October 18, 2013 7:08 pm

Can the art of letter writing survive?

Paper correspondence may be dwindling but the instinct to share and discuss will remain, writes Andrew Hill

To the Letter: A Journey Through a Vanishing World, by Simon Garfield, Canongate, RRP£16.99, 464 pages

Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, compiled by Shaun Usher, Canongate/Unbound, RRP£30, 384 pages

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Andrew Hill

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years, by Tom Standage, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99/$26, 288 pages

 

For more than 200 years from its beginnings in the 1770s, the Dead Letter Office was where Americans’ letters and parcels were sent if they were unclaimed or undeliverable. Some items were redirected: the DLO had a “blind reading” department trained to decipher illegible or vague addresses (“To my Son he lives out West he drives a red ox the rale rode goes By Thar”). The office would incinerate the others or auction their contents, which included, according to one sale list, anything from wedding rings to “False Bosoms” and quack medicines, such as “the cure-all Tennessee Swamp Shrub”. It was estimated that 6bn pieces of mail were posted in the US in 1898, of which 6.3m ended up at the DLO in Washington, DC. “What romance was to be had in an undelivered or undeliverable letter!” Simon Garfield writes in To The Letter. “And what mystery and sadness too.”

Well, the romance and mystery have certainly gone. The US Postal Service has renamed the DLO the Mail Recovery Center, consolidated four locations into one in Atlanta, Georgia, and is pushing through a “Lean Six Sigma” process improvement project to make it more efficient. Asked if they write letters, most people would echo the DLO’s famous fictional former clerk Bartleby in the Herman Melville story: “I would prefer not to.”

Plainly, instant electronic means of communication – email, of course, but increasingly social media such as Twitter and Facebook – have pushed pen, paper and postboxes to the edge of most private correspondents’ consciousness. It may be nice to think that investors’ enthusiasm for this month’s public offering of shares in Britain’s Royal Mail, the world’s oldest postal service, is based on a revival of letter writing, “the humane art, which owes its origins to the love of friends”, in Virginia’s Woolf’s words. In fact, Royal Mail’s daily postbag is at its lowest for 20 years, and it predicts the volume of letters – most of which are for business and marketing – will fall at up to 6 per cent a year. The Royal Mail’s future lies in delivery of items ordered on the internet. Even Postman Pat, the children’s cartoon character, has had to amend his theme tune to reflect the fact he now brings more “parcels through your door” than letters.

A postman delivers letters in Greenwich, south London, 1885©Science & Society Picture Library

A postman delivers letters in Greenwich, south London, 1885

Still, it would be misleading to say that sadness is the only sentiment peddled by Garfield in his excellent, often amusing and sometimes moving new book. He makes the point that between “the inbox and the shoebox”, only one will be “treasured, hoarded, moved when we move or forgotten to be found afterwards ... Emails are a poke, but letters are a caress and letters stick around to be newly discovered.” But while he is surely right that letters and letter writing constitute “a vanishing world”, this is more a celebration of the form than an obituary.

The letters themselves provide the music for the celebration. Garfield quotes at length, letting the reader trace the initial ardour and ultimate disappointment of Napoleon’s correspondence and romance with Josephine, for instance. (It ends with a letter sent in 1811, after their divorce, in which the emperor signs off, ungallantly: “Adieu, dear. Send me word that you are well. They say that you are as fat as a good Normandy farmeress.”) The erotic affair between Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin follows a similar epistolary trajectory, with Nin, in 1950, touchingly reassessing the relationship first forged in Paris of the 1930s: “Probably if I had the sense of humour I have today and if you had then the qualities you have today, nothing would have broken,” she writes.

Garfield intersperses exchanges between famous correspondents – Abelard and Héloïse, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – with an immensely affecting set of letters from signalman Chris Barker, one-time post office messenger, to Bessie Moore in the closing years of the second world war, as their love grows despite, or possibly because of, the distance between them. These letters demonstrate, perhaps better than the more famous correspondence, what will have been lost when the last letter is posted. Garfield argues that letters are the product of an alchemy that electronic equivalents strain to recreate. To support his contention, he cites a long-distance relationship between his 25-year-old son and a woman he met and liked while on holiday in Portugal. The intimacy withered because they stayed in touch by email, not letter, he claims: “The problem was, this was all too instant. He would write, she would reply, and then he’d be obliged to write again, probably on the same day. But there was nothing significant to report, and so the whole thing fizzled out almost as soon as it began.”

 

Electronic communications may be new but the conversations facilitated by email, Twitter and Facebook updates and instant messaging are not. Letters used to be exchanged with the regularity of email, with messages sometimes sent and received many times daily. In 1910, each person in Britain sent on average an extraordinary 116.7 items of mail. What we think of as a 21st-century phenomenon – social media – is rather “a return to the way things used to be”, claims Tom Standage in Writing on the Wall. His book starts roughly at the same place as To the Letter, with Cicero’s abundant correspondence from the 1st century BC, and ends similarly, with the birth and growth of the internet and email. But where Simon Garfield takes the branch of literary development that leads to personal letters – intimate, mostly bilateral communications between individuals – Standage pursues the road that leads to public declarations: Paul’s epistles, pamphlets from John Milton to Thomas Paine, and letters intended for publication and distribution. In his account, Cicero’s letters survived because they were copied and passed on to others. “Cicero and his web of contemporaries became so used to exchanging information by letter, with messengers coming and going throughout the day, that they considered it an extension of spoken conversation,” Standage writes.

The parallels with modern social media are clear. “How Luther Went Viral” is the title of the chapter about how Martin Luther’s 95 theses were circulated, at a time when the number of editions of pamphlets was the equivalent to “the number of Likes, retweets, reblogs, +1s, or page views” a piece of content generates online today. The social networks of the past, such as the coffee-houses of London in the 18th century, had their critics, who condemned them in strikingly similar terms to those used by 21st-century sceptics, for “distracting people and encouraging them to waste time sharing trivia with their friends when they ought to be doing useful work”. Standage makes a strong case that the 150 years or so when mass media – from newspapers to television – centralised opinion and news and peddled it to passive readers and viewers were an aberration in the long historical domination of social media. He offers hope for the letter as a form of writing – though it is not his theme – because he makes clear that people’s instinct to share, discuss, and transmit their deepest, most strongly held feelings survives and adapts, even as technology changes.

Something new may even emerge. A colleague says he has overheard some of the digital generation discussing how a really devoted lover should write a letter by hand, scan it and email it to his or her partner. Jon McGregor, writer-in-residence at the University of Nottingham’s School of English, has just published the first edition of The Letters Page, a literary journal in letters, distributed as a free PDF attachment (with an annual printed version to come). It is explicitly not an exercise in wistfulness but, rather, an exploration of letters’ form and style as people shift from print to screen: a discussion of, among other things, “the democracy of correspondence as a literary practice”, as McGregor puts it in his first editorial.

Garfield points to other experiments aimed at keeping letters alive – Letters in the Mail, whose subscribers receive photocopied letters by post every month, or MoreLoveLetters.com, which sends billets-doux to strangers. The trend may point to a monopoly for digital communications but it is not all one-way traffic. On holiday this summer, my family used Touchnote, a mobile application that takes your photos, message and signature and converts them into a postcard sent the old-fashioned way, through the mail. The Russian newspaper Izvestia reported this year that the Kremlin was ordering a batch of electric typewriters to prepare top secret memos that would be less prone to leakage than online communication.

 

Mash-ups of the digital and the analogue will never really replace Simon Garfield’s shoebox. But devotees of the physical artefact can, instead, pore over Letters of Note – itself an example of a revived form: a book “crowd-funded” by its readers, as in the 17th or 18th century, via the online publisher Unbound. It is a gloriously presented compilation of 125 of the best submissions to the Letters of Note website . It includes Alabama attorney-general Bill Baxley’s 1976 response, on official headed paper, to a white supremacist’s threats (“Kiss my ass”), and Francis Crick’s letter to his 12-year-old son Michael explaining, with illustrations, his joint discovery of the “very beautiful” structure of DNA.

The Crick letter was sold at auction for $5.3m in April, making it the most expensive letter in history. It could be a good investment. Its intrinsic interest apart, you would expect its value only to increase, as surviving physical examples of the form become more fragile and the number of new handwritten letters dwindles to a last post of greetings cards, formulaic “thank you” notes and laboured condolences. Dead letters, indeed.

“Letters. When carried they are a permanent news. I miss them,” writes Irish novelist Colum McCann in The Letters Page. But letters have been written off before. A combination of luck, nostalgia, youthful ingenuity, new technology and old emotions suggests there is room for, at the very least, an interesting postscript.

Andrew Hill is an associate editor and the FT’s management editor

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