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Beautiful Lines From 10 Historic Letters

Though humans have been sending correspondence in one form or another since antiquity, the 18th century is often considered the great age of letter writing, when postal routes expanded rapidly and the epistolary novel emerged as a popular genre. Throughout much of the following two centuries, letters remained a primary means of communication, from the formal to the extremely personal. They had the power to shape history, and to foment great romances.  

Today, with the advent of the telephone and now social media, the art of letter writing has largely been lost — but not completely. Fortunately, we can still read some of the most well-written and memorable letters in history, be they political, romantic, or humorous. Here are some of the best quotes from historic letters, from the hands and minds of Virginia Woolf, Martin Luther King Jr., and more.

Oh continue to love me — never misjudge the most faithful heart of your beloved. Ever thine. Ever mine. Ever ours.
— Ludwig van Beethoven to his “Immortal Beloved” in 1812, one of a number of love letters he wrote to a woman whose identity is unknown, but who may have been a diplomat’s daughter named Antonie Brentano.

I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.
— Abraham Lincoln to Albert Hodges, editor of the "Frankfort Commonwealth," in 1864, in which Lincoln explains his belief in emancipation.

Instead of gathering up the “real smart young men” gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand.
— Pioneering journalist Nellie Bly, when she was only 20 years old, in a letter to the editor of the "Pittsburg Dispatch" in 1885.

You must know that brown is as pretty as white or prettier and crinkley hair as straight even though it is harder to comb. The main thing is the YOU beneath the clothes and skin — the ability to do, the will to conquer, the determination to understand and know this great, wonderful, curious world.
— W.E.B. Du Bois to his 13-year-old daughter Yolande, after she left the family home in New York to study at Bedales School in England in 1914.

I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe this War, upon which I entered as a war of defense and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.
— Siegfried Sassoon’s “A Soldier’s Declaration,” sent to his commanding officer in 1917 and read out in the House of Commons. The English war poet had previously been awarded the Military Cross for his heroism on the Western Front, but his brave refusal to continue fighting was seen by many as treasonous.

I am floating with you, in you, aflame and melting — and a whole life with you is like the movement of clouds, their airy, quiet falls, their lightness and smoothness, and the heavenly variety of outline and tint — my inexplicable love. I cannot express these cirrus-cumulus sensations.
— Novelist Vladimir Nabokov to his wife, Vera Slonim, in 1924, expressing his deep love for her.

I’ll tell you all the things I have in my head, millions, myriads — They won’t stir by day, only by dark on the river. Think of that. Throw over your man, I say, and come.
— Virginia Woolf to her lover Vita Sackville-West in 1927, in one of many increasingly passionate letters exchanged between the two women over the course of a decade.

My dear Mayor, I stole your hat. I like your hat. I shall keep your hat. Whenever I look inside it I shall think of you and your excellent sherry, and of the town of Cambridge. I take off your hat to you.
— H.G. Wells to the Mayor of Cambridge, Ernest Saville Peck, in 1938, after Wells accidentally took the mayor’s hat instead of his own.

Don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens — The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.
— John Steinbeck to his son in 1958, offering fatherly advice about love.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
— Martin Luther King Jr., in an open letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, arguing that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action to obtain justice.

Photo credit: artisteer/ iStock

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About the Author
Tony Dunnell
Tony is an English writer of non-fiction and fiction living on the edge of the Amazon jungle.
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