Dead letters

Dead letters

The demise of a literary art form

By Amanda Witherell

ESSAY The letter is brief, written on paper so thin and insignificant it crackles like tissue in Martha White’s hands.

“Dear Joe and Allene, Look at who rose to defend the New Yorker — the Trib’s own Joe Alsop. And very ably, too. Thought you might like to see the latest skirmish.”

The date, April 17, 1965, is penned in blue ink at the top of the yellowed stationery, beside a red embossed insignia of the Tuscany Hotel in New York. In the right-hand corner a signature closes the letter: “Love, Dad,” scrawled in the inimitable hand of E.B. White, one of the longest-running contributors to the New Yorker, the legendary author of Charlotte’s Web, and the editor and reviser of the scribe’s essential primer, The Elements of Style.

Forty-one years after the writer pressed the letter into neat, tripartite folds to slide into an envelope and post home to his son and daughter-in-law in Brooklin, Maine, White’s granddaughter holds in her hand this relic of a bygone era. Today, brevity, content, and haste might have called for an e-mail, perhaps with a link to the Alsop article in question and a forwarded FYI from the New Yorker to shed light on this “latest skirmish.” But what would Martha be holding on to? Probably nothing, for who saves an e-mail so seemingly inconsequential?

“I’ve always felt that letters are a treasure, especially for families,” Martha tells me. “I use e-mail, a cell phone, all the modern conveniences. But if I want to say anything close to my heart, to my family, my friends, my children, I’m going to say it in a letter.”

When asked if her grandfather, a man who spurned public appearances and didn’t enjoy leaving the beloved sanctuary of his Brooklin farm, would have embraced the ease and simplicity of e-mail, she says, “Absolutely not.”

“He was a hunt-and-peck typist,” she adds, “a cut-and-paste guy with a paste pot and a pair of scissors down on the floor. That was part of the process for him.” She shows me another letter that she, as the editor of the newly revised Letters of E.B. White (HarperCollins), chose not to include. It’s written to his secretary at the New Yorker and beseeches her to find him a certain kind of paste brush. A detailed illustration, addressing the brush’s finer attributes, graces the margin.

Modern conveniences have allowed Martha, a writer like her grandfather, to move back to Maine and freelance from her Rockport home, just down the coast from where she grew up in Brooklin. On the wall behind the desk in her office hangs a print of a famous portrait snapped by photographer Jill Krementz. It’s an iconic image of E.B. White, instantly conveying the utter spareness of the man. He’s sitting at a simple wooden table in front of a typewriter with a single sheet of paper. The desk is next to a window through which the viewer can see the turning tide of Eggemoggin Reach.

It occurs to me, examining the picture now, that the natural light streaming in through the window in the photograph would have made a computer screen unreadable. If White were sitting there today, in front of his new iMac, the window would have to be shaded, and something more than an image of a man before a simple view of beautiful water would be lost.

The 21st century’s writers have replaced the thin stationery crackling in Martha White’s hands with e-mails, instant messages, blogs, and other facsimiles of the written word. Apocalyptic worries that cell phones will fry your brain, that the Internet will be the devolution of human interaction, that all printing presses will grind to a halt, have been ameliorated as the dust starts to settle on the past 10 years of technology. But something has quietly slipped offstage as the star of convenience has stood in the spotlight: the writing of letters.

Letters have played a critical role in the record of human history, of our public and private lives, our loves and lusts, follies and feats. Letters have pleaded cases, transmitted 1,000-year-old truths, and stood in for biography by revealing the inner workings of an ego or the kinder side of a persona.

But to a large extent, e-mail has changed all that, replacing meandering meditations, written and addressed from a specific time and place, with rapid-fire exchanges that can be received anytime, anywhere there’s free wireless Internet, a decent cell signal, or a plug in the wall. Accessibility and near-instant transmittal of thought have perhaps destroyed the absence that used to make the heart grow fonder. All the mysterious silence, the rising desire, the inherent waiting and wondering that marked the natural pace of letters is largely gone.

It could be argued that words will be words, whether they’re scripted on a scrap of papyrus or marched in Courier lockstep alongside a cursor, but it could also be said that style, voice, and all the hallmarks of a well-turned phrase are often driven by form, and that the accelerated efficiency of e-mail has given rise to shorter, choppier, and cheaper correspondence. We no longer linger over our letters, perfecting our words during the long wait for the mail carrier — we just hit a button, and it’s gone.

“How we communicate is the nature of who we are,” says Sven Birkerts, the author of the 1994 book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (updated and rereleased by Faber and Faber in 2006). When asked how he thinks technology has affected the way we write, he says, “There’s a distinction between a letter and a note, in paper form. The letter format has deeply ritualized salutations and expressions. A note is quickly composed. E-mail is more like a note. If you read an e-mail that was written in the mode of an old letter, it would feel like a strange effort.”

The “dears” have disappeared. “Sincerely” has lost out to “c-ya.” And the 20th century may be remembered as the last great era of letter writing, when people adhered to a form and were forced by dint of effort, time, and distance to ruminate on their words.

To read artfully composed letters can be more than a sentimental reminder of the loss of pen and paper; where private correspondence has been made public, it’s an entrance into a state of mind where you weren’t originally invited. The E.B. White letters teem with this sort of interest, and so does Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, a recently published collection of correspondence by a contemporary of White’s. The two were masters of a form that brought them neither money nor fame, constituting merely the daily routine of staying in touch.

Both Mitford and White enjoyed their fair share of attention while alive. White was an original contributor to the New Yorker from its inception in 1925 and the author of some of the most popular children’s stories ever. Mitford (generally known as Decca) was a red sheep who escaped her aristocratic, Nazi-sympathizing family flock in England in 1937, making a home in the Bay Area and her reputation doing social justice work and muckraking journalism. These collections argue for a renewed appreciation of their work, reflecting Mitford’s refreshing joie de vivre, the genius wit of White, and two loquacious imaginations that make a mockery of modern-day correspondence’s general vapidity.

The original Letters of E.B. White, released in 1976 with his assistance and spanning nearly 70 years, is one of the best-selling collections ever published. The latest version, updated by his granddaughter to include the last 10 years of his life, is the closest thing White fans have to an autobiography, as his correspondence included daily, often lengthy descriptions of life on the farm. And while he may have omitted needless words in his writing, he favored full disclosure when it came to publishing his letters.

His humor is here, in unique responses to the requests and questions of strangers. The stunning ability to hammer a point home by juxtaposing particular imagery was a keystone of his New Yorker “Letters from the East” and the Harper’s essays that eventually became One Man’s Meat, and this talent crops up in his casual correspondence too. In a letter sent from Brooklin to Gustave S. Lobrano, an editor at the New Yorker, White writes, “I have just painted a pair of oars (French gray) and the existence of New York seems questionable.”

Decca, collated by Peter Y. Sussman, a former San Francisco Chronicle editor, reads like an autobiography as well, though in this case there might seem to be little more to say, as Mitford hailed from a famous, well-documented family. Sussman does a fine job of stepping back and letting her speak for herself in the letters he culled from the thousands she sent over 60 years’ time. And like a gracious hostess, her voice unparalleled, Mitford ferries the reader along, bounding with verve and spiking her correspondence with invented words from the secret language she shared with her sisters, from whom she was physically divided by an ocean and socially separated by the politics of an age.

Among the hundreds of letters in both collections, business mixes with pleasure as White wrangles with editors and Mitford finagles finances from her family. Awkward love letters from White to his first girlfriend are eventually replaced by interoffice memos between him and Katherine Angell, the fiction editor of the New Yorker who would eventually become his wife. Many are rich with detail that speaks volumes of the times in which they were written. Mitford’s account of giving birth to her first daughter in a public ward, of trying to sneak cigarettes and suffering through “a curious breakfast consisting of a whole tumbler full of castor oil & an enema,” is one of the most memorable.

White’s descriptions of the comings and goings at the farm in Brooklin, however, could almost have been written yesterday. Situated down a long peninsula one would need a specific reason to travel, the town still hasn’t been wired for high-speed Internet. Bill Mayher, a freelance writer and Brooklin resident I spoke with, recently signed up for T1 service that picks up a signal from a distant antenna on Deer Isle, “but you have to live in the right place to get it, and only a few of us do.”

The postal service was probably better back when mailbags carrying manuscripts were an essential part of daily life for the Whites. But E.B. still jabs it in a letter to friend and fellow New Yorker contributor Frank Sullivan, writing that the mail comes to him “the first fifty miles by dog-sled, which I believe is pulled by Chihuahuas.”

In a nearly spastic letter to her friend Marge Frantz, Mitford writes, “You have completely ruined my day…. Bob went down in his dressing-gown to get the papers, and reported that IN Mrs. O’Casey’s locked mailbox there glitters and shines a letter for us, on which he barely made out the return address of Frantz.” A detailed recount of recovery efforts follows, eventually ending with “triumphant … The safety pin fell in, but the knife-and-forkmanship won the day.”

It sounds like Mitford would have been an obsessive e-mail checker.

“Her husband believed she would have loved e-mail,” Sussman agrees. Later letters proudly exclaim, “I have FAX!” after a BBC documentary required more immediate responses regarding script changes. “They finally just bought her a fax machine, and she loved it,” he says. Until then, Mitford traveled everywhere with a portable typewriter and a bounty of carbon paper. She, like White and other writers over the years, had the prescience to copy nearly all her correspondence, which is why we have such a complete collection.

Which raises the question: if e-mail has replaced letter writing, are literary-minded types saving their e-correspondence or turning it over to archives for preservation?

“Libraries and archives are definitely trying to deal with e-mail,” says Leslie Morris of Harvard University’s Houghton Library, which houses most of the university’s rare books and manuscripts. “The telephone decreased the amount of correspondence. E-mail, if we can figure out how to preserve it in its electronic form, may actually help us to better document things, as generally people don’t seem to mind sitting down and dashing off an e-mail, whereas writing a formal letter seems more of an effort.”

Will those e-mails make enjoyable reads for future generations? “I can’t imagine anyone would want to collect my e-mails,” says Neal Pollack, author of the recently published Alternadad (see review, in Shorts). “I’d feel sorry for anyone who took that on as a project. It’s all just me, asking for money.”

For Pollack, blogging has stepped in to fill the void as far as writerly correspondence is concerned. “The blog is like a collected letter,” he says of the online journal that chronicles his adventures in hipster parenting paradise. “I take as much time and care as I would a letter, but they’re written to everybody. I’m OK with that. If a blog post doesn’t go the way I want it to, I’ll stop and work on it later. Revise and think it over.”

Never mind the private letters — blogs have unlocked the diaries and put what might once have been privileged information into a very public realm, and this presents yet another hurdle for archivists. “We have not yet started collecting blogs, although I’m uncomfortably aware we probably should be,” Morris says. “It’s the preservation issue that inhibits me; what would I do with them? Keep them on my hard drive?”

And as for the genre? According to White’s publisher, Hugh van Dusen, who’s worked in the industry for half a century, HarperCollins currently has one collection of letters, by Thornton Wilder, on the docket. After that, nothing has been proposed. “Probably most of the letters that are worth publishing have been collected and published,” he says. “It’s a shame. There won’t be any such books like this in just a few years. I don’t think many people who are living and writing now will have their letters collected.” It would require a new level of self-consciousness to save e-mails, he says, and though he occasionally prints some of his more interesting exchanges with authors, he couldn’t imagine publishing The Collected E-mails of ….

John Updike, who as a fledgling writer once received encouraging letters from White, wrote the forward to the new collection and tells me that he still writes three or four letters a day — and that his editors and publishers indulge his USPS habit. He’s never used e-mail, having been warned off by his wife. “The few times I’ve made a gesture in this direction, she assures me I’ll just regret it,” he says. “The letters I receive go in a box, whether they’re from Joyce Carol Oates or a fan in Ohio, and they’re sent to Harvard, where they sit on a dusty shelf, and I think nobody looks at them.”

Or he hopes: “Letters are not a genre where I feel I express myself well. They’re not something I would love to see in print. They tend to be hasty and full of typos.”

White’s letters were often painstakingly revised, which may have reflected his perfectionist tendencies, but by the ’60s he knew they would eventually be made public, as they made their way to the library archive at Cornell University. And his interest in them went beyond taking part in editing the first collection: on his deathbed he preferred hearing his son read them above all his other work.

Sussman (who archives his own e-mail and letters) says he never came across any overt understanding on Mitford’s part that her letters would one day be published, “but she must have been aware that this was at least possible. There are some truly embarrassing letters. She certainly didn’t pull them out before she sold them.” And indeed, her memoir Hons and Rebels started out as a collection of love letters between her and her first husband.

“Decca reveled in the pure act of expression,” he says of her openness. “Letter writers like this remind us of what we’re losing. I’m an e-mailer, par excellence, but there’s a cost. That cost? Partly precision, expressiveness, leisure, and the physical act of writing.”

We turn to art to indulge in and be reminded of the things our lives are lacking. Letters of the kind Mitford and White wrote are by this definition art — and all the more essential as inspirational reading, given that e-mail in effect makes writers of us all.

The best letters are marked by the creative edges of the writer’s thoughts, the voice suspended somewhere between print and speech. “Suspiciously, disagreeably, psychopathically,” Hunter S. Thompson signed off in many of the letters published in the 1997 collection The Proud Highway. After threatening San Juan Star editor William J. Kennedy that he was going to “shove a bronze plaque far into your small intestine” over a rejected piece of writing, Kennedy retorted with an “intestinally yours.” And so began 40 years of friendship and correspondence that might never have happened if they hadn’t collided so creatively.

Letter collections should be an inspiration for readers and an invitation to greater ingenuity at the keyboard. And as bland exchanges in a truncated language threaten to overtake us, these collections seem more important than ever.

Letters of love and recommendation may always be written. There may remain a few people out there who get by without a Gmail account. And Martha White still writes, receives, and saves her correspondence, as her family has always done. Much of it is now part of the E.B. White archive at Cornell, which she visited while working on the book and where she took pleasure in one particular find: a letter from her father, Joe, to Santa Claus, dictated to her grandfather and requesting a boat for Christmas.

The letter explicitly notes the boat’s dimensions and characteristics, and reading it, she says, “I realized he didn’t want a boat for Christmas. He wanted to build a boat for Christmas. It was a true gift to find that letter to Santa Claus by a man when he was five years old, who later became a boat builder. That never would have been kept. Nobody e-mails Santa Claus. And if they did, who would keep it?”

Originally published January 31, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian