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The death of the letter

Penny Black-1On Friday a journalist friend rang looking for some comments about the death of the letter. The story grew out of reports of a sharp decline in the use of snail mail, and having already spoken to historian Les Carlyon and linguist Sue Butler, both of whom had made the usual noises about the loss of a form which has allowed us to communicate complex thought and emotion for many generations, he wanted a literary perspective on the question.

Before I go any further I should say that I agree, at least generally, with the remarks by Carlyon and Butler which are quoted in the article. The letter is a remarkable form, not just because of its capacity to record the feelings and impressions of the moment for posterity, but because it is a form that has always been as much about a process of self-creation and exploration as communication.

In a way that shouldn’t be surprising. The act of writing isn’t simply about putting thoughts down on paper, it’s about a process of thought. And, as a result, the process of writing a letter allows us to explore thoughts and ideas we might not be able to express or even access in everyday life. Indeed in a very real sense, writing letters is less about communication than the creation of a self through the act of writing. Usually these selves are freer, smarter, sometimes they’re something like our best self, more often they’re versions of our everyday self which only find their true expression on the page. It’s a process you see at work in the correspondence of writers such as Philip Larkin or Flaubert, both of whom were capable of being scatological and filthy with one friend, and considered and thoughtful with another. Or in the epistolary relationship between Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, a relationship in which both revealed aspects of themselves they concealed from everyone else.

But the thing that struck me while I was talking to my friend on Friday, was that despite the passing of the letter, these are exactly the same processes one sees at work when people blog, or tweet, or even update their Facebook statuses. In all cases they’re projecting versions of themselves outwards, and in so doing engaging in the same processes of self-invention that once went on in correspondence. The only real difference is that they’re doing it in public, or at least semi-public.

Obviously there’s nothing particularly radical about observing that technology is altering our notions of identity. But it does suggest that the usual anxieties provoked by the passing of cultural forms and institutions are at least partly misplaced in this context.

More importantly though, it’s a reminder that the transition from the written letter to email isn’t simply a story about changing technology. It’s part of a much larger story about the way technology is redefining the boundaries between our public and private selves. It’s not a neutral process by any means, and its effects can be seen in the increasing anxiety about the management of confidential information, in the arguments about the use (and abuse) of surveillance technologies, and even in the rise of celebrity culture. But it’s also a story that’s as much about possibility as decline, something which can be obscured when one concentrates on only one aspect of the story.

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  1. Lucy Sussex #

    I’ve put together a book of emigration narratives, some of which are in letter form. The division between public/private tends to blur, even in the C19th, as people are writing knowing that their words will be read by the family back ‘Home’, then friends, then even possibly published in a newspaper. There is a degree of self-fashioning, but also self-censorship. Even diaries can partake in this process, not being as much confessional but more like our ‘blogs’.

    October 19, 2009
    • That’s fascinating, Lucy, not least because it’s a reminder of the complex ways in which people use writing of all sorts to fashion versions of themselves for consumption by others. Interesting also that once could potentially track the evolution of the private self through changing economic relations as well as changing cultural contexts: the letter home designed for many readers presumably vanished as the world grew smaller and societies become increasingly individualized, making the private self as we know it at least partly a function of modernity. And, perhaps more deeply, it’s a reminder of how much continuance there is threaded through even revolutionary change.

      ps I’ve actually read part of the book you mention, and it’s a fascinating collection.

      October 19, 2009
  2. Lucy’s comment makes me think of those remarks in my blogpost recently from the people who ‘wished’ someone else had kept a diary so they could read it after that person aged/died/was no longer able to invoke whatever details might be of interest. Privacy is not necessarily a new concern.

    And as you mention, Lucy, there is self-fashioning across older media too: I was fortunate (and probably sneaky) enough to find a letter an old family friend had received from his mother in Ireland when we were visiting his farm – being very young at the time, eventually I realised I should not read it, but I do remember seeing “Dear Jeremiah” and being astounded at the formality of tone (we knew him as “Jerry” in Australia).

    One could also consider the constraints imposed by writing practice, by competence in communication – is the writer literate enough to hide him/herself easily from another reader? what tools are available to us now that compensate for the speed at which we feel compelled to deliver information? what subtle or overt forms of resistance do we offer? Perhaps we’re better at hiding from others than we think we are.

    October 19, 2009
  3. For example, LURKING.

    October 19, 2009
  4. One characteristic of private letters is the way you can deduce the personality and life of the addressee, which of course is lost in any communication — blog or letter — intended for public or semi-public consumption. I’m thinking in particular of Vikram Seth’s Two Lives and the clear picture the reader gets of Seth’s Aunt Henny, not so much from the letters she wrote but from the letters she received.

    Connected to that is the loss of intimacy in private letters, the intimacy you see in biographies all the time. (I think the age of electronic communication is absolutely tragic for biography, especially literary biography.) You read letters between lovers or spouses or close friends and the feeling between them is alive and electric, as if there’s some beautiful animal in the room with you.

    October 19, 2009
  5. Oh Kerryn – I wish I’d written that last line of yours.

    October 19, 2009
  6. Lucy Sussex #

    I think you must be thinking of another work, as my book (Saltwater in the Ink) isn’t published yet–I’m off to have tea and biscuits with the publisher concerned. What type of biscuits will be one of those small revelations, a Barbara Pym moment in ordinary life. But not as revealing as a ms letter. Lucy Sussex

    October 20, 2009
  7. Whoops, Lucy, you’re right. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Webby’s Colonial Voices anthology, which for some reason I thought you co-edited (but a quick Google reveals you didn’t). Sorry.

    October 20, 2009

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