Saturday, December 31, 2011

Roger Angell confronts a future without real honest-to-goodness letters


"Losing the mixed pleasures of just arrived letters may not mean as much in the end as what we're missing by not writing them. Writing regularly to several people -- a parent, a friend who's moved to another coast, a daughter or son away at college -- requires one to keep separate mental ledgers, storing up the weather or the idle thoughts or the disasters we need to pass on. We're always getting ready to write. The letters out and back become a correspondence, and mysteriously take on a tone of their own: some rambly and comfortably boring; others cool and funny; some financial; some confessional. They stick in the mind and seem worth the trouble."
-- Roger Angell, in his January 2 New Yorker
"Comment" piece,
"Life and Letters"

by Ken

The post-Christmas week "will produce shiny bargain-sale notices, some bills and invitations, an early thank-you note for a gift, and a late Christmas card or two, but perhaps not an actual letter," notes longtime New Yorker editor and writer Roger Angell (the son of legendary editor Katharine White and stepson of E. B. White, to whose Elements of Style franchise he succeeded), who has been driven to melancholy speculation about the future of letters by the combination of the holiday mail lull and the rumblings about the future of U.S. mail delivery.

"There's nothing new about this," he writes, "but a bit of sadness, a pang has remained" since the Postal Service's announcement that it is officially renouncing "any promises of next-day delivery for first-class letters." In rehashing the Postal Service's litany of financial woes, he notes:
We've done this to ourselves, of course, and done it eagerly, with our tweets and texts, our Facebook chat, our flooding e-mails, and our pleasure in the pejorative "snail mail." Well, yes, O.K., but where's the damage? Why these blues?
Roger says he knows we're not about to witness the end of letter-writing, period.
Condolence letters can't be sent out from our laptops, and maybe not love letters, either, because e-mail is so leaky. Secrets -- an expected baby, a lowdown joke, a killer piece of gossip -- require a stamp and a sealed flap, and perhaps apologies do as well ("I don’t know what came over me").
But "not much else," given that "e-mail is cheap, and the message is done and delivered almost as quickly as the thought of it."

In fact, once upon a time, thanks to the coming of quick delivery, mail itself was valued for its timeliness. Roger himself "can recall the four-o’clock-in-the-afternoon arrival of the second mail of the day at our house when I was a boy, and the resultant changes of evening plans." But it obviously can't compete with e-mail for speed. So "where's the damage? Why these blues?"

If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T. E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E. B. White, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Vera Nabokov, J. P. Morgan -- if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it's because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.

He recalls getting "a whole new sense of the Civil War" from Ken Burns's TV rendering, "which took its poignant tone from the recital of Union and Confederate soldiers' letters home," and notes how epistolary GIs continued to give us a sense of what it was like to be engaged in wars from World War II through Iraq and Afghanistan -- although that function has by now been taken over to a large extent by electronic correspondence means.

Roger speculates about how famous letter-writing literary types of the past would have adapted, or not adapted, to e-mail. The British diplomat Harold Nicolson, for example, who "wrote incessantly to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, at Sissinghurst Castle, their home in Kent," and then "when their sons Ben and Nigel went off to war," added them to the list. "It's my guess," he writes, "that the avidly busy Nicolson would have relished e-mail but would not have skipped a single letter."


He wrote his stories and novels and reviews on a word processor but avoided e-mails. He reserved a typewriter for his letters and private postcards. These last mostly contained compliments -- a good word to an unknown writer whose novel he'd happened upon; a piece he'd liked in the magazine -- but he also permitted himself room for a whine or something cranky. Somewhere he complains about a sprained right pinkie that's messed up his typing -- the finger that has all the best letters. What's certain also is that he expected to be preserved; every jam-packed small card touchingly begins with the full date -- Oct. 24. 03, and so on -- in the top right corner.

But it's not just, Roger stresses, letters "from the gifted or famous few, or even from someone we know," that claim our attention.
Until recently, tourists stopping in a roadside antique shop could expect to find stacks of anonymous old local postcards lying in a box: relics of family yard sales, no doubt. I know one that depicts a stiff-sided, two-story summer structure, with a narrow porch and a printed "The Mountain Ash Inn" label. It was mailed in 1922 or 1932: the circular cancelling stamp is smudged and it's hard to be sure which. The two-line address, in a nice cursive, is "J. M. Voss" over "P.O.," nothing else, and the message reads, "Ida and her uncle went to Swans Isl after all but return tomorrow. Supper Tuesday." It's signed "Do."

This would be an e-mail now but an invitation without a future. I've kept the original -- it's in my summer cottage in Maine -- and I'm accepting. How was Swan's Island, Ida? What's for supper?


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