The COVID epidemic has led to the clearing out of many basements, including ours. We’ve been conducting a sort of archaeological dig down there, and many historic artifacts have come to light, including some moldy old boxes containing letters — real letters.
The sheer number of letters astonished me, although I can’t claim to compete with the energetic correspondents of the past. Napoleon, although a busy man, wrote over 40,000. Benjamin Franklin, who was almost equally busy on the other side of the Atlantic, wrote 15,000. My hoard is modest by comparison, both in quantity and quality. But I had kept a copy of all my paper correspondence before it was abolished, and here it was, suddenly rescued from oblivion.
The flow of letters slowed and stopped sometime in the 1990s. A letter suddenly seemed too formal, or too intimate. The effort of writing envelopes, going to the post office and buying stamps, and then walking all the way over to the mail slot became too exhausting to contemplate when everything could be done with a few languid keystrokes.
In place of letters we got email. We gained some convenience, and lost just about everything else. Emails tend to be short. They are usually composed quickly without much (or any) thought, and sent in a hurry. Letters used to flow gently back and forth about once a month, unless a passionate love affair was involved. Emails are like ping-pong balls; you are expected to zip them back the moment they arrive. Good letters might be several pages long, they developed ideas and told stories, and practically demanded an equally thoughtful response. At the very least a serious letter writer paid some attention to style, spelling and grammar, which seldom seems to be the case with emails. Letters are, or were, quite literally the stuff of history, and without them there will be a big hole in our understanding of the past. To take just one example, we think of Napoleon as a vain and ruthless conqueror, which he was. Read his letters and another man appears: curious, sympathetic, humorous and oddly vulnerable. We need both sides to see the complete human being.
A letter is real, personal and tangible — almost a kind of physical contact. It comes from the sender’s hand to yours with an envelope and a postmark saying where it came from, and a stamp that may be exotic (and what happened to all those stamp collectors?) The paper has personality, as does the writing. It may even smell of something evocative like perfume or fried onions. One of my uncles sent letters that smelled of gasoline because he worked in a garage. Those from my most interesting aunt carried a whiff of good malt whisky. An email can come from anywhere, like a message from a ghost, and never smells of anything.
There’s a 1935 pop song by Joe Young: “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter, and make believe it came from you.” That sounds a little silly, and even pathetic in the digital age. But if our friends and relatives won’t oblige, we can all do our part to support the struggling United States Post Office, and promote literacy, and give ourselves a treat when the mail man comes. No letter could be as warm, flattering, affectionate and understanding as the one you just wrote to yourself.
Copyright: David Bouchier