationships are like, but maybe they’d be a little healthier if it were.

Now, let it be known that I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, believe that relationships on the Bachelorette are healthy. They are laughable, to the point where at least once an episode, I want to shake a few of them by the shoulders and send them to an isolated island to reflect on their life choices. The drama is staged, the romance is fleeting, and the fact that people are competing with each other for a relationship is deeply dysfunctional.

But maybe they’re on to something with this whole “if something bothers you, bring it up” and “if you like someone, tell them, because if you don’t someone else will LITERALLY swoop in within the next minute or two and you’ll be going home without a rose.” In a cutthroat world like that of the Bachelorette, there’s no time to hold your feelings in. The stakes are high, because if you lose her, you’re gone.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the show, the Bachelorette herself never has to open up or prove herself to anyone, because if she loses one of them, well, there are three more who literally have the exact same hair pouf and dreamy blue eyes. (No kidding they all look the same to me this season who did this casting.) It’s something similar to the way that online dating, especially apps like Tinder, takes away all of the stakes. If one person doesn’t like my pick up line, someone else will. Why put effort into a love letter if you have a solid 25% success rate with “Hey what’s up?” Statistically, someone’s willing to bite. Not only has it become enough to stand with one foot out the door, it has become strange and uncomfortable and scary to step all the way in. And as with any good uncomfortable social situation, the more we neglect to approach it, the more awkward it gets.

All this to say, it’s not necessarily easy or fun to talk about how we feel, especially when your ego is on the line. I of all people I hate confrontation, whether positive or negative, and require far too much build-up time to admit how I really feel. But Hamilton did it because he had to. We don’t have to, but maybe we should anyway.

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One thought on “Death of the Love Letter

  1. Hi I’m so glad I get to celebrate a Lin-Manuel Miranda-less Hamilton by commenting on this. I love that you chose to examine the lost art of emotional confrontation, because without communication, we are indeed playing the statistical game that someone out there will “just get it.” But being young (or at least not being super old yet) comes with a sense of infinity, meaning it’s okay to procrastinate; and you could argue that this lack of communication simply makes it all the more special when it does happen, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

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