Letters Give Historians an Intimate Window to the Past

Historians value letters highly as a primary source. A written primary source is the original document created at the time under study. Such letters created by someone who witnessed a significant event offer historians insights into the constructs of a past society. They may include fascinating details about what happened and how the writer felt.

The Value of Historical Letters

Historians are delighted with the idea of analysing historical letters. The discovery of a trove of previously unknown correspondence may make international news headlines if written by a famous person from the past.

Historical letters include those written by a renowned person or one who is not famous but has a unique point of view. They also include letters received. Correspondence between two famous people is even more valuable, especially when the letters illuminate a controversial topic under debate. An example of this type is the collection of letters between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud about how to make the world free from war.

Here are some of the reasons why historical letters are so valuable:

  • Letters offer insights into the relationships between the correspondents.
  • Letters are evidence that is admissible in court.
  • Personal letters have a candid quality not found in more formal business letters.
  • Letters may include storytelling when the composer describes an event.
  • The “facts” contained in the letters might have layers of colorful embellishment.
  • Personal letters may be deeply emotional. Powerful emotions include a longing for home when sent off to war, romantic feelings openly shared in private, and heartbreaking stories of loss or brutal oppression.

Analyses of Letters

Just because a famous person committed something to writing does not mean a researcher accepts it at face value. Many historians spend plenty of time reading letters and more time analysing the content. They consider the source, the background, surface-level information and deeper-level implications.

The analyses attempt to understand the context of the letter in relation to the time of writing it. Reading between the lines is necessary with an understanding of the tone of the writing. Historians compare a letter’s content with the cultural norms of expression at the time of the letter’s composition.

Depending on when a person wrote a letter, the form of expression may follow convention or break with it. For example, lovers might share intimate romantic, even sexual, details. They might be horrified if someone else read their letter. On the other hand, a well-composed love letter, in the most poetic sense, is such a treasure that the beloved may feel compelled to share it with their friends to enjoy bragging rights about the depth of their involvement with a lover.

Letters Offer Timelines

Letters frequently mention important life events, such as births, deaths, marriages and other important transitions. The dating of these events provides a historical timeline that helps organize other historical material.

The historical correspondence reveals how people embraced or resisted the time and places they lived. Some are evidence of world-changing events.

It is so moving to read what soldiers wrote to their loved ones just before D-Day during World War II. Some soldiers wrote D-Day letters while on boats anchored off the coast of England, where they were preparing to cross. So many soldiers never returned home, and their last letters were their legacy.

Letters Give Perspective

The most-prized letters give clear information about a topic from an important individual concerning the issue and provide an important perspective on the subject.

The artist Vincent van Gough frequently wrote to his brother Theo. Theo was his best friend and most loyal supporter. Theo kept every letter, which is why we have them in the Van Gogh Museum to enjoy. Vincent signed each one with “tout à toi,” which means “ever yours.” Such is the lasting power and historical significance of letters.

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