Old-Fashioned Letter Writing Meets Digital Age

In so many ways, the Internet has shoved aside old-fashioned letters, the kind written on stationery or letterhead. But lettersofnote.com serves as a bridge between the new technology and the old. Shaun Usher edits the site that's filled with correspondence written or received by people whose names you know. Michele Norris talks to Shaun Usher about gems from Marilyn Monroe, Roald Dahl and Johnny Cash.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host: And I'm Michele Norris.

In so many ways, the Internet has shoved aside old-fashioned letters, the kind written on stationery or letterhead. Email, texting, Twitter, Skype and social media have also overshadowed faxes, postcards and telegrams. But there's a website that serves as a bridge between the new technology and the old. It's called LettersOfNote.com.

On it, you can see and read correspondence written or received by people whose names you know: Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, Charles Darwin, John F. Kennedy, and the list goes on and on.

Shaun Usher came up with the idea for LettersOfNote.com, and he joins me now from Manchester, England.

Welcome to the program.

SHAUN USHER: Thanks for having me on.

NORRIS: Where do all these letters come from? I look at the site almost every day, and I'm always amazed at the stuff that seems to come in over your transom.

USHER: The majority come in from - they're already on the Internet. I mean, there's so many archives on the Internet, but they're not very accessible to the layperson. So it's just a matter of navigating these educational websites to find the gold, as it were.

>NORRIS: Let's mine through some of this gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Let's tick through some of the letters. I want to begin with a letter that's just so sweet. It's written by JFK, and he's asking his father for a raise.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

USHER: That's one of my favorites, actually. That was in 1927; I think he was 10 years old. You can see the effort he's put into writing it - like literally, you can see the shaky handwriting. If I could read the whole thing, if you'd like?

NORRIS: Oh, let's hear it.

USHER: (Reading) Dedicated to My Mr. J.P. Kennedy. My recent allowance is 40 cents. This I used for airplanes and other playthings of childhood. But now I'm a Scout, and I put away my childish things. Before, I would spend 20 cents of my 40 cents allowance, and in five minutes I would have empty pockets and nothing to gain, and 20 cents to lose.

When I, a Scout, I have to buy canteens, haversacks, blankets, searchligs(ph), poncho things that will last for years - and I could always use it while I can't use a chocolate marshmallow sundae with vanilla ice cream. And so, I put in my plea for a raise of 30 cents for me to buy Scout things and pay my own way more around Philly.

(Reading) John Fitzgerald Francis Kennedy.

NORRIS: And you know that he got that raise...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: ...in his allowance. How can you say no?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

USHER: He must have. You couldn't say no to that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Some of these letters take you deep inside the world of the people who wrote them, or the people who received them. I was struck by the correspondence that you have either to or written by Marilyn Monroe - and in particular, a letter that she received just after she had admitted herself for psychiatric treatment.

USHER: Yeah, there's quite a few Marilyn Monroe letters. But yeah, this particular one, Marlon Brando wrote to her, basically telling her to stay strong while she was in the institute. It's a tragic thing to read - especially now, knowing how she ended up. But that's one of the great things about this site. It's a whole range of emotions you go through, reading these letters.

NORRIS: There's also a wonderful letter about receiving champagne from a German, where you see a much more playful and coquettish Marilyn Monroe.

USHER: To be honest, I don't know much about it. It was written to a member of the German Consulate. It simply says: Dear Mr. Von Fuehlsdorff(ph) : Thank you for your champagne. It arrived. I drank it and I was gayer.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

USHER: Thanks again. My best, Marilyn Monroe. And that's it. So simple but it was just Marilyn Monroe.

NORRIS: I love the love letter from Johnny Cash to June Carter Cash.

USHER: It's beautiful.

NORRIS: Isn't that lovely?

USHER: Mmm.

NORRIS: It's a short letter that reads: You got a way with words, and a way with me as well - he writes like he's writing a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: You can almost hear him singing this.

(Reading) The fire and excitement may be gone now that we don't go out there and sing them anymore. But the ring of fire still burns around you and I, keeping our love hotter than a pepper sprout. Love, John.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

USHER: Amazing. Amazing.

NORRIS: Thanks for the Dream - what's that letter about?

USHER: Thanks for the Dream is a letter from Roald Dahl. A little girl - she'd been reading "The BFG"; it was her favorite book. And in "The BFG," they bottle up dreams. So she decided to make her own out of glitter and the little bottle and some oil. And her dad helped her to make this little bottle. And she sent it to Roald Dahl and said, here's one of my dreams for you - really lovely.

So he wrote back and he said, thanks very much for your dream. I'll go into town later tonight and blow it into the rooms of some children.

NORRIS: Yeah.

(Reading) Tonight, I shall go down to the village and blow it through the bedroom window of some sleeping child, and see if it works.

USHER: It's lovely, a perfect reply.

NORRIS: Do you do this in part to help keep the art of letter writing alive, to help people understand that it really is an art to actually write something down, as opposed to just pounding out a message via email?

USHER: Yes. But to be honest, I would be quite a hypocrite if I said that too much, because personally I've not written letters for quite a few years. The last letter I wrote was a complaint letter - not the nicest. I just haven't got the time.

But there is a glimmer of hope. I think there will always be people that will write letters. Some people will just never come around to using technology, like the Internet. But if there is a part of it that touches people in that kind of way and reminds them that letter writing is, indeed, an art and should be carried on, then that's got to be a good thing.

NORRIS: I've been talking to Shaun Usher. He's the editor of Letters of Note. That's an online archive of correspondence. He's currently compiling a book about the project.

Shaun, it's been great to talk to you. Thanks so much.

USHER: Thank you very much.

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