Monday, February 20, 2012
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
WHERE HAVE ALL THE LETTER-WRITERS GONE?
The collected letters to the press of William Colenso put some thoughts about letter-writing in my mind.
I have a number of collections of illustrious people’s letters on my shelves – the letters of Keats, the letters of Shelley, the letters of Samuel Beckett and of John Gielgud among others. New Zealand university presses have recently published collected or selected editions of the letters of John Mulgan and of Frank Sargeson. Doubtless there are many more collected letters of other deceased people (and particularly literary people) yet to be published.
Literary people are a special case. Writing is their business and producing long letters is something in which many of them still indulge. The letters of literary people tend to be as much a part of their literary production as their novels, short stories and so forth – with one eye on posterity, and written as much for public consumption as for private communication. The same probably goes for the letters of the more literate actors, whose business is being public show-offs.
But what about letters by scientists, military people, politicians, sports stars and others? Once upon a time, there would have been a respectable number of published collections of their letters, too. But I doubt if that will be the case for much longer, and once the crop of recently-deceased has been dealt with.
It all has to do with the decline in letter-writing in general.
Paradoxically, it was just when enough people in Western societies were becoming sufficiently literate to write letters regularly, that the habit of frequent letter-writing began to decline.
Think about it.
In countries of Western Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand etc., universal literacy was produced in the late nineteenth century by universal and compulsory elementary education. But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the telephone became commonplace, and for many people the need to scribble off daily notes and messages vanished.
Of course literate people still wrote letters, but less for reasons of immediate need than for reflection, general news etc.
Now things have gone further. We phone. We take part in social media like Facebook. We send e-mails. Some people (I’m not one of them) Tweet. Speed and ease of communication are increased. If we can establish a conversation via e-mail with somebody, we can e-mail off a paragraph or two and expect a paragraph or two in reply within hours. But no more than that. Since e-mail allows such conversations to be fairly rapid to-and-fro, there is no need for the expansive, long, expository letter.
I’m aware that e-mails can be stored and, if so desired, printed off. But somehow I do not think that one hundred years from now there will be collections of great e-mails, Tweets or Facebook interventions being published. (Even if we interpret publishing to include things become accessible via computer.)
Brevity now rules in our substitutes for old-fashioned letters and the real art of letter-writing has probably died.