by: Dan Linke
With the rise of email more than 20 years ago, many have lamented the decline of the handwritten letter, but with her new book, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Nina Sankovitch has done much more than that. Drawing on letters from across the ages, she explains why putting pen to paper can communicate much more than the thoughts and ideas on the page.
Inspired by a cache of letters written by a Princeton undergraduate to his parents that she uncovered in the tool shed of a dilapidated New York home she bought more than a decade ago, Sankovitch originally read the letters in small batches, as a break from the toils of mothering three young children. Years later, with her oldest son readying himself for college, Sankovitch revisited the letters and began her mediation on the important and wide range of human connections that letters make, using the Princeton student’s letters and their discovery as the basis for the book’s first chapter.
The letters were composed by James B. Seligman, Class of 1912. According to his Nassau Herald entry, “Jimmie” grew up in New York City, was a member of Clio, studied economics, and hoped to go into banking. He was also Jewish (“Hebrew” in the parlance of the day), just one of five such students in a class of almost 300. He became an independent stockbroker and a member of the New York Stock Exchange where he was a floor trader. The February 22, 1941 New Yorker called him “one of the wittiest men on the Floor.”
That wit is reflected in his surviving letters. Some excerpts that Sankovitch highlights in her book:
“I am getting a good college education, developing like a film, apologizing to the grass every time I step on it, scrambling like an egg, yelling like a bear, telling the upperclassmen to go to @#$ …”
“I am once more sorry to say, with tears in my nose, and with shaking toes, etc that I didn’t pass French…Thanking you again for your kind applause, I will close as Le Student Francais.”
“Chapel was great. I never laughed so much in my life.”
And in answering what he called the “ponderous interrogations” sent by his mother: “my diet consists principally of food. My health is fine.”
He also wrote of his classes – “Woodrow Wilson lectures to us in Jurisprudence – It is a treat to listen to him speak.”
Now Sankovitch has donated Seligman’s correspondence, consisting of about 100 letters and postcards, to the Princeton University Archives, and they will join those of other students in the Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334). This collection, along with a number of others, contains the correspondence of about two dozen students ranging over three centuries, and collectively it provides insights into Princeton undergraduate life that can be found nowhere else. The earliest letters date from 1768 and the most recent is a collection of printed emails from a member of the Class of 1997.