Historical letters give a peek at famous pen pals

Those who have grown up in the Internet age may never have heard of the concept of a pen pal, someone you wrote to regularly and saw rarely, if at all.

When it would take weeks, even months, for letters to be exchanged, each person’s words can provide a glimpse of a life beyond one’s own.

When studying papers and published archives of noteworthy people, their historical letters can be especially interesting – they may have had pen pals with people with different backgrounds, philosophies, and ideals, but both writers found common ground when discussing their mutual lives. They sometimes inspired each other, shared basic info, made each other laugh, consoled each other during difficult times, and often became strong friends.

Even well-published writers, musicians, artists, scientists, and philosophers of their time enjoyed the feedback from their respective pen pals.

Yes, in our 21st century world, a long-distance friendship spanning years doesn’t seem terribly unusual, when we can literally communicate with anyone in the world and can often get a reply in a few minutes. But reading historical letters can show how valuable and special this experience was to them along with future readers.

Some of the more interesting pen pals include:

  • Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann. Robert Schumann was a composer who served as a mentor to Brahms when he was just getting started in his musical career. His wife Clara, a pianist, also supported the young musician. When Robert was committed to an asylum, Johannes came to live with their family. After his death, Clara and her children moved to Berlin while Johannes stayed in Dusseldorf. They visited rarely but corresponded regularly. In one of his historic letters, he encouraged her to find ways to rid herself of the melancholy she was feeling, since these type of moods can be consuming over time. He also liked to remind her that life is precious.
  • Henry James and Edith Wharton. After they were introduced at several dinner parties around the beginning of the 20th century, these two established writers corresponded regularly. They were both Americans but chose to live in Europe. Their letters were generally positive and encouraging to each other in their personal and professional lives. James did his best to support Edith in her creative endeavors, especially in exploring new themes and approaches in her writing. Unfortunately, he was known to have burned much of his personal correspondence, so there may have been more details which were discussed.
  • Voltaire and Catherine the Great. She was one of the more prominent Russian leaders in the 18th century and he was a French philosopher who didn’t always have nice things to say about authority figures or imposed rules from the monarchy. Yet they did enjoy writing to each other and sharing insights into their respective worlds. She said she grew up reading his philosophies and was happy to be in a position to personally contact him. Interestingly, while he generally didn’t have a lot of faith in world leaders, he made an exception Catherine, who he felt was intelligent, aware of the perspectives of other countries besides her own, and quick to learn.
  • Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. In 1947, Robert had just been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and Edith had her first book of poems published. It was a perfect time to begin exchanging letters, which they did for more than 30 years. Their historical letters discussed the art and skill of writing as well as personal matters, the world around them, and relationships in general. After Robert’s divorce was finalized, he mused on the value of relationships.