This is an obituary for the art of letter writing. Of course, there are people who do not believe that e-mail and its electronic relatives have killed epistolary beauties, but they seem to me overly optimistic or purblind. Even the wonderful Thomas Mallon, in his splendid Yours Ever: People and Their Letters, writes about 1997, “ just as e-mail was reaching Everyman and beginning to kill or revive (there are both schools of thought), the practice and art of letter writing.” Note that out of modesty or prudence or politeness (not to offend anyone) he speaks of revival via e-mail.
I don’t believe this for a moment. I do, however, believe that some hardy and gifted epistolarians who were able to conquer the typewriter, taming it into submission to their style, may also still be literate on e-mail, though surely not on Tweeter and the rest of the ungodly inventions. But oh, what was surely lost! You need only read (I sincerely hope you will) Mallon’s marvelous Yours Ever, over 300 pages of sheer delight—not only from the adduced letters, but also for Mallon’s wise and witty commentaries—and you will be sure that, whatever he may or may not say, Mallon considers letter writing a gravely imperiled species, if not quite yet stone cold dead.
It is not just that handwritten letters look a bit different from typewritten and e-mailed ones, even though that “bit” of difference is enormous. It is so many things that I hardly know where to begin. It is first (and more about this later) that the handwriting, as Buffon might also have said, “c’est l’homme” and also, in our less paternalistic times, “la femme.” Ad almost so as in writing “le style” in writing, is style in speech, tone of voice, hairdo, clothes and any number of other things.
Consider merely what letters are written on. I always resented those on a page of cheap lined paper from a pad or torn from a loose-leaf notebook. That, to me, was like someone going out in the street in his underwear. There is the kind of stationery, but also how the writer uses it. Does he write on both sides of even transparent paper, how much margin does he leave, how many words he gets on a page, what color ink he uses (pencil? Heaven forfend!) , whether he thinks me worthy of a second page, etc. etc.
Then there is the handwriting itself. Is it large a la Hancock, or tiny, in the manner of the Swedish writer Per Wastberg? Is it vertical or slanted, the kind taught in school (when such things were still taught there) or something more individual, is it hasty and messy, or finely crafted and beautiful? I recall that the tycoon Huntington Hartford would not employ anyone whose lower-case g was not closed as in a number 8, but had an aperture at the top of the lower half. That was some sort of nonsense graphology, a discipline to be reserved for detective work and court cases.
And what about the things one can do with an envelope? They culminate in Mallarme’s admirable rhyming quatrains, with which he addressed letters to friends, and which the worthy postman, often apostrophized in the first line, always managed to deliver in an age when even mailmen, at least in France, read poetry. They were published as Les Loisirs de la poste, the leisure of the postal service, whose leisure is getting costlier by the minute. In my Harvard days, I too, in emulation of my beloved Mallarme, attempted something similar, addressing with quatrains letters to a Radcliffe girl named Diana Frothingham. I don’t recall whether they reached their destination, but I do remember some of my horrible rhymes, notably the dubiously culinary “brothing ham.” It might better have been ”nothing am,” inasmuch as it never led to getting into that charming but very Protestant New England young lady’s pants.
There are even such niceties as the choice of stamps. I used to—and still do—whenever possible not settle for the basic, humdrum stamp of the requisite denomination, but busied the postal employee with displaying the special issues, and picking the prettiest, or the ones most appropriate to some of my correspondents. I still preserve the original stamp design created for the Canadian mail by a girlfriend who gave me a framed print version of it. The poor woman is long dead, but her stamp, at least in this format, survives. Like the nightingales of Heraclitus, in William Cory’s rendering of the famed Greek epigram, “For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.”
But let’s get to the most important aspect of the handwritten letter. It required some feeling, because of the effort, however minimal, involved. And it required some thought, because it could not be produced as quickly and thoughtlessly as e-mail. This partly because the letter on paper would survive, certainly in human possession, and perhaps even beyond, if it managed to get itself into a printed book.
You really must read at least Thomas Mallon’s remarkable Introduction to Yours Ever, in which, for all his seeming tolerance, he writes, “the relative ease of e-mail feels undeniable, as does . . . the glaze of impersonality over what pops up on that computer screen.” That Introduction comprises, among other things, an invaluable brief history of letter writing, from its alleged beginning with “Queen Atossa, daughter of Cyrus the Great, [writing] the first letter, from Persia, sometime in the sixth century B.C.” or, as Alvin F. Harlow in a 1928 book insisted, much earlier, though unrecorded. From there all the way up to 2009, when Yours Ever was published.
Although Mallon alleges tolerance of it, I cannot really countenance the new language or simplified spelling of computerese, a true atrocity. Even the individual typewriter had its recognizable idiosyncrasies, as Mallon points out. But not so e-mail and the rest. I personally cannot imagine genuine emotion in an e-mail, not even if it’s printed out on paper. Long live snail mail, I say, even if it is not escargot and edible.