Education

How some famous letters provide useful insight into life, culture

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Can a letter become famous? Certainly! The Christian religion, for instance, has incorporated letters written by their early founders into its holy scriptures.

More recently, writers of war stories, both fictitious and historical, rely on letters home, both good and bad, to provide a more personal perspective of the situation than just a body count.

Famous letters can tell us the thinking of individuals at critical times in history, whether it’s one world leader writing to a peer, or even talking about routine issues with loved ones.

They can also provide a great view of time and place – what are people saying about after a significant event? What are people writing back? Though a writer gifted with perfect prose can pen a wonderful missive, a rough letter from an average writer can still convey useful information.

When looking through famous letters, certain ones do rise to the surface in terms of verbiage, uniqueness, and their overall impact.

Some include:

  • Martin Luther King Jr. The American civil rights leader wrote many inspirational speeches, including the “I Have a Dream” message that promotes diversity and equality. But his “Letters from the Birmingham Jail” offer more insight into his still-evolving views about life and human rights. The message of these famous letters from the early 1960s is that people have a moral responsibility to defy laws that they feel are unjust. He also encouraged people to force change themselves, rather than waiting for institutions to change. This message led some of his peers to advocate more violent paths, while he eventually tried to find a middle ground that was confrontational but not necessarily destructive.
  • Marcus Rashford. Going down in sports history as the youngest player to score a goal for England is certainly a decent accomplishment for the striker for Manchester United. But in 2020, four years later, he used his celebrity status to pen an open letter to all Members of Parliament encouraging them to reconsider plans to cut basic services to the poor, including summer meals at schools. He shared how he was someone who benefited from these services in his youth. He said his mother worked hard to raise their family but was only able to make ends meet with support from these kinds of services. He credited the generosity and kindness with helping him achieve athletically. Eventually officials reversed their plan and kept the meal program. As famous letters go, this one definitely showed that advocacy and personal experiences help.
  • James Baldwin. The American writer and activist helped increased overall awareness of sexual and racial oppression. Though he died in 1987, he spent years sharing his personal experiences and his peers in stark prose. He also challenged U.S. and world leaders to strive to do better in several forms of media. Though his books and essays offer interesting insight, those seeking more of his writings may enjoy famous letters he wrote to others, including one about emancipation written to his 14-year-old nephew, and another peer discussing the intersection of race and religion.
  • Alice Walker. The source material for the film “The Color Purple” offers a deeper dive into racial tensions and life in the American South, before and after slavery. Rather than a narrative or chronology, the original story focuses on Celie’s letters to God. Though she hopes God is watching and listening, she feels it’s important that he hears how brutal life can be. From a writing standpoint, it shares the different forms letters can take and how they can be an effective tool to not just provide background material but sketch out vivid characters.
Abel Eino
the authorAbel Eino