Love letters and other primary sources

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“Even in bed my ideas yearn towards you, my Immortal Beloved, here and there joyfully, then again sadly.”

There’s nothing quite like it, reading love letters that weren’t written for you. Some may think it sad or invasive to pore over promises meant for someone else’s eyes, but I find it comforting, more or less. Even the coldest among us would feel their heart melt a little when they hear the way Beethoven writes to his “Immortal Beloved.” I myself have never been particularly sentimental, but here I am, a connoisseur in the art form of love; I allow myself to be romantic in limited ways, and reading love letters is definitely one of them. 

And that’s not even to mention the literary significance of these letters. I’d wager that some of the most beautiful and most ridiculous phrases of the written word can be found nestled in intimate pockets. Take Zelda Fitzgerald, for example: “Nobody’s got a right to live but us—and they’re dirtying up our world and I can’t hate them because I want you so.” Or Johnny Cash: “The ring of fire still burns around you and I, keeping our love hotter than a pepper sprout.” How odd and yet how sweet are the words of a person in love!  

My favorite thing about love letters isn’t the sentiment or the craft, however — it’s the generality. Letters like these are riddled throughout history in the most unlikely places and from the most unlikely people, and yet somehow they feel completely ahistorical. They represent a moment in time when, just for a second, public life didn’t matter. The domestic world, the inner world, reigns supreme. 

Love letters have a way of convincing you that you can forget about the turmoil behind a relationship, whether it’s Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald or Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, letting you just breathe in the sweetness of prose. When you read Henry VIII’s words to Anne Boleyn — “I make an end of my letter, written with the hand of him who wishes he were yours” — you can (almost) ignore the fact that those same hands would later order her execution. Queens may be beheaded, fashions may change, empires may rise and fall, but in love letters, the course of true love forever runs smooth. 

The historian in me hates to encourage this sort of willful ignorance. Nothing is truly ahistorical, and it’s too easy to fall into the trap of separating the writing from the writer. But at the same time, it is the writer in me that pushes back because the beauty of love letters is that they weren’t written for the world to pass judgment on. They were written for one person and one person only. There’s nothing quite like it, a piece of writing not meant to be read by just anyone. 

I have never written a love letter, nor have I ever received one. To be honest, I can’t remember the last time I’ve written anything for another person, romantic or otherwise. I write for the public. I write for the press. I write for class, but even then I don’t particularly care who reads it. And when I write for myself, I’m not really writing for myself; I’m writing for posterity, for the unnamed audiences who pore over my words in my dreams. Undergrad has a particular way of commodifying the individual, and nowhere do I feel more commodified than in my writing. Always above me is this self-imposed burden: Is my writing fit for the public? Is my writing fit for this world? 

I’d like to make my writing personal again, and by that I mean that I’d like to write myself a love letter. It won’t be anything fancy. It will be long and unwieldy, more pedantic than sentimental, something more like a debate tournament than a ballroom dance. It will have too many adverbs, that’s for certain. And it will be mine. 

I can picture it now in my head, playing along as both sender and receiver. The way my eyes will light up when I open it, the way my lips will silently shape the words as I read along. The feeling of pencil marks, raised on the paper like goosebumps, as I trace my thumb over the letters: “Dearest Lauren, I hope this finds you well.” The pure, childish delight of knowing there’s something out there with my name on it. 

There’s nothing better than reading something that’s written just for you. And more importantly, there’s nothing better than writing without the pressure of an audience. Some may say that it’s the reader who makes the writer, but I have to disagree; sometimes the most beautiful and the most ridiculous words are those not meant to be read. 

Lauren Sheehan-Clark writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on the relationship between art and history. Contact her at [email protected].