Why you should care
Because we should never forget how to pour our hearts out in letters.
Looking in the mailbox to find a thick manila envelope, adorned in a stunning calligraphy, never fails to capture the imagination. The sender has poured her heart and soul into the pages within. Is it a Dear John letter? A tale of mystery and intrigue, or simply a meandering glimpse at everyday life?
The fact is, very few receive such letters any more. Even holiday cards are often printed or filled with computer-generated newsletters. People simply don’t put pen to paper the way they once did, and the art of letter writing is dying as a result.
Handwriting is on its way to extinction.
This is why the Parisian Museum of Letters and Manuscripts is determined to preserve rare examples of handwritten letters from the world’s greatest artists, scientists and historical figures for future generations. Founded 10 years ago by Gérard Lhéritier, a manuscript expert and collector, the private foundation was the first of its type in Europe. Lhéritier has gone on to open a second museum in Brussels, in 2011.
Thanks to the advent of online and mobile communications, Lhéritier believes that ”handwriting is on its way to extinction.” He’s probably right, as it’s hard to recall seeing ink stains on anyone’s hands in recent years.
Lhéritier’s mission: To conserve great examples of this dying art and help visitors understand the men and women behind the pens. ”Preserving our written patrimony is crucial,” he adds.
Located in the heart of the French capital, the museum remains one of the city’s best-kept cultural secrets. Absent from most guidebook listings, it’s one attraction that doesn’t suffer from the dreaded Parisian queue or a three-hour wait.
The museum’s most-valuable treasures are kept in the cool and dimly lit basement where every vitrine holds pages detailing moments of world history. Some testify to great events, such as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s command at the end of World War II: “The mission of the allied forces was fulfilled at 20:41, local time, May 7, 1945.”
A letter by Alfred Dreyfus takes a newspaper to task, accusing it of libel, and Claude Monet’s prose complains of fatigue just a year before his death.
Absent from most guidebook listings, it offers one attraction in the City of Love that doesn’t require three hours of lining up outside.
Others tell stories of those whose names no one knows but who played a role in history nonetheless, like a postcard from the Titanic’s bartender and an Auschwitz prisoner’s entry form.
The exhibition seeks to highlight history as well as offer glimpses into the minds of history makers. Those fascinated by Albert Einstein will relish a chance to see correspondence about his studies, while those who appreciate a bit of light to read by will enjoy a look at Thomas Edison’s early sketches.
In some cases, the letters help us understand the amount of effort and sacrifice that goes into scientific endeavor. Pasteur, at age 50, for example, wrote to his doctor about suffering a mental breakdown caused by excessive work.
Verdi’s handwritten scores are filled with corrections, proving that geniuses make mistakes, too, while also shining a light on the challenges of the artistic process. Monet conveys in fairly illegible handwriting how much he regrets undergoing eye surgery. “I see transformed colors now,” he wrote.
Unlike historic declarations or administrative documents, letters reveal a writer’s humanity. One can’t help but smile, for example, while reading Oscar Wilde’s words about his family, or noting how bad boy Jack Kerouac wrote to his “Dear Ma” asking for money and inquiring about his cat.
Even Napoleon Bonaparte seems more vulnerable in his own hand. Visitors may be surprised to find a letter he wrote to his secretary in English complaining about insomnia. “It is two o’clock after midnight, I have enow sleep,” he wrote. The French emperor was apparently bored during his forced exile and tried to learn his enemy’s tongue.
Such hand-scrawled details rarely make it into the textbooks, but provide an enlightening peek behind the curtains of fame and infamy. They also remind us of a simpler age, when ink-stained pages charmed us, wooed us, thrilled us and crushed us. Tearing up over a computer printout just isn’t the same.
Thanks to Lhéritier we need never worry about these histories being forgotten or the art of penned correspondence being written off for good.