Losing Permanence

When was the last time you received a personal letter in the mail, one written or typed from a person you know? When was the last time you wrote such a letter? In the days before the Internet this is the way we communicated. I miss those days. I miss getting a letter in the mailbox once in a while.

And those who wish to study the past and learn more about it will miss the treasure chest of such letters if the practice of writing them succumbs to the lure of e-mails. What will happen when it becomes time to write the histories of our era? No more letters to be found in the archives. What will happen to the biographers of the future? No more letters between the poets and their writer friends. Who saves their e-mails these days?

I am writing this note because I wish to encourage a return to fine art of writing letters, to what Yeats called one of the excellent old ways. I am also writing this note while reading a delightful new book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, written in the manner of an epistolary novel, a literary form that could claim some degree of popularity a century or so ago.

In the introduction to The Oxford Book of Letters published in 1995, the editors, Frank and Anita Kermode, make the following claim. “Most of us write at least half a dozen letters of one sort or another every week, so that in the fifty or sixty years of a normal letter writing life many people must dispatch 18,000 letters.”

Who in the world could they be talking about? Since they are English, they are no doubt referring to people who live in Great Britain. But it is hard to imagine the British are much different in this respect than individuals who live in the United States. I suspect most of us are lucky if we write less than half a dozen genuine letters in a year.

Of course, now we write e-mails instead of letters, a mode of communication that many commentators claim is indistinguishable from a traditional letter. In my view, electronic epistles bear only a distant relationship with such letters. They are shorter and usually far less serious or reasoned than a carefully composed letter, especially when they are drafted as rapidly as e-mails usually are.

In a New Yorker essay a few years ago Noelle Oxenhandler maintained they also differ greatly in the temporal features and in the rhythms associated with they way are composed and then sent. She wrote:

“....I used to love the feeling of dropping a letter into the box. For several days, the letter-in-transit would hover around the edges of my consciousness. This delay was an intrinsic part of the pleasure of letter writing. It had a special tense all its own: when the “must do” turns into the “just done.” And, as the letter hovered, I also savored a kind of prescience in relation to my friend. During those two or three days, I knew, at least in some small measure, what would befall her: a letter in the box! As Iris Murdock has written, “The sending of a letter constitutes a magical grasp upon the future.” But now the old magic has given way to the new. And though a fax or an E-mail may lie in wait for its recipient, it nonetheless gets from here to there in a matter of moments, and its waiting has none of the sealed mystery about it that attends a letter in its envelope.”

Others have pointed out that letters have a degree of permanence that is quite different than messages sent over the Internet. In a review of M. F. K. Fischer’s A Life in Letters, Betty Fussell comments: “Had she lived in another decade, many of her letters might have been lost forever, flashed on screen to be read and discarded in a matter of minutes. A Life in Letters reminds one of what is lost in the magic of electronic mail: permanence.”