The Inner Life of Letters

It is widely claimed that an e-mail differs from a written letter in several notable respects. In The Inner Life of E-Mail (Salmagundi Winter-Spring 2007), Philip Stevick claims that a “highly stylized, ritualized performance” takes place when we write an e-mail but not in writing a letter.

“Although the recipient is obviously not present, a rather considerable range of performance strategies are available. Writers of letters would seem to be free to manipulate their texts, disarranging lines, marking emphases in various ways, drawing little pictures. But writers of conventional letters almost never do. It seems vulgar and indecorous to do so in a letter….But all writers of e-mail know that their texts are remarkably malleable and many people do indeed manipulate their texts unthinkable in a letter.”

Is this the case? In a letter to Nadejda von Meck, Tchaikovsky wrote:

“It seems to me that letters are not perfectly sincere—I am judging by myself. No matter to whom I am writing, I am always conscious of the effect of my letter, not only upon the person to whom it is addressed, but by any chance reader. Consequently, I embroider…I am not quite myself in my correspondence….When I read the correspondence of great men, published after there death, I am always disturbed by a vague sense of insincerity and falsehood.”

Isn’t this true for almost any form of communication? A friend wrote to me:

“…the same could be said of all evidence. Do you not think that the same thing could be said of many a diary keeper? …No biographical or historical evidence should be taken as fact in isolation. The historian or biographer can only say if it all adds up to a coherent picture. …is anyone ever really writing JUST for themselves when they write a diary? I don’t think so—even when they think they are. I think, even if just unconsciously a writer has to be aware of the potential “audience” as soon as the mental becomes physical.”

There is also reason to doubt the claim that e-mails are sent without much deliberation or, as Stevick suggests, in a rather “casual, improvisational” manner that is “unthinkable in a letter.” It certainly isn’t characteristic of messages composed offline, which I often do, especially when I want them to be written carefully. They are not necessarily written in a frenzy or carelessly edited.

I have known others who do the same. A friend writes: “I can assure you that I spent ample time crafting those expression [sent in an e-mail] that was equal if not greater than most of my paper letters.” In turn the recipient may take just as much time and care in replying, so that the entire exchange may take several days or weeks to complete. In this way, an online exchange can mirror the delicate temporal features of sending and receiving a traditional letter sent through the mail.

Thus, I find wanting the claim that an e-mail message differs significantly from a letter. In some cases, they are functionally indistinguishable. An e-mail message does not simply disappear after they have been sent if the writer takes pains to print a copy. Nor must they be replied to or composed instantly. There is nothing about an e-mail message per se that prevents it from being every bit as literate as a traditional letter often is.

Do we write e-mails when we should be writing traditional letters instead? I grappled with this problem a few years ago in writing to the parents of the woman my son became engaged to marry. I spent a good deal of time crafting my letter. Naturally, this was done on the computer. When I had finished, I puzzled over how to send it.

Should I print the letter, put it an envelope and post it in the mail? Or simply e-mail it to them? Yes, the posted letter still seemed the proper thing to do and I didn't want them to think I didn't know my manners. But I wanted to communicate with them right away. I knew the letter would take the better part of a week to reach them. What would be so wrong about e-mailing it to them? In either case, the message would be identical. "Get with it, Richard," I declared. I e-mailed the parents my letter. They replied in kind the very next day. We have been e-mailing each with pleasure ever since.