LIFE AND LETTERS
by Roger Angell
JANUARY 2, 2012 by Roger Angell
JANUARY 2, 2012
COMMENT LIFE AND LETTERS
Christmas has flown, and mail at home this 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. There’s nothing new about this, but a bit of sadness, a pang, has remained since the Postal Service announced, last month, that it will soon drop any promises of next-day delivery for first-class letters. The post office is broke, and the forty per cent of the first-class mail that currently reaches us within a day will now arrive in two, or even three. Two hundred and fifty-two local post offices are being considered for elimination, and only congressional approval is delaying the termination of Saturday mail service. 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?
Letters aren’t exactly going away. 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”). Not much else. E-mail is cheap, and the message is done and delivered almost as quickly as the thought of it. The sense that something’s been lost can produce the glimmering notion that overnight mail itself must have been a sign of thrilling modernity once. The penny post (with its stamps and its uniform rates) arrived in the United Kingdom in 1840, and in the decade that followed Anthony Trollope, a postal inspector, was travelling all over Ireland on the swift new express trains and persistent locals, to make sure that every letter, wherever bound, was actually being delivered the next day. On those same trains, he sat and wrote novels, and in the novels dukes and barristers and young M.P.s and wary heiresses and country doctors were writing letters that moved the plot along or reversed it or tilted it in some way. The restless energy of Victorian times, there and here at home, demanded fresh news and lots of it. I myself 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.
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. Twenty years ago, many of us got a whole new sense of the Civil War while watching and listening to Ken Burns’s nine-part television documentary, which took its poignant tone from the recital of Union and Confederate soldiers’ letters home. G.I.s in the Second World War wrote home on fold-over V-Mail sheets. Troops in Afghanistan and, until lately, Iraq keep up by Skype and Facebook, and in some sense are not away at all.
Writers can’t stop writing, and it’s cheering to think which of them would have switched over to electronics had it been around. The poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop conducted an enormous correspondence—four hundred and fifty-nine letters, between 1947 and 1977 (“What a block of life,” Lowell said), spanning three continents and, between them, six or eight different lovers or partners—but one need read only a few pages of these melancholic literary exchanges to know that the latest BlackBerry or iPhone never would have penetrated their consciousness. The best account of London under siege during the early years of the Second World War came from Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat who knew everyone in the political and literary and social scenes, kept Pepysian diaries, and wrote incessantly to his wife, Vita Sackville-West, at Sissinghurst Castle, their home in Kent. When their sons Ben and Nigel went off to war, he added them to the list. It’s my guess that the avidly busy Nicolson would have relished e-mail but would not have skipped a single letter.
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. A few years ago, I began exchanging letters with a celebrated baseball biographer, Robert Creamer, who lives in Saratoga Springs, New York. I first knew him when he was a young writer for Sports Illustrated. Our letters started with news about old friends and maybe something about Roger Clemens; more recently, because of our age, there are paragraphs about loss.
John Updike was the last New Yorker writer to use the mails. 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.
These collected and delivered messages need not come from the gifted or famous few, or even from someone we know, in order to hold 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?♦