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James Clayton Terry: The lost art of the personal letter




How wonderful to think that April has been declared National Letter-Writing Month. Once upon a time, that would have been music to a Southerner''s ears as a well-written letter was one of the great hallmarks of Southern culture. Not just a missive written in haste on a PC or an old typewriter, but a clearly expressed, hand-written artful turn of phrase to read again and again; and in many cases past down from generation to generation. Nothing beats a carefully-put thought transferred to sentence then conveyed from one heart to another.  


Alas, I''m afraid it is a perishing art too, much like the bygone canning and quilt-making skills of our mothers and a rosy, intelligent Southern accent like what was common-place when I was a lad--Southern Academic, they called it.  


Anyway, before the advent of computers and when the letters had disintegrated into acidic shreds, I loved to read my mother''s old correspondents when she had written to relatives in the North. They talked about their children; the woes and troubles of the world, particularly Vietnam; love and marriage, scandals, and drew humorous sketches of everyday life while employing the cleverest take on the English language.  


Ah, but when one comes across or is the recipient of a well-penned love letter, one finds the warming nectars of passion put to use in mind, heart, soul, and spirit. Who can forget the beautiful prose of a Mary Chestnut in her Civil War letters; a Winifred Holtby with her Letters to a Friend, then there is Sullivan Belue whose letter to his wife on the eve of his death at the first battle of Bull Run is a must-read for every romantic at heart: 


"...Oh, my Sarah, if the dead could come back and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you in the darkest hour of the darkest nights. And if there be a soft breeze to cool your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by. Think of me and wait for me for we shall meet again."  


So this National Letter-Writing month, think of a loved-one serving America in foreign lands, a cousin you have not seen in years, a relative behind bars, in college, or, maybe for fun, a friend just across town, then sit down and hand-write them a letter. You''ll both cherish the thoughts and thoughtfulness. Who knows, maybe you''ll have started the process by which that old art form will finds its way back into the mainstream of southern culture once again.  


James Clayton Terry 






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