Letters – those old-fashioned, often handwritten, paper-consuming artefacts sent in envelopes – suffered a setback with the invention of e-mail. Many people no longer write letters and certainly not at length. Instead, they digitally input. And such is today’s information overload that brevity has become the soul of attention.
The letters of an author (Austen, Zola, Wharton, Nash) or a composer (Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius) or an artist (Picasso, Kahlo) or an actor (Gielgud) give us a glimpse of the human being behind the façade: “The mind alone without corporeal friend” as Emily Dickinson put it. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures Underground and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, kept a register of letters received and sent whose final tally was 98,721. But in future, it seems we may have to content ourselves with perusing someone’s collected e-mails, which will not be the same thing at all.
This is starkly obvious from Bruce Bawer’s consummate review of the latest volume in the publication of Henry James’s letters titled “A sufferable snob” (The New Criterion, June 2015). Bawer outlines an astonishing editorial process that appears to be aimed at the literary elite:
“In 2006, the University of Nebraska Press began issuing a series of volumes entitled The Complete Letters of Henry James under the editorship of Pierre A. Walker and Greg W. Zacharias; this year saw the publication of the eighth volume. According to the editors, there currently exist no fewer than 10,423 ‘known letters’ from the hand of Henry James. Some of them are in manuscript, have never been published, and are held in ‘at least 132 repositories and private collections’; others, the original manuscripts of which may or may not have been lost or destroyed, have previously appeared in print, either in Leon Edel’s definitive biography of James or in some other book or journal (over two hundred in all). Walker and Zacharias, whose book will include every last one of these missives, expect their series to run to ‘at least 140 individual volumes.’ The math here is easy: since the first eight volumes have taken eight years to bring out, the entire set of 140 volumes can, at the present rate, be expected to take some 140 years to complete.”
Scholars apart, who is ever going to read 140 volumes of letters? In comparison, reading the complete plays of Shakespeare or the novels of Charles Dickens is child’s play. Some people go to great lengths to destroy their correspondence to prevent it being made public, others write with half an eye on posterity. But in an age of digital correspondence, it is less and less likely that letters will ever be collected (except, as Hillary Clinton has come to realize, by political historians) or that they will retain the same value. As Bawer remarks:
“Nowadays, half the world is on social media; billions of people alive today will leave in cyberspace massive and indelible, if hopelessly dispersed and disorderly, archives of their lives – countless gigabytes precisely documenting, in words and photographs and moving images, their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, the lives and deaths of their pets, their activities with family, friends, neighbors, and fellow workers, their births and baptisms, marriages and funerals, their vacations, their religious convictions and political views, not to mention their tastes in jokes and in pornography. But who alive today will leave a personal record remotely like this ever-expanding set of Henry James letters, which, so far at least, is not only complete but sublimely coherent and contextualized?”
Not every writer is a Henry James, of course, and fascination with Belle Époque mores in New York, Paris and London is likely to dissipate when it comes to 21st century culture and lifestyles – although that is a singularly western point of view. But the real demon is information overload and attention deficit. Bits and bytes have replaced lengthy narrative and detailed exposition.
The British novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, friend of Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charlotte Brontë, was an avid letter-writer. In 1858, her long novella My Lady Ludlow was published in the weekly magazine Household Words edited by Dickens. Depicting the decline of aristocratic power and influence and the rise of a new professional class, the story recounts episodes in the lives of the widowed Countess of Ludlow and the spinster Miss Galindo. The book opens with old Margaret, the narrator, recalling her youth:
“Then letters came in but three times a week: indeed, in some places in Scotland where I have stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month; – but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken.”
In a world of slogans and sound bites, where net lingo, chat acronyms, emoji and emoticons rule, there seems to be less and less room for what Sam Weller, in The Pickwick Papers, describes as “The great art o’ letter writin’.”