Anthropologist Laura Nader on the Lost Art of the Letter

During the past six decades anthropologist Laura Nader (University of California, Berkeley) has shaped anthropological analysis in important ways relating to how the discipline understands power relations. Her new book, Letters to and from an Anthropologist is a curated collection of her personal correspondence, featuring exchanges with public figures, everyday people, politicians, students whose lives were changed by a single class they took decades earlier, prisoners, colleagues, and bosses who needed straightening out. As someone who has spent hundreds of hours in archives reading letters, and who lived through the last part of the Twentieth Century, I know that the flow of correspondence used to be an important part of peoples’ lives which has been lost or at least deadened by the constant rush of emails, texts, and social media. Many of us have reached a point where ignoring the deluge of keyboarded characters is more familiar than the pleasure and anticipation human beings once experienced writing or receiving real letters. Nader’s new book presents us with examples of what this life of letters can look like, capturing conversations both big and small, often recording an activist’s frank questions about why we accept this broken world as it is; and sometimes proposing solutions that reveal vested interests and power relations. This past week I spoke with Professor Nader about her life in correspondence.

DAVID PRICE: One of the fundamental things I’ve learned from you over the decades is the significance of understanding context. So, let’s start by talking about the cultural context of letters, what they are, and what they used to be. Since you are a time traveler now in your 90s coming here from a past age, what can you tell us about what letters were in this now lost past?

LAURA NADER: Letters have always been a way of reaching out, to communicate with people way before there were phones or any other technological way of communicating. I think the most inspirational set of letters that I started with were Thomas Jefferson’s letters. If we didn’t have the Jefferson letters—and he wrote five or six a day—we wouldn’t know what was going on between all of these people that were forming our country. The context for many of the letters in my book really is people reaching out to somebody who would listen. And this is, like [David] Riesman said, a lonely crowd. And so, people reached out. And they reach out to people they think might be able to be help.

So, for example, the consumer movement that [my brother] Ralph [Nader] started in the fifties was all based on complaint letters–complaints about cars that didn’t work, about stoves that started fires, about all these products. They wrote to him and said, can you help me? And the same thing happens with academics who reach out to talk to people. After I was in the PBS film Little Injustices, people saw it and they thought: she’s interested in little injustices, I’m going to write her and or call her. But mainly people wrote.

So the interesting thing is that people reached out to me. But what about me? The context of many of my letters is that I was being irritated by something happening politically. So, I
wrote letters to Chancellors, because women at that time had no maternity leave. You weren’t supposed to have maternity leave. You weren’t supposed to have babies if you’re a woman professor. And there were very few of us. So, every time there was a new chancellor, I’d write a letter and say, what are you doing?  And the funny thing is I discovered that maternity leave plans had been in committee all these years because the guys could not decide whether having a baby was sick leave or not.

PRICE: And some readers might be surprised at how long you had to fight the battle. There’s a letter in the book from the 1970’s where you’re writing to the Berkeley Chancellor Haynes as you were still struggling for maternity leave.

NADER: Then I was struggling for equal pay, and at that time there were very, very few women that got to the top in the pay scale at Berkeley. I looked to see, and the numbers were really amazing. And so, I wrote a letter. My department had been putting me up for extra scale and they kept turning it down. And finally, Elizabeth Colson–she was a professor in our department, and she had been the first woman head of the Budget Committee– she said, “you’re judging her for what she has not done and not for what she has done,” and then she listed all the things that I had done.

But then there were also censorship questions. So as an alumnus of Harvard, the president then was basically telling people not to criticize Israel on the campus, and he was shutting people up and I said, why are you doing this? This is supposed to be an open discussion and so on; and he responded to me. What’s interesting is that every time I wrote a letter to the head of the University of California, or at Harvard, or any other place, they answered, and they were very quick to give permission to have their letters published alongside of mine.

I think what most people don’t realize is that the person who writes the letter owns the letter. And the reason there aren’t books like this, is because it takes so much time to get permissions. It took us two years to get all the permissions in order. And the undergraduates that helped me with this book had in their words, “never seen letters.” They were the real enthusiasts because they thought: “why have we never seen letters?”

PRICE: While it is in some sense easier to send an email of complaint or critiquing one of our bosses or things like that, you don’t get the same sort of response you get with a with a printed mailed letter. It’s completely different.

NADER: I could not agree more because that’s where I first learned this. Writing a letter to a congressman is totally different than sending an email. They don’t really look at their emails. They do look at their letters and they respond. And that’s why I have several letters from congressmen in there. I wrote a letter, I told them what I thought of what they were trying to do, and they responded. People understand that you don’t just write a letter like sending an email.

PRICE:  There’s some remarkable correspondence from regular people, prisoners, consumers, and professionals from other fields that show up in this. What impact did these interactions have on your work?

NADER: Well, it meant a lot to me because I was doing a lot of work on the anthropology of law. And of course, you can’t do that without understanding something about the justice system or the criminal justice system in our own country. I can tell you the students that helped me with this collection helped me pick the letters of most general interest. And I had a lot of letters from people in jail, in fact, some of them came to Berkeley to take courses and took my anthropology of law course from San Quentin.

By the way, the permissions to publish the letters are very interesting because very few people say no. If they’re dead, you have to go to their families. One of the most interesting persons to say no, was a dean of the Harvard Law School. She wrote a reply to one of my letters. And then when it came to publishing, she didn’t want to do it. So, what I did was I just put it in the introduction to that chapter and said basically what she said, but she didn’t give me permission to quote the letter. She thought it would be too political. Maybe she wants to be on the Supreme Court as a justice or whatever. And so, she didn’t.

Note: Included in Letters to and from an Anthropologist is a May 31, 2011 letter Laura Nader wrote to Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow including Nader’s critique that: “One of Harvard’s Distinguished alums and now President of our country recently announced that the revenge killing (‘targeted assassinations’) of Osama bin Ladin was ‘justice.’ Whatever happened to the Rule of Law? Perhaps the Harvard Law School should consider revising the curriculum.”

Summarizing, but not including the reply, Nader writes that two weeks later, “Martha Minnow wrote that continuing education of law school graduates would be a good thing.”

NADER: There are letters from two U.S. presidents in the book. One was Bush number one and then Jimmy Carter, and they gave permission. I think Bush was sick at the time and dying, but we did get permission. And the Nobel laureates gave permission way before the book existed, because I used them in my book Naked Science, and they were thrilled to have what they said used because they had critiques they wanted heard. The idea was that not only I should hear them, but that the world could also hear them. And they liked that. The range is the vertical slice of American society over 60 years.

It’s quite a diverse group, and I think eventually I’m going to write something about the responses to the request to publish, because some of the children of the people who wrote were really astonished at the work that their family members had given–surprised that they were very political and they didn’t know they were political in that regard.

PRICE:  I was struck by how many letters were from former students–mostly non anthropology majors—who had taken your Controlling Processes course with these long descriptions about how this unusual class either resonated with something they already knew, or it woke them up to the manipulative conditions that they were living under. I assume most people reading this will not have heard about your Controlling Processes class, so could you tell us something about it?

NADER: The Controlling Processes course is something I invented as a result of realizing that students did not understand control in the brave new world which we are living in—it’s both Brave New World and 1984 actually. So, I invented this course, which I taught for 25 years. What it allowed them to do was to understand how control works in a quote “democracy.” They did everything from reading novels to reading science critiques and works that came back down to the family and to the individual.

But what really made that course a success was the final assignment. This assignment was to pick a controlling process in your life and tell me how it works. And that just sends them into a range of topics. This course was about pedagogy, it was not just a discipline. There were readings from all sorts of sources, newspapers or whatever, films like The Day After Trinity—there were kids in that class that didn’t know we dropped the atomic bomb. They were shocked when they saw the making of the bomb in The Day After Trinity. Just two or three days ago I got a letter–an email sent to the department—from someone saying I took the course in 1991 and he wanted to thank me and tell me how it changed his life. And then I wrote him back and said, what are you doing? How did it change you? And he’d had a very interesting kind of education; he was in the Obama administration. And we’re going to have coffee together when he gets back to work in Berkeley. And then I got one from a guy who said “I finally got off my butt to tell you thank you for your course. It made me what I am.” I wrote him back, asking, where are you? So that was 25 years later.

These people are still remembering this course. Now, the interesting thing is some people in my department did not want me to teach it, and I never understood why. It’s political in some way, but I don’t know why, that never articulated it. But what they did was they punished me by not giving me any help to read the papers. So, I had 300 papers I had to read myself, which was great. But after 25 years, I just finally got tired.

PRICE: It sounds like the controlling processes of higher ed caught up with you.

NADER: That’s it exactly.

PRICE: One of my favorite types of letters in the book are those you wrote critiquing what you call “the ivory tower slowly eroding,” during the past three decades. These letters to other academics contain good critiques of these processes, and you also reproduce letters where you fiercely push back at administrators. When reading this correspondence, I found myself taking pictures of these letter and texting them to colleagues I teach with because the controlling processes you identify are well known to us all.

You print one letter from 2000, where a younger scholar wrote something that resonated with you, but you also had a different critique, and your reply clearly identifies what structurally happened when universities started not replacing faculty when they retire. You wrote: “the university encouraged early retirement by bribing older faculty to leave. The older faculty contain the memory of the university which the new world order would just as soon see removed.”

NADER:  That’s right. And all of my colleagues retired. They took the handshake. And I didn’t. I’m the only one who didn’t. And I lasted sixty years. I just retired last spring.

PRICE: And you didn’t harmonize–you didn’t give in to coercive harmony.

NADER: No, I didn’t. It’s very interesting because I grew up in New England and we have town meetings in New England. So, I said to Paul Rabinow—my colleague who recently passed away—I asked him, why do people get upset when I say anything in faculty meetings? I said, I don’t yell. I don’t call people names. I’m very polite. And you know what he said?

PRICE: I’d love to hear.

NADER: He said, You’re blunt. I said, but I’m not. He said, You’re blunt. I said, but I grew up in New England. We have town meetings—and everybody’s blunt at a town meeting [laughs]. And this just struck me as being odd, because there were people that were mean and yelled, and so on, but what they didn’t like was the truth and bluntness; they don’t want you to just say it. They want you to be sweet and harmonious.

Well, what’s wrong with harmony? Well nothing, but what’s wrong with coercive harmony is something else. And coercive harmony is what they keep wanting people to be because they were trying to sell alternative dispute resolution across the country to shut us up over all the things that came up in the 1960s. They didn’t want any of that anymore. They wanted us to be harmonious. You don’t take cases to court that have to do with not hiring or firing or whatever. You “harmonize,” and you mediate them.

So there were a lot of letters on the whole question of ADR [Alternative Dispute Resolution]. Some of them are in the book. That movement started with the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court inviting me to a conference in Minneapolis. I gave a talk, but he didn’t expect the talk I gave critiquing mediation. He thought because I wrote about the Zapotec and the way they harmonized–which was very different–he thought I would be for alternative dispute resolution against litigation, which I wasn’t. So that was kind of a shock for them. Ha! Anyway, it’s always a surprise, right?

PRICE: That’s interesting, I hadn’t known that connection that they were thinking the Zapotec research would lead in a very different direction.

NADER: And of course, the Zapotec that I wrote about were acting harmoniously to keep the state out. It was to protect themselves. So, harmony can be used in many ways. And if we were very harmonious in this country, we wouldn’t have formed a country; you wouldn’t have had a revolution.

PRICE:  One of the things I really enjoyed in the book was your correspondence with Elizabeth Colson. Reading these letters was like listening in on a private conversation you were having with someone who is wise, has great anthropological depth, and also is this really interesting person. I’m glad you included these.  Could say something about your long relationship with Professor Colson?

NADER: I was the first woman hired in our department, and she was the second. But I was on the committee that hired her, and she came to Berkeley via Brandeis and then Northwestern–because they had fired a professor at Brandeis for being outspoken; it was a McCarthy thing. And so she quit, and she went to Northwestern University for a year.

PRICE: Was the fired Brandeis professor, Kathleen Gough?

[Note: Anthropologist Kathleen Gough was fired from Brandeis University after she gave a campus speech in October 1962 critical of President Kennedy’s threat to use nuclear weapons in a first-strike attack against Cuba.]

NADER: Yes, it was Kathleen Gough. And so, Elizabeth didn’t quit by saying anything political. She quit saying: “they said Kathleen Gough was not a good teacher, and I know she was.” So she goes to Northwestern and someone said we should bring her here. So we brought her, and she was the only colleague I had all those years, because the guys were another story. My generation of guys were basically having sex with the students. Elizabeth was my buddy, and she was a wonderful friend right to the end. And the reason she took so long to retire to Zambia was because she missed our conversations when she wasn’t here. We had wonderful conversations and she loved to edit. She used to read things I wrote and say yes, no, you didn’t document this. She was a good editor, and I was a good listener to her. I could have done a book on all the letters that she wrote, and we wrote together.

PRICE: The letters that you include in the book that she sent you from Zambia, when she’s in her late 90s, must have been eight or ten page letters. These are long, thoughtful, rich letters.

NADER:  You know, David, I got a letter from her the week before she died. And I did not include it because she was very complimentary about me, and I didn’t want to publish letters that were praising me. It sounds too self-serving. And anyway, it was a beautiful letter. And then she died. She was really something.

PRICE:  Do you still write on a typewriter or do you use a computer?

NADER: No, I write on a typewriter.

PRICE:  What is your favorite typewriter?

NADER: Well, I have an Olivetti at home, but I have an IBM electric typewriter at the university. But I’m not at the university now because of Covid, and they’re redoing the building inside, so I can’t even go to my office. But I use the Olivetti and it’s not the most comfortable typewriter.  But I went to my first computer conference in 1962 at Lake Arrowhead. It was a law conference on what will computers do for precedents and stuff in the law. And I decided then I don’t want to do it. I knew where it was headed and look where it headed—look where it’s still headed. I didn’t want to do it, and I don’t do it now. Recently a chair in the department said that I was a problem because somebody else had to print out departmental materials for me.  A friend [jokingly] said “you’re really a problem for the department: you teach more than anybody–you publish more than anybody, you’re a terrible problem.” [laughs] Anyway, Angelica, from the department calls and I talk to her every day and she tells me what comes in on the computer.

PRICE:  That’s good. You have your own carrier pigeon service. Let me ask about that wild long 1978 letter from Robert Merton in this collection, on “trained incapacity.” What was the backstory on this letter this incredible letter?

NADER:  You know what that was about?  What happened is that I was writing a review on something for Yale Law Review, and I quoted [Thorstein] Veblen saying something, but I didn’t footnote it. So, the editor said: you have to footnote everything. I looked and looked at Veblen’s work, and I couldn’t find the quote. So, I called up Robert Merton because I had found it in his work.

And he said, Veblen gave a talk here, that’s why it’s not written. And I said they won’t publish this unless there’s a printed reference. So, Merton spent Christmas vacation writing that long letter. Meanwhile, I wrote footnote number one, which said: “How can you say anything new in a law review if you have to footnote everything?” I got a call from the head of Yale Law Review and he asked about several editorial small things, then he said, “I have one last question.” I said, what’s that? He said, “we want you to omit footnote number one.” I said, that’s censorship. He said, “you bet it is!”

I still want to write about “footnote number one,” that’s one short thing I’d like to write.

PRICE: In closing, could you say just a few more words about the meaning and importance of mailed correspondence–I know you always have a very positive outlook on where things can go, no matter how dark the present moment, what can we do as a society to revive this lost art of correspondence that shines in this book?

NADER: Well, I think you put it very well. It is an art. And I think the two students that were helping me with this, who had never seen letters are now writing letters. It’s important to realize that you can’t say the same kinds of things in a short email, and you want to express yourself–I think letters will come back.

We have lost the art of letter writing, but I think it will come back.

For more on Laura Nader’s remarkable life and work, see the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office’s oral history conducted by Lisa Rubens and Samuel Redman, (2014), Laura Nader: A Life of Teaching, Investigation, Scholarship and Scope.

David Price is professor of anthropology at Saint Martin’s University. His latest book is The American Surveillance State: How the U.S. Spies on Dissent, published this month by Pluto Press.