U.S. Intellectual History Blog

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

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Gabriel Metsu, Man Writing a Letter, c. 1664-6

This continues my rumination on the influence of the demise of letter-writing on us and the future practice of intellectual history.

Questions for ongoing contemplation:
What will be the future of intellectual history without letters?
What will be the future of the life of the mind without letters?
Without letters, what will be the future of life, love, and learning between and among people who spend much of their time lost in thought?
What do letters provide that our current electronic communications cannot?
Can we picture a renaissance of letter-writing and the attendant emotional, intellectual, even spiritual practices that have often accompanied it?
Can we nurture what is best in electronic communications, helping to humanize them, but counteract what is worst? Can we aim for a blend of new and old practices that foster a certain richness of private intellectual exchange qua interpersonal communication, given the change in technology and daily habits we have experienced of late?

In my last post, I listed some unique aspects of letter-writing that strike me as too important to abandon recklessly: the length of a letter; the time it takes to write and read one; the role of composition in letter-writing, which fosters and accommodates changing mental moods; its deliberateness; its (initial) privacy and intention to speak personally to another unique, (usually) existing person; the eclecticism of its content; and, finally, the mode of meditation one finds with letters versus most email messages.

A picture of intellectual history in the future sans lettres:
We might wish, as one example, to get to the bottom of why USIH was formed. What were the historical circumstances in which it took root? When and to whom did the idea first occur? What exactly was the idea and how did it develop over time? What other ideas were circulating, and what happened to them? What different diagnoses and interpretations informed the paths taken and not taken? What ideas, works, and practices resulted and why…and on and on…

How will we find out about these things, and all the other things we might want to know about people’s thoughts in the past? For instance, say we are enchanted (or horrified) by a particular writer, idea, line of reasoning, school of thought, or portrait of the world, or that we have a desperate need to answer some question of burning personal or wider importance. We might want to know more than a particular published work can tell us about what a writer meant in a particular passage. Well, let’s go through our possible sources and their limits in the foreseeable future.

Oral History:
Randomness of who is willing and able to be interviewed, according to the vagaries of personality and fate. Limits of memory. Our tendency to embroider.
Published Articles and Books:
Limited scope of the formal topic at hand for informing a different, unforeseen inquiry. Our reticence about certain kinds of motivations when speaking to unknown readers versus people we know and (might) trust.
Electronic Communications:
No permanent record, in most cases. Of records that do exist, randomness of sample. Uneven practices regarding saving or deleting emails. Vulnerability of written record vis-à-vis non-hard (soft?) copies. Rarity of email printing. Brevity of emails; their memo-like style more suited to bureaucracy than intellectual life or the world of scholarship, arts and letters, and deep and sustained relationships in which ideas play a central role. Unclear privacy guidelines. Law.
Personal Records (Journals, Notes): Absence of hard-copy sources. Disappearance of such a historical record beyond the life of a particular personal electronic device. Affiliation of practices that produce such records with the world of e-communications, which are currently affecting them too. Many problems they share with email (above), such as invasion of privacy in examining someone’s electronic note-taking.
Other: [you fill in please]

Until even the very recent past, the prime source for ferreting out the answers to questions like this, or just for exploring the context in which particular ideas or intellectual movements developed, has been letters.

As is well known by present readers, in the historical profession during the 1960s and ensuing decades a cry rang out not just for “history from the bottom up” but also for a “history of the inarticulate.” Jesse Lemisch began a 1969 Journal of Social History article called “Listening to the ‘Inarticulate'” by quoting W.E.B. DuBois: while “of kings and gentlemen we have the record ad nauseam and in stupid detail…the common run of human beings and particularly of the half or wholly submerged working group, the world has saved all too little of authentic record and tried to forget or ignore even the little saved.”

The widespread dismissal of intellectual history until very recently as history of, by, and for the elites, in convergence with the e-revolution, may be rendering those with rare gifts of expression–for all intents and purposes, in relation to scholars of the future–the new inarticulate. The world in this case seems again to be saving “all too little of authentic record.”

When history shuts a door, unlike God, it doesn’t necessarily open a window. In fact, so many doors of inquiry risk being slammed shut for good, and with them innumerable windows, it is frightening. Even in the best of times, the salvaging of a one-time insight or revealing connection borders on trying to capture the ineffable.

Yet my fears run even deeper than historical sources and preservation. Silence in the historical record has sometimes been surmounted, as we are creatures of inventiveness and tremendous moral imagination. Letters, though, are inseparable from a whole set of other behaviors and practices. Letter-writing traditions of course vary greatly and have their own histories. The one, or ones, that shaped the letters with which we are most familiar in our research or our own lives are tied to certain habits of sociality and particular notions of the project of selfhood as a vital pursuit.

You might say that other practices have taken over where letter-writing left off. If so, you may need, for people like me, to begin to count the ways.

What I wonder, of course, is whether the end of an entire approach to life itself–the collective life as well as the inner life, inextricably intertwined as they are–is now at stake.

Letter-writing, along with a poignantly limited number of other practices at our disposal, has the potential for limited repair of an otherwise fatal breach, for forestalling tragedy. Without such steps toward reparation there are not only no historical records of much of our thinking but possibly little thinking of which it is worth preserving a record in the first place. Or perhaps no thought at all, nothing that can count as thought.

This is because thinking and thought of the variety we traditionally have found worthy of devoting a life’s work to understanding require cultivation.

Maybe I am calling for a Slow Thought equivalent to the Slow Food Movement. Isn’t email the fast food equivalent of a letter?

One of the most noticeable effects of exchanging letters with my friend this last semester was the surge of hope that came from the very different experience of time that letters encourage, the reminder that the cultivation of the self is real and viable and life-sustaining. It can still certain anxieties intrinsic to our very experience of being human. It reminds us we are always in the process of becoming who we are, in relation to the one to whom we write, who is always in the process of becoming who she or he is. Communicating in depth with someone who is not there at the time creates a world apart from time as we commonly know it. And this is saying a lot. After all, time has the potential to be the very bane of existence.

A child discovers with horror that such a thing as death exists. Death, in time, takes away everything good around us. Time passes too fast and is the enemy.

A lover temporarily separated from the beloved agonizes over the absence. Every moment is an eternity. Time passes too slowly and is the enemy.

The act of writing a letter seems to me one of the valiant attempts we make toward repairing the breach of separation as made worse by the antics of time. Just as a knitter taking up a slipped stitch that threatens to unravel the entire garment, the letter-writer takes up the pen. Time circles around in a fold; wrinkles. Suddenly time is not linear, nor does it move too quickly or slowly. It stops. One is lost in a state of mind that is by definition at a remove from the immediate and, in so doing, redefines the immediate altogether in a new space of silence, contemplation, feeling, and thought.

In today’s culture–all (feigned) immediacy, pressure, urgency, and in-your-face interruption–the writing and reading of a letter is an act of resistance. But in any era it is already an act of hope and faith. Hope that the reader understands. Faith that what one says at one time will still have meaning at another. Perhaps one could argue this holds for any form of writing, and there is surely truth in that. But without the adornments of letter writing and other private practices that presume the kinds of things that letters do, adornments that might seem to some to so many unimportant frivolities, mere luxuries, or options, the contemplative life may not exist.

Letter-writing and its kindred spirits, like the keeping of a diary, reminds us that our thoughts matter, or, even further, that getting them right matters. Not just in general or for their use value but in themselves, in the fullness of their particularity. Letters place on a pedestal thoughts and their expression, with all the splitting of hairs their readers expect and the indelible signs of their emotive, life context.

The reading and writing of letters reminds us we are not alone. They work against loneliness, in the obvious ways, but also in their capacity to turn the tables on the isolation that is perennially after us, eager to usher in despair along with it, to ridicule our most heartfelt and earnest preoccupations, to reduce all of our pursuits to naught. But letter-writing requires solitude. Like all contemplative practices, it can turn absence into bounty, mandatory separation and time’s fearsome abyss into the forge of unimagined connection through genuine communication. It does this by cultivating a certain set of mannerisms, a disposition, sensibility. It is tied to the formation of a self, a being whose lifeblood is thought.

Without a notion of the self and self-cultivation, we might, if we are lucky and creative with new sources given the wholesale shift over to electronic communications, still be able to answer the question of how to explore the intellectual past. But will we have any answers as to why?

In the e-revolution, after all, information and what passes for expression abound. But just saying we are communicating does not mean we are. To express something really worth expressing don’t we need to give it some thought?

For longer than it takes to write an email?

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Dear Elisabeth,

    I’ve just gotten ’round to reading your posts and want to say what an unmitigated delight it is to learn that there is someone “out there” that takes the perspective you’ve so well articulated here. Frankly, I’m not really interested in what this has to do with intellectual history as a profession but in the greater question of what is lost in the decline of letter writing in our high-tech virtual world. While I do write less letters than I used to, I still make a point of writing perhaps more than is common on the cards I send to folks and always enjoy the sort of correspondence that follows. Pico Iyer is perhaps the only person with whom I communicate on a regular basis both through e-mail and the written word and our cards and letters are something I cherish most deeply. I’ve been thinking for some time of a corresponding and connected issue with regard to the art of conversation, which I believe (perhaps wrongly, it’s an intuition based on ancedotal evidence) is in precipitous decline. I may be inclined to romanticize the Republic of Letters incarnate in and exemplified by the French salons, for they remind us of the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the arts of letter writing and conversation. Yet such idealization may be a necessary counterweight to the prevailing tone and temper of our time which strikes me as inhumane in so many ways. I’ll compose a complete jeremiad elsewhere so suffice it to say this reader and writer is most grateful for your profound (and urgent) reflections on a comparatively neglected topic.

  2. This passage sticks in my craw:

    What I wonder, of course, is whether the end of an entire approach to life itself–the collective life as well as the inner life, inextricably intertwined as they are–is now at stake.

    Letter-writing, along with a poignantly limited number of other practices at our disposal, has the potential to repair a breach without which there are not only no historical records of much of our thinking but possibly little thinking of which it is worth preserving a record in the first place. Or no thought at all, nothing that can count as thought.

    This is because thinking and thought of the variety we traditionally have found worthy of devoting a life’s work to understanding require cultivation.

    I am admittedly new to the tradition of intellectual history, but I’m not new to thinking and thought. Nobody is. It’s what people do, whether they articulate their ideas meditatively and systematically in longhand letters sealed with wax or type them in an email or disclose them in the way they word the announcements in a church bulletin or whatever. There are many mansions, many rooms. There are all kinds of ways to cultivate thought, and all kinds of fields in which it can be found. Any document can be a text, any text can offer a rich source for insight into thought and thinking — that’s my methodological understanding, anyhow.

    As to what is worthy of a lifetime of study — well, the value may not lie only in the thought being studied. It may lie also in the thought of the historian. Perhaps it is not primarily that intellectual historians should try to find a subject valuable enough to merit a lifetime of study. It is rather — or, more properly, also — that the intellectual historian’s willingness to spend a lifetime understanding an idea or set of ideas as a window into a vanished past is a good part of what gives those ideas, and that past, value.

    • I feel I must clarify the meaning of a particular passage in my post, lest my original point be lost to other readers too.

      Here is the passage, which I edited for clarity soon after posting, though its content remained the same:

      “What I wonder, of course, is whether the end of an entire approach to life itself–the collective life as well as the inner life, inextricably intertwined as they are–is now at stake.

      Letter-writing, along with a poignantly limited number of other practices at our disposal, has the potential for limited repair of an otherwise fatal breach, for forestalling tragedy. Without such steps toward reparation there are not only no historical records of much of our thinking but possibly little thinking of which it is worth preserving a record in the first place. Or perhaps no thought at all, nothing that can count as thought.

      This is because thinking and thought of the variety we traditionally have found worthy of devoting a life’s work to understanding require cultivation.”

      In the context of my whole post, this passage spoke of a breach caused by time and our condition of separation from one another, always a potentially tragic fact of our existence. This is why I would like us fully and carefully to consider the costs of ending life-sustaining practices of bonded interiority and shared intimacy, with their rare blend of intellectual depth and personal attachment, and their unique disposition that is at once inward and outward looking, such as letter-writing.

      When I say letter-writing is one of a small set of practices that can help us take steps toward reparation of the inevitable breach that is the human lot, I am talking about the way that communication between two people, or the painful lack of it, can make the difference between life and death–of the spirits, commonly, but even by extension sometimes literally the body as well. Communication here refers to conveyance of something that matters truly, madly, and deeply, as they say: as deep down as it is possible to go. This desperate human need is hardly the sole preserve of any particular social or cultural elite. Isn’t genuine communication, which meaningful relationships require, all we really have to try to stave off existential despair?

      in the face of total despair, thought is in peril because life is a prerequisite of thought.

  3. L.D.,

    Is it possible one medium of writing or communication is more congenial or conducive to, more in keeping with, the psychological and emotional states of mind that allow for deeper or more reflective and meditative thought? Think of the syntax or grammar (or lack thereof) found in, say, Twitter, or Facebook postings, or e-mail. I’ve had students of late who write no differently on their papers or exams than they do in these other communication technologies, and I suspect the increasing inability to spell (often owing to a belief that it’s not worth the effort to learn), is in part symptomatic of the increasing use of (or reliance on) these technologies for means of communication. Twitter is notorious for the communication of half-baked thoughts, careless choice of language, emotional outbursts, and so on, the very nature of the medium seems to encourage this: at least it does not help cultivate quality writing…or sustained analyis or thinking for that matter. I imagine someone replying: the medium wasn’t designed for such things, you’ve placed unrealistic expectations on it, and so forth. Perhaps, but the frequency with which it is used does not bode well for careful thinking and quality writing. There is thinking and there is thinking, and the kind we intellectuals care about requires self-discipline, attentiveness, a different sense of the sense and rhythms of time, and is often a very solitary endeavor. It seems to me, at any rate, that “letter-writing, along with a poignantly limited number of other practices at our disposal,” are especially suited to these constraints and conditions, much like person-to-person conversation trumps talking on one’s cell phone while walking down the street or in the mall or in the backseat of the car. The generational aspect of this discussion will no doubt lead some to dismiss me as an old fart who can’t get with the program, but at least I’m not alone, as these posts from a former law school dean attest (of course as one can gather from the comments, there’s much disagreement here):




  4. Patrick, thanks for your thoughtful (!) reply to my comment. I had commented on ELQ’s last post in this series about how electronic communications may give us a window into a different way of thinking than we get via looking at letters, or they may yield different ways to think about thought as we look at the currents and patterns of language moving at light speed.

    What I take issue with is the notion that intellectual historians should concern themselves only (or primarily) with a particular kind of thinking — deep, careful, systematic, reflective, ruminative, etc, etc. There’s a hierarchical notion at work here, with some texts assumed to be more “worthy” of our attention than others, based on the quality of thought/expression — as if our job is to understand only what has been written by intellectuals, or in a self-consciously intellectual mode. I don’t view our task so narrowly, and I don’t view our sources as so limited.

    But even if my subject of inquiry were narrowly restricted to the work of “intellectuals,” I would like to avoid confusion between “intellectuals” and “intellectual historians.” As a historian, I certainly hope that my scholarly work reflects “careful thinking and quality writing.” But that’s an expectation I have of myself as a historian; it’s not a criterion by which I would judge whether or not a particular text might prove useful to my inquiry.

    And I would be far more inclined to talk about what “we historians” care about than what “we intellectuals” care about. “Intellectual” describes the kind of history that I do, and sometimes the kind of writer that I read; it need not necessarily describe the kind of person that I am. No, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck — but I do not see myself as an intellectual studying other intellectuals. I’m a historian — some day, I hope, a really good one — and I’m interested in the history of thought, so I’ll follow the idea wherever it takes me, whether that’s a Lionel Trilling essay or a camp meeting song. I’m not picky. 🙂

  5. L.D.,

    Re: And I would be far more inclined to talk about what “we historians” care about than what “we intellectuals” care about. “Intellectual” describes the kind of history that I do, and sometimes the kind of writer that I read; it need not necessarily describe the kind of person that I am.

    I understand, although I was hoping I could get you to think about this outside your professional identity as an intellectual historian, which you might do in your capacity as a citizen (thus in spite of whatever Elisabeth may argue as to how this applies specifically to your profession), a person who might speak and act in public fora beyond strictly academic settings (of course the two may overlap, but that need not trouble us here). In fact, I would hope the latter identity in important way often trumps the former identity, as is the case with a public intellectual with peculiar ethical and political responsibilities that may be greater than any you might possess in your role as a professional historian. Indeed, perhaps it is the case that the things that concern you, care about, and value, were central to your motivation to become a professional historian, and those things would not disappear should you choose another profession, lose your job (assuming a career in your field), or someday retire. If that is true, I would think your professional identity is only a part, a subset in some sense, of a larger identity or set of identities: as an intellectual, a citizen, a woman, person…. Consider, for instance, the following from an essay by Howard S. Becker, in which we might substitute “(intellectual) history” for sociology, as it helps us appreciate the way our different identities are related to each other and which ones may, in the greater scheme of things or in the long run, be most important:

    “Mills’ famous dictum holds that personal troubles are public problems. What seem to be the private troubles of a single person are the result, at the individual level, of the working out of the problems of the society that person lives in. Being without a job is a terrible personal trouble, but it is neither the result nor the fault of anything the unemployed have done. Rather, it is the working out, for them, of society’s inability or unwillingness to provide full employment.

    Mills’ dictum was never more true than in his own case. His professional problems were the outcome, on the personal level, of the general directions and troubles of American sociology during his lifetime. Using his dictum as an analytic research tool, we can inspect Mills’ professional life and intellectual career to see what it reveals about the public (or, better put, the institutional and organizational) problems of sociology (and, especially, American sociology) in the middle of the 20th century. [….]

    Mills’ professional troubles reflected a fork in the road of sociology’s disciplinary development. It had once been possible for an American sociologist, as it had been for sociologists in other countries at other times and is for some even today, to be admired by colleagues for serious professional work and simultaneously be a voice in the major political and cultural dialogues of the day. Max Weber did it, producing works that were scholarly to a fare-thee-well and also speaking out on such contemporary German political problems as nationalism. Raymond Aron did it, with scholarly works on politics and regular political writing in such major Parisian papers as Figaro and l’Express. But no American sociologist had pulled this off in a long time (we might have to go as far back as E. A. Ross to find anything similar) and those who had tried it (e.g., David Riesman) were often unfairly criticized by colleagues as ‘popularizers.’

  6. [this is the second part of the above comment]

    But that was what Mills wanted to do. He wanted to be a respected professional, in a field in which professionalism was coming to be defined in a narrowly disciplinary way, and a speaker on the big contemporary issues, at a time when success with those narrow disciplinary concerns disqualified you as such a speaker, almost by definition. [….]

    But social science, because its most general concerns are embodied in particular cases, necessarily deals with problems of serious and immediate concern to the members of the societies in which it develops. So, as sociology has developed in different countries, it has inevitably taken on a national character, devoting itself to the historically specific problems of each country. Those problems are not universal, though they have family resemblances.

    American sociology, in its beginnings, thus devoted itself to the problems of its own society, the rapidly expanding America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The problems it addressed included integrating the immigrants who were then flooding the country, teaching them to be ‘good Americans;’ the racial problems which began with slavery and took a new turn with Emancipation; and the massive dislocations and reorganizations created by urbanization. Indeed, Robert E. Park, one of the architects of the new discipline, defined the major problem of the modern world in terms he had learned by observing the quintessentially American city of Chicago: ‘All the world now either lives in the city or is on its way there.’ [….]

    When social scientists concern themselves with contemporary questions, their disciplines become less autonomous and self—contained, more responsive to people who are not professional colleagues, less ‘universal,’ more attuned to broader intellectual currents in their own society. They confront other currents of thought, other theoretical stances, other styles of work which are very often not respectful of sociology and its autonomy. [….]

    As sociology evolved and became more and ‘professional,’ it focused increasingly on its own autonomously defined and, in the strict sense, esoteric questions, questions which arose in the context of the history of the discipline rather than that of the questions of the day. And one of the worst of Mills’s sins, from the perspective of the scientifically mobile profession, was that he did not deal with those questions, or not very much. He dealt with the questions he thought were important. It is a token of his intellectual power that he could make such a mark on the sociology of his day when its leaders found his concerns so uncongenial.”

  7. [this is the third and final part of the above comment]

    The dilemmas Mills faced are, I believe, the sort of dilemmas or questions anyone who becomes a professional yet endeavors to remain true to their other—and greater—personal identities (man or woman, intellectual, citizen: national and global, mother, father, Muslim, person, human being, what have you) must face. In short, it is of course important for you to continue to work towards securing your place as a professional historian, but I think one (meaning all of us) should never forget (as it is easy to do with the temptations of ‘careerism’ and the specific norms and rewards intrinsic to a professional identity) the proper place of these other identities, and be especially cognizant of when and how they might conflict. While a bit exaggerated and insensitive to the role of more modest public intellectuals of our time, Russell Jacoby’s lament over “the last intellectuals” remains relevant. The values and evaluative activities we hold and engage in as part of these other identities cannot be excluded from our professional or academic identities, even if they play a different role insofar as we endeavor to explore in an “impartial” and thus objective fashion, the values and evaluative activities of others. That is to say, the processes of description, explanation, and understanding that are distinctive of the social sciences (including history) are not separate from these values and evaluative activities: we can’t but help evaluate, say, whether or not actors’ conceptions and accounts of their world are accurate, mistaken, true, ideological, and so on. This is critical social science par excellence. As to what this entails, a recent and helpful proposal is found in Andrew Sayer’s Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values, and Ethical Life (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  8. Patrick,

    As far as I can recall, I’ve never had a cross word with you yet in discussions here…but I’m fixin’ to.

    Your latest comment ranges back and forth between thoughtful and presumptuous. Your “hopes” — to get me to think beyond my identity as a professional historian, to see me order and arrange my various social roles/identities so that my professional identity is suitably trumped by something presumably more important, to help me be mindful of “the proper place” of these other identities — are all built upon presumptions.

    You presume that the identity from which I write in this space represents the limit of my self-understanding, and I need to be helped to think beyond it; that my professional identity should not be or seem to be the most important aspect of my “larger set of identities”; that I have forgotten or am unaware of the “proper place” of the various identities that are part of the repertoire of my dramaturgical self, and that it is your place to warn me of my peril.

    If I am in danger of anything at the moment, it would be of allowing my sense of incredulous indignation to overwhelm my sense of professional decorum. I would rather not render myself utterly unemployable before I hit the job market — though I suppose publicly calling out a senior intellectual historian for her (mis)characterization of what “we” do, and doing so in a comment on her blog post, may not be the most perspicacious thing I’ve ever done as a grad student.

    But whatever else I am — and you are of course right to suggest that one always negotiates a whole range of identities in life — around these parts, I am an intellectual historian. As such, I found ELQ’s description of what “we” do inadequate to my own understanding of that role, and I thought it was important to point out that intellectual history need not be conceived of as a matter of elites writing about elites. To those who might point out the irony of someone with a Stanford degree worried about elitism within the academy, I can only say, Oh, man, you don’t know the half of it.

    And for now, I’d just as soon keep it that way, so help me God or Erving Goffman.

  9. L.D.,

    I really didn’t mean to personalize this (I used my query to you to raise larger questions about the academic/intellectual boundary, among other things, and the points were not meant to be directed solely to your situation) or upset you but I thought after talking about the points in the original posts beyond the context of intellectual history and in broader terms you responded by way of, again, how they did not play out so well for your profession (a point which I understood and respect). It was only then that I thought to raise the question of various sorts of non-professional identity that may be relevant to the issues raised by Elisabeth. I certainly did not presume that the identity from which you write in this space represents the limit of your self-understanding, nor did I presume that you needed to “be helped” to think beyond it; I was only asking that you in fact address, or at least think about, the relevance of the material in the original post beyond your professional identity (I’m confident that you can do that without any help whatsoever from me): I only asked the question because I knew you were capable of so doing. You may choose not to do so here, that’s fine. I well understood your critique of Elisabeth’s post, which is precisely why I asked about its relevance outside the profession proper (although I’m more inclined to agree with her, and that ‘outside’ relevance may have some effects on one’s professional life). It seems my comments encouraged inferences I did not in any way expect nor would want you to make.

    All good wishes, Patrick

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