Please never stop writing me letters--they always manage to make me feel like my higher self (I've been re-reading Emerson) for several days.
(Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to Robert Lowell, July 27, 1960. Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, ed. by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
I don't spend much time on Facebook, but I am a fan of the site Save the U.S. Postal Service by Writing More Letters. That's where I picked up the quotation from Elizabeth Bishop--and where I first heard about "Letters in the Mail," a project hosted by the online literary magazine The Rumpus:
Almost every week you'll receive a letter, in the mail. Letter writers will include Dave Eggers, Tao Lin, Stephen Elliott, Janet Fitch, Nick Flynn, Margaret Cho, Cheryl Strayed, Marc Maron, Elissa Schappel, Wendy MacNaughton, Emily Gould, and Jonathan Ames. Think of it as the letters you used to get from your creative friends, before this whole internet/email thing. Most of the letters will include return addresses (at the author's discretion) in case you want to write the author back.A monthly subscription is $5 ($10 if you live outside the U.S.).
Now, are such efforts to revive the art of letter writing a sure sign of fogyism?
So is letter writing a lost cause?
The end of letter writing has been proclaimed for over a century, with blame attributed to everything from the telegraph to Twitter. Yet even today, despite the marvels of Facebook, instant messaging, and the like, I'm not convinced that anything in the digital world has succeeded in mimicking the particular pleasures and advantages of reading and writing personal letters.
New Yorker writer Roger Angell recently expressed his thoughts on the matter:
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. . . .
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, "Life and Letters." The New Yorker, January 2, 2012)
Do you think the practice of letter writing is worth the trouble, even if it's perpetuated by artificial means? Whether you're an old fogy or a young one (or not in the least bit fogyish at all), let us know by clicking on the "comments" button below.
More About Letter Writing:
- Letter Writing
- "Eight or Nine Wise Words About Letter-Writing," by Lewis Carroll
- How Not to Write a Letter of Complaint
- Letter to His Son: Rules of Conduct in Polite Company, by Philip Stanhope
Image: Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), recipient of a Pulitzer Prize (1956), a National Book Award for Poetry (1970), and two Guggenheim Fellowships