I Take This Pen in Hand:
Letters Home From Everyday People

I Take This Pen in Hand

June 25 - September 30, 1997

“To speak to those we love or esteem, is the greatest satisfaction we are capable of knowing, and the next is, being able to converse with them by letter.”

What was true in 1845, remains true today. For a student away from home for the first time, a young soldier separated from his family, or a man or woman called away from a spouse by the demands of work, picking up a pen and writing home can lessen the distance. Letters among members of a separated family are a form of conversation, where rules and reserve that might apply in more formal circumstances don't exist. In these personal letters, we reveal our private selves, and share the significant and insignificant with equal ease.

The letters selected for this exhibition cover over one hundred and sixty years of American history. Not surprisingly, letters written by immigrants to the United States and by soldiers in the Civil War, First and Second World Wars, and Vietnam, are all found among our rich holdings of manuscripts documenting regional history. Equally unsurprising is the quantity of letters written by students at Cornell and other institutions to their families at home. Added to those are the letters of ordinary people who were forced, as so many have been since the time of the earliest European settlers, to seek work away from home. Other letter-writers -- missionaries and nurses. among them -- chose to pursue their vocations where they were most needed.

For others, illness, imprisonment, or other forms of adversity intervened between them and those they loved. Although the historical context of every letter selected is important and evident, it is less the occasion than the humanity of these letters which draws us to them.

Reading letters intended for others is an exciting privilege. Each of the letters on display here reveals some of the secrets, joys, and imperfections of the writer. These letters resonate with human life, human experience, and human relationships and appeal to us, in part, because we can relate them to ourselves or to people we know. While these letters permit us to glimpse the past and gain historical insight, we are most fascinated by our ability to overhear snatches of conversations not unlike our own. In these conversations as in ours, the said and the unsaid are equally relevant.

While, in the words of one guide for correspondents, “the average letter of the average man or woman is by no means a classic,” it is a testament to the bonds of friendship and family over distance and time, now as in the past and future.