A lot has changed since the beginning of the past century. My grandmother was always amused by the fact that she was born before the Wright Brothers flew and lived to see men walking on the moon.
She might also have said she was born before the Russian Revolution and lived to see Communism punk out and die.
But there are smaller, less monumental changes, too. Men used to habitually take their hats off upon entering public buildings. For that matter, men used to wear fedoras and trilbies, but now, if they wear hats at all, they tend to wear them with their peaks turned backwards, perhaps to protect their necks from the sun, like a havelock. Elbows used to be banned from tables and doors used to be held.
Some of these changes have been all to the good. We wear seatbelts in cars now. Antibiotics have meant that a cut on the finger doesn’t lead to death. Women have the vote. Harvey Weinstein is in jail. All to the good.
This comes to mind because I have been reading The Oxford Book of Letters, edited by Frank and Anita Kermode. It is a beautiful volume, in that rich, deep blue fabric binding and gold titling that distinguishes the work of the Oxford University Press. In it are hundreds of missives, beginning with a 1535 letter by Sir Antony Windsor to Lady Lisle and ending with a 1985 letter from Philip Larkin to Kingsley Amis. (About Lady Lisle, the second wife of Arthur Plantagenet, Viscount Lisle, it was said she was “incomparably evil.” Letters are a great source of historical gossip.)
Lady Lisle also apparently gave Lord Edmund Howard (father of Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard) a cure for kidney stones. He wrote to thank her: “So it is I have this night after midnight taken your medicine, for the which I heartily thank you, for it hath done me much good, and hath caused the stone to break, so that now I void much gravel. But for all that, your said medicine hath done me little honesty, for it made me piss my bed this night, for the which my wife hath sore beaten me, and saying it is children’s parts to bepiss their bed. Ye have made me such a pisser that I dare not this day go abroad, wherefore I beseech you to make mine excuse to my Lord and Master Treasurer, for that I shall not be with you this day at dinner.”
Lord Edmund was luckier than his daughter; he only lost his continence.
So many of these letters are either entertaining for their anecdotes or impressive for their style. Many are acrimonious. Katherine Mansfield wrote to Princess Bibesco in 1921 about an affair the princess was having with Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry. She wrote: “I am afraid you must stop writing these little love letters to my husband while he and I live together. It is one of the things which is not done in our world. … Please do not make me have to write to you again. I do not like scolding people and simply hate having to teach them manners.”
Not included in this book, which contains only letters written in English, is one of my favorites, written by German composer Max Reger to the critic Rudolf Louis, after Louis published a bad review of Reger’s Sinfonietta in A. “I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review before me; it will soon be behind me.”
There is often a spontaneity to letters that text written for publication lacks. Their offhandedness lets us see their authors with their hair down and their tunics unbuttoned. And they let us see the thought processes that can underline the finished work that is later published. The letters of Vincent van Gogh, for instance, are treasured for the insight they give, not only to the artist’s work, but into art and esthetics in general. He was an unkempt but profound writer.
But I am not lamenting the loss of letter writing only because of the professionals. I miss the intimacy that grows between friends when they communicate with each other over distance. A distance that shrinks to nothing with the opening of an envelope and the avid consumption of its contents.
When my wife died, the letters I received from a friend who had a similar loss were the single most comforting balm I got. There was much sympathy from others and the sentiments were truly appreciated, but the fact that she and I shared this experience gave her letters a truthfulness and understanding that were the only thing that actually helped. I cannot properly put a value on the importance of receiving those letters.
I’m not sure what has led to the decline of the practice, although the rise of e-mails must take a good share of the blame. E-mails have a cloying impersonal life on the computer screen or worse, the cell phone. And they tend to be short. A good letter can go on for glorious pages; a typical e-mail has the businesslike efficiency of an eviction notice. Worse still, the Twitter tweet. Even blown open to 280 characters, it is not even long enough for a 17th century salutation: “To my esteemed colleague, friend and benefactor, Lord Essington, Earl of Hardwick and champion of the oppressed Irish during this time of travail amongst the peasants, and cousin to her ladyship Princess Analine, and father of my dear wife, who sends her greeting with this note … etc., etc. etc. …”
I’m afraid I am still at heart a letter writer. Although most of those I produce now are sent via e-mail. My recipients must cringe when they get that beep on their machines and see my name in the heading, knowing that they will be asked to read two or three pages worth of chatter instead of the laconic “Arrived Dec. 10. Things going well.”
But sending even a long e-mail is cheating. It precludes the pleasure we almost never enjoy anymore and that is being able to slit open an envelope and read an actual letter, on paper, in writing, that we can carry with us and don’t need to boot up to read.
Before the days of the internet, I used to write letters prolifically. In March of 1979, for instance, I wrote in that single month, 500 pages of typescript that I mailed out, doling the missives to a dozen different friends and acquaintances. A year later, one letter alone, that I wrote to my closest friends was 64 pages long. Part of it was a description of a visit to the Seattle Aquarium:
“Huge scrotal octopods, all valves, siphons and tentacles, are strangely graceful.
“A lime-white seastar rests on the sand and over it a flounder, like some Arabian magic carpet, flies, wavering its Persian body.
“Looking sleepy among the rocks is a wolf eel with its prizefighter’s prognathous face. He is metallic blue with black coindots in bands across his body. He slithers around the floor boulders prehistorically.
“A sculpin stares straight at me from behind the glass with two Japanese fans for fins. A round, flattened seaperch floats slowly past the window. He has neon blue skin showing through rows of brown scales. From a distance he just looks brown, but up close, he is a vision.”
Those were days when I was seriously lonely, first living in Seattle (the 64-page letter was about my life there), and then when I moved back to North Carolina and felt so alone in the world that I suffered a complete mental disjunction. The letters helped me feel human again. I was making contact; I did have friends, after all.
I was living in Summerfield, N.C., at the time, some rural miles north of Greensboro, and on a sunny day, I would take my aqua-green plastic-framed clatter-keyed portable typewriter out to the tree stump near the woodshed and sit down and pound away on the keyboard for hours, writing letters to everyone I knew. I made carbons as I typed, so I still have many of these letters, though the paper is getting a touch brittle and some of the carbon ink is smudged and fading.
But these relics are a kind of diary of my time then. Letters often work that way for their authors. It feels a bit solipsistic to keep a journal, but the accumulation of letters does the same thing in a more gregarious way. And by sharing thoughts with friends you feel more connected with the world, part of it, necessary to it.
It is said the only way to becoming a good writer is to write. And the practice of writing letters is how I became proficient enough to land a job at a newspaper, where over a quarter of a century, I produced two-and-a-half-million words. I look back at my own archive of letters — a fraction of those I wrote — and see in them the growing ability, from awkward to fluent.
In their introduction to the book, the Kermodes wrote: “The archives of the world are crammed with letters. Even when, around the beginning of the present century, the telegram and then the telephone took over much of the quotidian correspondence, the old epistolary habit persisted; huge numbers of letters continued as usual to be written, most, as usual, dashed off with little premeditation, some, as before, carefully composed, polished perhaps from an original draft; and if the writers were at all famous many scribbles were preserved along with the weightier and more considered effusions. According to Dan H. Laurence, the editor of a four-volume selection, there were ‘tens of thousands’ of G.B Shaw letters extant, and of these his very large book includes only about a couple of thousand. Of a far less busy writer, E. M Forster, about 11,000 letters survive. The correspondence of Virginia Woolf occupies six big volumes, and that of D.H. Lawrence, who died at 44, requires seven. These people were not, so to speak, professional letter writers like Horace Walpole, whose correspondence fills almost fifty volumes in the Yale edition; their letters were incidental to their main business in life, though one could say they had the scribbling habit.”
It would be hard, they say, to imagine an “Oxford Book of E-mails.”
We are now asked to stay home for our own good and for the good of others, and to maintain a “social isolation.” What a good time to regain the intimacy of the written letter. Certainly better than watching 18 hours of TV a day.