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Walking Through Handwritten Letters: Student Correspondences at Kitao

6 mins read

Recently, it seems as though most mail is from Amazon.com or is spam It has now become a treat to open your mailbox and find a letter or postcard waiting for you. An exhibit now on display at Kitao Gallery brings up this idea, as well as ideas of how we relate to each other and communicate through a display of letters written by Swarthmore students from the last 70 years.

The exhibit is thoughtfully laid out, with letters hung up on the gallery’s walls, grouped by author and distinguished from their neighbors by a colored cardboard paper background. The simplicity of this setup keeps the focus on the letter’s content, encouraging visitors to read their stories rather than to simply admire them from afar. The collection features letters by 11 different Swarthmore students and alums, and includes both original copies as well as scans.

“I wondered if the idea of letters might be a good way to capture the history of the school in some way. So I started sending out e-mails in September … and I got a bunch of responses,” explains Abby Holtzman ’16, curator of the exhibit. “The themes from the past 70 years haven’t changed tremendously, even as these huge historical events were happening.”

The arrangement of the letters highlights the genuineness their content conveys. While reading them, it becomes very evident that this is a glimpse into people’s lives. It is not that what these letter’s authors are writing is on average so unique; however, one gets the sense that a certain amount of thought goes into writing them, more than would go into your average text, although the ideas might be similar (school’s hard, their friends are fun, books are too expensive). For example, letters by Elisha Hornblower Atkins ’71 are written on sheet music and letters by Hofan Chau ’03 include Buddhist meditations and poetry. A pleasure to read, letters such as these give visitors a sort of unique insight into the lives of past and present Swarthmore students.

One of the most interesting parts of the collection are the letters that feature historical events. For example, George Inouye ’44 was given permission to attend Swarthmore College, leaving his family behind in a Japanese Internment camp. As Inouye’s son writes in the description of his father’s letters, there is a “cultural-based reluctance to speak about these events. These letters offer a sense of what he may have told me [about it].” Another student who attended Swarthmore in the late ’50s writes, “[I] am now finally learning about the hidden side of Swarthmore i.e. the Bohemian life — men in people’s rooms, liquor.”

Another striking aspect of the letters is the relatability of the topics they discuss. Many of the authors express thoughts similar to those of students today. One student explains how they had planned on being a biology major but were now considering majoring in philosophy instead—typical Swarthmore behavior—and another complains about textbook expenses.

“History I like and I don’t have nearly enough time for because of that damned chemistry,” writes Susan Washburn ’60.

Throughout the exhibit opening last Friday, visitors were enthusiastically reading the letters as if they were stories. Although the handwriting was often difficult to decipher, visitors eagerly rushed through each line to find out what happened next, often laughing in amusement, and sometimes surprise, at descriptions of Swat life that paralleled their own, such as rushing to catch the next SEPTA train or complaining about small dorms. It was clear that students identified with many of the letters.

This past spring and summer, members of the class of 2016, in anticipation of coming to Swat in the fall, organized a series of pen-pal correspondences between each other. A few of these letters were also on display in the exhibit. In these letters, rising freshmen discuss their fears and excitements about coming to college, as well as general ideas and questions in an attempt to get to know each other.

“Turning 18 has been a non event though you are an adult at 18. I haven’t/ probably won’t do anything. Like I could buy cigarettes but who wants those? Or a lottery ticket but I just got done with stat … and I know I wouldn’t win so — poo” wrote one freshman this summer.

Although many of the letters are somewhat difficult to decipher (probably due to our modern reliance on typing), the exhibit has a dynamic variety of letters and is worth stopping by. The Kitao Gallery is open 12–5 p.m. and the exhibit runs through Saturday.

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