Death of the Letter

When my best friend died two years ago, nothing was harder to bear than realizing that I would never receive another letter from him. We had known each other for 20 years, but for the last decade of his life we lived on different continents. Whenever I passed through London I would stay the night, or failing that we would meet in a Dockland pub or some back-street curry palace and yack like mad things for a couple of hours. But that was scarcely once a year, and our friendship survived and deepened because in the intervening months we both wrote letters. Or more accurately I should say: because we both had the habit of writing, and Andrew was such a magnificent exponent of that habit, in all the baroque glory of its virtues, that each new communication spurred me on to imitation. There are many people -- there will be more and more -- who have never known the privilege and thrill of a correspondence. From time to time we all write something down, dress it in an envelope to keep it warm, and send it out. But how rarely is it a real letter, a private communication to a person we know and from whom we can eagerly await a response? Forget the business letter, for which we wrap ourselves in starch and falsehood, and forget the chest-beating homilies we write to the editors of newspapers; these in their different ways are scenes from our public rather than our private life. Forget also the dutiful thank you note that comes back like an echo to the relative who casts a gift in our direction. Producing the echo is an irksome duty we suffer to tell ourselves we have good manners, and in making the expected noises we seek to complete a transaction rather than to continue it. A correspondence is open-ended -- it asks for more -- and more follows more because the business of writing and the business of receiving give to both parties the pleasure and solace of good conversation.Unlike conversation, correspondence requires a degree of effort, and therefore when we engage in it at all we are self-conscious, as if looking over our own shoulder to see whether we have created the right effect. This is not a bad thing. On the contrary. Our speech -- modeled on music, movie and TV "personalities" whose demotic affectations make a virtue of inarticulateness -- has become embarrassingly slovenly. Letter writing, if we can bother ourselves into doing it, comes as a welcome reminder that taking time with words and treating them with respect has astonishing rewards. The sharpness of this reminder and the extent of the pleasure depend a great deal, naturally, on the person to whom you are writing. I was held to a high standard: My friend Andrew wrote letters of often 10 or 12 dense pages, written in spurts over a week or more. They were always addressed to "Richard Farr, Esq.," the archaic formalism being one of our little jokes at the expense of letter-writing itself, and they ended with the salutation which, as we had discovered to our delight in a high school history class, was used by the groveling Duke of Buckingham to his lover James I: "I remaine, Sire, Yr Majesties Humble Slave and Dogge." Between these ancient bracketing devices, Andrew's letters were serious and funny and bawdy and eloquent. His life and personality poured out of them as if the pages were trying to contain him but could not. When he wrote his last letter to me, he was already dying. But that letter contains no mention of illness or suffering. It is the usual quilt of mad extempore digressions, and digressions from digressions, on everything from his passion for fried breakfasts to the health of his rose plants. He had been reading a new biography of Louis XVI: Typically, he spent a couple of paragraphs talking with attentive precision about the book's merits and defects, and, tongue deep in cheek, finished with a longer paragraph in which he weighed the similarities and differences between Louis and himself. Unlike me, Andrew did not think of himself as a writer, but I came to see that he was a master of this important and ill-appreciated literary form. Like poetry, letters are written by the skilled and the unskilled; they can be haikus or epics, and their content can range over all of human experience. But the combination of their privacy and their practicality gives them a special, irreplaceable role in the business of civilized life. They encourage a certain formality, a certain courtesy, and yet they seduce the cautious into undressing their personalities, as if the formality is enough to make people comfortable with the thrill of psychological nudity. Just now the air is thick with grammatically challenged, techno-fundamentalist yucking about "snail-mail," and the death of the book itself has been widely predicted by people who have no idea what they are talking about. (May their tunnels be forever carpal.) Unlike the book, though, the letter as a form really is in trouble -- was in trouble three generations before the modem, in fact. And in the Age of Gates, caring about the imminent extinction of the letter must tempt the techno-fundamentalists to levy charges of prissiness, dilettantism, and secret antiquarian book fondling. But care we must.E-mail is not the work of Satan just because some people think it is the Kingdom of God. Indeed, e-mail is convenient, and efficient. But engaging in a correspondence, like falling in love, is not meant to be convenient or efficient, and if letter-writing is replaced, our gains in efficiency and convenience will have been purchased at a vertiginous price. Just as speed-reading is no substitute for slow, diligent, careful reading, the electronic technologies are no substitute for slow, diligent, careful writing. Emoticons, the facial expressions constructed out of punctuation marks favored by e-mail users, are useful for those who lack the time or the ability to express precisely the emotion they want to convey, but they are a poor substitute for the richer language that hand-written letters encourage. And if you understand what letter-writing is for, why would you want to speed it up? Frank and Anita Kermode have just published a major new anthology, The Oxford Book of Letters (Oxford University Press, $27), which honors the epistolary urges of the famously eloquent and the unknown. It covers exactly 450 years, the first letter written in 1535 and the most recent (by Philip Larkin) in 1985. The editors refuse to delve further into the past, arguing very reasonably that earlier material would require endless glosses or even a translation. (There is one "translated" letter here. It was written by Thomas Sheridan, grandfather of the dramatist Richard Brinsley Sheridan, in "Latin," and addressed to Jonathan Swift: "Urit tome sum time ago an diam redito anser it thus...".) The book is beautifully edited and contains indexes of writers and recipients. Since this is a collection of letters in English, with a literary interest presupposed, the dominance of Britain is not surprising. However, other English-speaking countries, for example Ireland and Australia, are poorly represented. American representation is respectable: Adams, Franklin and Lincoln get in, as do Emerson, Frost, Hemingway, William and Henry James, Lowell, Melville, Steinbeck, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Thoreau and Twain. (Even Thurber is here, in a hilarious letter pretending to defend his incompetent night driving: "I got onto a long steep road which seemed to be paved with old typewriters... ".) Unfortunately Jefferson, perhaps the most consistently eloquent man in American history, is omitted. The only other criticism you can make of the anthology is that there is nothing like enough of it, and this is not really a criticism so much as a greedy whine. Three hundred letters are reproduced here, which is a very nutritious meal. The editors admit selection was in many ways a hopeless task, since there are thousands of authors worth considering for inclusion, and some of the most prolific wrote tens of thousands of letters each. (Horace Walpole, grandson of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, appears to be the all-time world champion with a published edition of his letters that runs to 48 volumes.) In a case like this a mere scent of the author is all we can hope for, and many omissions are inevitable. But it's still hard to accept the complete absence of say, Orwell, whose letters are equally full of throw-away wit about his famous acquaintances ("You might ask Freddie [Ayer] from me, now that he has a chair in Mental Philosophy, who has the chair in non-mental philosophy") and gem-quality Orwelliana that were not meant for publication and have never made it into the quotation books ("Perhaps a bird's eye view is as distorted as a worm's eye view"). Bertrand Russell isn't here either, nor Karl Marx, despite the fact that many of his most brilliant letters were written in English. An even more surprising omission is William Blake. The absent lesser figures are, necessarily, legion: none of the wonderful love letters of John Maynard Keynes and his wife Lydia Lopovka are included (Lopovka to Maynard, describing a sunset: "It was like having cocktails with God"); nor do we get the surprise of J. Robert Oppenheimer's eloquence. However, let us concentrate on the delightful fare we have been served. We have Sir Walter Raleigh's last letter to his wife, on going to his execution a hated and slandered man: "That I can live to think how you are left a spoil to my enemies, and that my name shall be a dishonour to my child, I cannot; I cannot endure the memory thereof;" Swift's condolences to Lord Oxford on the death of his daughter: "I know not; my Lord, why I write this to you, nor hardly what I am writing. I am sure, it is not from any compliance with form; it is not from thinking I can give your Lordship any ease;" Mary Wollstonecraft skewering a man who had dared to offer advice on her private life: "I wish never to see, but as a perfect stranger, a person who could so grossly mistake my character;" and Joyce, purporting to criticize Finnegans Wake in a brilliant parody of his own book's style: "Please froggive my t'Emeritus and any inconvince that may have been caused by this litter." Then there is Lord Hervey, gossiping feverishly about the Princess of Holstein's refusal to consummate her marriage; Groucho Marx making absurdist fun of the "suits" at Warner Brothers; and Dora Carrington, apologetically desperate and desperately apologetic to Lytton Strachey about being suicidally in love with him. There is Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson writing to James Boswell (and vice versa), Jane Austen, Lord Nelson, Wordsworth, de Quincey, Macaulay, Dickens, Trollope, Cardinal Newman, Kipling, Wilde, the Woolfs, Shaw, Yeats, T.S. Eliot....Should we not continue this fine tradition? Even one letter a month, if it takes a thoughtful hour to write and is sent to someone who cares enough about us and about words to respond in kind, is immeasurably better than nothing. Such a letter among the junk mail is now as rare as a bird of paradise among starlings. Even if you only think what it does to keep the mail-carrier's rounds meaningful, then you will write out of sheer charity for a degraded calling. Certain that you don't have the time? Remember: memorable exchanges can be memorably brief. In 1862, while on vacation, Victor Hugo wanted to know how his new novel, Les Miserables, was selling, so he sent a message to his publishers. Hugo's inquiry:"?" The reply: "!" Of course this is an example from that beautiful, delicate, already-extinct epistolary subspecies, the telegram. We must do what we can to ensure that the mother species survives and flourishes.


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