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Oct 3, 2011 10:26 AM by Paul Kavanaugh

Is the personal letter a thing of the past?

WASHINGTON (AP) -- If Mark Twain were alive today would he tweet, "OMG, reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated, LOL"?

When Twain did read his premature obituary, he sent a letter assuring friends the report was overblown.

But when was the last time you got a personal letter in the mail? If you live in a typical American household, it's been a while.

According to the Postal Service's annual survey, the average household gets one personal letter about every seven weeks. It was a letter about every two weeks in 1987.

While many people write notes in the holiday and birthday cards they send, the post office doesn't include those in the letter category. Holiday and other greeting cards, as well as written invitations, have also gone down.

The Postal Service says this trend is "primarily driven by the adoption of the Internet as a preferred method of communication."

The loss of that lucrative first-class mail is just one part of the agency's financial troubles, along with payment of bills via Internet and a decline in other mail. The Postal Service is facing losses of up to $8 billion this year.

The loss to what people in the future know about us today may be incalculable.

In earlier times the "art" of letter writing was formally taught, said Webster Newbold, a professor of English at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.

"Letters were the prime medium of communication among individuals, and even important in communities as letters were shared, read aloud, and published. Letters did the cultural work that academic journals, book reviews, magazines, legal documents, business memos, diplomatic cables, etc. do now. They were also obviously important in more intimate senses, among family, close friends, lovers, and suitors in initiating and preserving personal relationships, and holding things together when distance was a real and unsurmountable obstacle," he said.

"It's too early to tell with any certainty whether people are using email, texting, Twitter tweets, Facebook status updates, and so on in the same ways that we earlier relied on the letter for; they are probably using each of these media in different ways, some of which allow people to get closer to each other and engage in friendly or intimate exchange. It seems that email is the most letter-like medium," added Newbold.

"One of the ironies for me is that everyone talks about electronic media bringing people closer together, and I think this is a way we wind up more separate. We don't have the intimacy that we have when we go to the attic and read grandma's letters," said Aaron Sachs, a professor of American Studies and History at Cornell University.

"Part of the reason I like being a historian is the sensory experience we have when dealing with old documents" and letters, he said. "Sometimes, when people ask me what I do, I say I read other people's mail."

"Handwriting is an aspect of people's identity," he added. "Back in the day, when you wrote a letter it was to that one person, so people said very intimate things." Today with things like Facebook being more public people may not say as much, he said. And while some people are open in what they email, "it's a very different kind of sharing."

"There are indeed many ways that a decline in letter-writing will affect future historians, as many people in my profession have certainly benefited from the insights that written missives provide into how people of the past thought and felt," added history professor Jeffrey Nathan Wasserstrom of the University of California, Irvine.

"Personally, I don't get or send many letters, at least not carefully composed ones," he added.

Wasserstrom still turns to them as a source for his research. "I expect to make a lot of use of letters written by people held hostage in Beijing in the summer of 1900 in my upcoming book on the Boxer Crisis."

Historian Kerby Miller of the University of Missouri-Columbia said friends "who have done research on immigrants of the last 10 to 20 years say that the letters were used as late as the 1950s and `60s, being replaced by long-distance phone calls and emails."

Any subject that relies on correspondence - culture, manners, husbands and wives, lovers, friends, brothers, historical business, political history - could suffer a loss with the decline in letter-writing, Miller said.

Yet there could be some benefit, he said.

"Many of us used to always feel guilty because we never wrote enough - remember all those letters from mom and dad? Well, if mom and dad have a computer it's much easier to dash off a note every day or so," he said. "So maybe all the consequences aren't going to be completely negative. Maybe a vast load of guilt will be lifted from the shoulders of the American people."

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said future historians will be turning to email, as journalists already are doing.

"Email is different from letters, but it is comparable. It is more easily searchable," he said. "But we will have to learn how to use it."

People speak differently in email. "Some people are more candid," Grossman said. "Email is kind of a cross between a phone conversation and letters."

There might even be more information available in the future because organizations and governments preserve email, he said, and one of the highest priorities of archivists is working on procedures and standards for preservation.

"Clearly people say things that are both eloquent and straightforward in the email, and that's the same as letter," Grossman said. "Some people wrote letters with the assumption their mail would be read by posterity ... others with no idea that the person they wrote to would save them, much less give them to an archive."

So the loss of the personal letter may be a threat, at least some of its functions will live digitally.

Still, it's hard to imagine poet Robert Browning imploring Elizabeth Barrett to be his BFF.

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