U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Inarticulate by Choice: the Decline of Letter Writing and the Future of the Intellectual Past, Part Two

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Along with others of my generation, I have witnessed the decline of the practice of letter writing in my lifetime.

My question in this small series of posts is whether this matters. On a personal level, it matters to me greatly. But for our purposes here on the USIH blog, I am hoping one or two people might ruminate with me about what we might be losing not just personally but also professionally, if anything, with the demise of letter writing. Should we accept with acquiescence the complete displacement of this ancient practice by electronic forms of communication–email, text messaging, Facebook, and the like? Are they really the same or even better as seems to be widely assumed?

I mentioned in last week’s post that I had the experience of exchanging letters with a close friend for the duration of the semester I recently spent in Italy. Here, we both use email, including to keep in touch with one another in between the times we spend together, so we saw this as an experiment to see whether letter-writing was, in fact, the ideal way for us to keep in touch for those five months. If it wasn’t, we were ready to communicate in the ways more common today. But it was ideal. As a result, I am drawing on this experience, since it is so fresh in my mind, to try to articulate what I, as just one witness to this momentous change in personal communications, find so different about exchanging letters. While I already knew what letters meant to me growing up, re-experiencing them after moving on to electronic forms of communication has made this difference very clear.

For anyone who has received even one meaningful letter in his or her lifetime, the benefits are well known. From a personal, or better human, standpoint, it should go without saying (though I think in these times it does not) that experiences that involve the five senses are often more deeply gratifying than those that do not. There are few things in life more wonderful than receiving an actual, tangible letter from someone one loves. The love letter, after all, is legendary for making tangible the presence of the beloved in his or her absence. Hence, customs of yore like adding a scent of perfume or kissing the seal (the Internet age didn’t invent abbreviations, though it may have made them less endearing than S.W.A.K.) Recipients seem to go into a kind of a trance, and the act of opening the letter is, without doubt, a sensory experience…

But, snapping back to professional reality here, is there something about letters that is lost for those whose relations do not necessarily fall in the category of the hopelessly in love, at least in the romantic sense?

I would contend, yes. Briefly this has to do with several characteristics of certain letters, such as those to which we often turn in intellectual history. Because we have moved on wholesale to other forms of communication, these characteristics are easily put in sharp profile by way of contrast with email.

Length. Emails are, as general rule, much shorter than a typical letter exchanged between two correspondents really aiming to communicate something.

Time. The time it takes to write a letter is, as a general rule, thus longer than for an email. Consequently, it takes longer to read.

Composition. The passage of time alone does something to the process of composition. By now, it is a well-known and oft-heard complaint that most emails show signs of having been written in haste. Typos, grammatical errors, and missing punctuation marks are commonplace. But composing a letter calls out for more than just correction. When time is allowed to pass during the writing process, the mind goes through different dispositions or moods in its encounter with the subject it is contemplating and sees different sides of the question. These moods are reflected in the style of our writing, which is (typically–of course there are exemplary emails and less than stellar letters) so different in a letter versus an email message.

These moods can be discerned in other kinds of writing which, so far, have survived the electronic communications revolution. We still see fit to write essays, articles, and books, after all. And on the pages of these, whether tangible pieces of paper or visual representations of them on screen, certain words mark these changes of mood quite openly: however, further, in illustration, etc. But there are other changes of mood not signaled so openly, unnoticed sometimes even by the one writing, let alone the one reading. These subtleties can be fascinating and uniquely revealing. They give us a sense of the complicated texture of our thoughts, their ins and outs, our ups and downs, their intermingling with our other thoughts. Their playing out over time is one of the main gifts we receive when we get to share in someone else’s thoughts, isn’t it?

Deliberateness. Once one has spent any length of time composing a letter, just as with building a wall or planting a garden or teaching one’s child or student, it is natural to stand back, even momentarily. Whether just taking in a breath after any form of exertion more extensive than a brief spurt of energy, or by disposition or habit surveying the results, one generally takes another look before pressing “send,” unlike with email. We do not have to go any further for evidence of this built-in pause for reflection than the institution of the unsent letter, something in symbiotic relation to the letter itself, which we have so far assumed to have been sent to its designated recipient.

When someone takes a second look at his or her words before presenting them to someone else, conveying them becomes a deliberate act.

There is much to be said for sharing ideas outside of the choreography of deliberateness. Far be it from me to rule out altogether the spontaneous expression between two people, though its beauty (or helpfulness, depending on the context) may in truth lie in its rarity. But surely unedited and edited expression can coexist.

What will a world without deliberateness in written communication between people look like?

Privacy. Yet the kind of deliberateness that comes into play is different from that which prevails when one is preparing a piece for wider circulation. For me, one of the most off-putting aspects of email and Facebook-type networking is the fudging that is possible regarding who is the proper recipient, the potential use of these forms for communication with more than one person at a time. I realize they do not have to be used that way, and that the mass production and consumption of home printers that scan, fax, and copy have brought new ease to the copying of even a real letter. However, letter writing, as an inherited practice with a history, brings with it expectations that appear to be lacking in the newer communication forms that are untethered to traditions of privacy and uniqueness.

Receiving a letter you know was meant for you and only you is different from receiving an email. Your name and address are hand-written on the envelope, perhaps more commonly now, since not all of us print envelopes, or typed by means of computer or even the occasional typewriter. The envelope and paper, like the writing implement used to draft the letter, was a choice made with the full knowledge that you would be the recipient. If the upshot was just that you feel special, these things could be dismissed as superficial, I suppose. Our culture of marketing and advertising capitalizes on the omnipresent desire to feel special. What is different in this case is these signs of consideration adorn contents that resist the usual homogenization, commodification, and superficiality of today’s cult of personalization. In this case, there is no consumer item, nothing that has to be insured for hundreds of dollars, but instead something often far more valuable: thought as expressed in words. But this is not thought aimed at just anyone. It is thought tailored precisely for you, either as a small group, or better yet, a single individual. And it is generally not–not yet, anyway–thought that is prepared for formal publication. (Some letter writers of course address themselves to more than one person and still others have their eye on eventual publication. But they are still writing for someone in particular in the here and now.)

Eclecticism. A professional email tends to focus on a single topic. Even when not narrowly devoted to one concrete task, which is not often, it is rarely as mixed in content as a letter. Letters, by form, tend to blend personal and professional topics, even if one is dominant. This eclecticism makes letters different from other private forms of communication and as well as public ones.

Eclecticism brings freedom to explore different sides of a question and, in fact, different questions altogether, without having to justify why to the same extent as in an article or paper. The usual expectation of limited focus so much a part of email today prevails only in the most pared-down kind of professional letter designed to accomplish a concrete task with speed and efficiency. In a more involved letter that aims at an exchange of ideas, non sequitur is par for the course. There is much variation, but for the most part while thoughts are organized in paragraphs, paragraphs do not have to relate to one another directly. Thus, while there might be a greater deliberateness, more editing and attention to form, there can also be greater freedom in content.

This freedom, I realize, could be why forms like this one, the blog post, currently have such appeal. Some of the old letter writing energies may have been redirected here. In the starkly bifurcated world of memo-type work emails and published work, where else can people explore ideas together in a way that does not enforce unity and formal coherence prematurely? Of course there are conversations in person or long telephone conversations, which are in a class of their own. But generally speaking, they leave no written record, as journal writing seems to be going the same way as the letter. This is good for one of the values above, privacy, but not always so good for the multi-layered communication that can happen when one spends time thinking about someone else when not in his or her presence. Blog posts, new for me to consider, do not of course have the precision regarding the intended reader(s) that distinguishes letters.

Meditation. Ultimately, what struck me the most about my recent re-immersion in letter writing was the way it enhanced the meditative aspects of my life. Others commented that receiving letters these days is such an unusual treat that they could not understand how I could resist tearing a letter open and reading it immediately upon receipt. Instead a letter can sit on my desk unopened for a significant amount of time.

At first this was not the case. But the exchange of letters, and the amazing regularity of them in our case, soon tapped into a part of life often shunted to the side by the press of daily events–or more aptly, tapped into a particular disposition toward all of life. It was a disposition with which I was familiar, but not to this degree.

I knew that within each received envelope there awaited a report of various happenings, ranging from the mundane to the seemingly miraculous, that constitute a person’s days; her musings on the political scene; her exquisite observations of the natural world, news of which she conveyed with as much attentiveness as with the human world; the activities of family members, friends, and acquaintances, some shared and some unknown to me; her own projects and plans; and a sensitive response to what I had written her in my last letter, or to something perhaps from our history as friends. This bounty removed a kind of underlying tone of urgency in the daily experience of time and put in its place a kind of generalized desire to savor, reflect, contemplate, meditate.

I chose to read her letters when I could concentrate solely on them and enter this state of mind. Doing so freed me from the demands of the moment, however wonderful they too might be at that time, or however difficult. Concrete current moments, hours, or days can exert such powerful influences on thought and feeling and as much as we might know these influences should not hold such sway, they often do. But there have existed various traditions, institutions, practices, or habits that help limit their influence, when negative, and shore up that alternative disposition. As they fall away, isn’t it a whole way of life we are losing–a way of life that is inextricable from our field of study? We are acquainted with the way in which the demands of teaching and committee work can edge out time for our “own work.” Yet it is not just time it edges out, but a particular kind of meditative or contemplative state, as in the deeper level of concentration required of a long, ongoing project versus a quick answer to a small, focused question or the completion of a specific task.

In the case of intellectual history, edging out this meditative state might mean losing just about everything.

To be continued…

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Very thoughtful piece, Elizabeth. I often wonder how the role of correspondence will change for historians a century or more from now. Being an early Americanist, I often use private correspondence as primary sources. How will email compare for future generations of historians? Firstly, there is the loss of eclecticism as you point out. From my own personal experience, email serves the purposes of very short, focused messages. Hence, the more introspective, analytical, contemplative (non-face-to-face) communications I share generally come through video chats. For contemporary subjects, these communications, which used to be part of letter writing and therefore preserved, will be lost. Secondly, there is the issue of privacy. However, in terms of future historical practice, I would stress the accessibility aspect of privacy. That is, what kind of contingencies will affect historians’ access to individuals’ emails. Where many subjects in the 18th century expected that future historians would read their letters (and wrote accordingly), I would venture to say that is not the case now with email. Sure, future historians will likely have access to some form of official/governmental emails, but with preservation policies of numerous email hosting services constantly subject to change, it is hard to imagine what would be available to future historians of, say, early 21st-century subjects. There will likely also be case-by-case issues in terms of securing (or failing to secure) permission to access the email of a deceased individual. I apologize for my somewhat rant-like comment, but these are a few of the possible effects of the new dominance of electronic communication on historical practice to go along with your discussion of its effects on us as individuals.

  2. Email can’t carry tone. Email loves to joke and snap. But I’m a writer, and I feel it fighting against me when I try to write someone something slow, serious, contemplative, or just sad.

    Email eats true emotion.

  3. Jim Harrison said…

    One considerable virtue of email, one which folks don’t always appreciate enough, is the opportunity it provides to cover your ass with a minimum of risk. Since people seldom actually read emails, that is, bother to take in the particulars of the message, the sender is free to tell the truth with practical impunity. Since the message has been sent and a record of it persists, nobody can claim you hadn’t warned the other guys about what was going on. You broke the bad news and spoke truth to power, secure in the knowledge that the chances were good that no boat was rocked because nobody registered what you said.

  4. Elisabeth,

    I guess the biggest problem with emails is their biggest benefit: they offer a near-immediate, almost effortless means of communicating thought — perhaps before thought is ready to be communicated. It’s so ridiculously convenient to make the move from thought to text, sender to missive to recipient, that a lot of stuff that probably doesn’t need to be said, or written, or read — at least not yet, not in its initial form — gets sent out. (I will thank my colleagues on the blog not to pipe up with testimonials about how illustrative my emails may/may not be of this general observation! Suffice it to say that every time I send a less-than-stellar email to my colleagues, I think, “Oh crap — I’ve just written that to a bunch of intellectual historians; somebody’s liable to save it.” Lord help.)

    That said, I’m trying to figure out which slope of the mountainside we’re sliding down in the narrative of declension you have given us here. You’re regretting the loss of letter writing/receiving as an aesthetic experience, but also (I think) regretting the kind of archival loss Michael alludes to in his comment. There’s a sense of nostalgia for a way of communicating, but also a concern for “professional reality.” It seems that you’re asking what we lose as intellectual historians if we embrace the cultural shift from ink-and-paper to bits-and-pixels.

    I’m not sure that we lose anything. (I can’t believe that I, of all people, am making this argument!) We ought to recognize the change, and understand the change — but I’m not quite convinced that, as a profession, we need to lament the change (except, as noted above, for the archival/evidentiary difficulties it brings about).

    What we have in email, text messages, etc., is a different kind of record than what we have in letters. It dips into the stream of thought at a different depth — perhaps at too shallow a depth, as your post suggests. But at the same time, these records might allow us to construct a new picture of how thought flows where currents, ideas, impulses are quick to shift.

    That’s a kind of evidence to which we have not had access — mediated and mediating, as all evidence is, but still perhaps useful for understanding what it means for ideas to move at the speed of light.

    Of course, perhaps I am being overly broad and generous in my definition of “idea.”

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