The Lost Art of Correspondence

Kidsilkhaze makes the point that reading isn’t as dead as everyone claims it to be. But what about good, old-fashioned letter writing? Putting pen to paper and pouring out heart and soul? Waiting days or weeks for missives to arrive and be returned?

Hillary's lettersI have to admit that I’m a sucker for letters and therefore keep a constant stock of correspondence materials at the ready. I also have special pens for letters, though I’ve never crossed the line to wax seals for the envelopes. (The stickers my fellow bloggers send me for my birthday colorfully serve that purpose, so keep ’em coming, friends.) I relish birthdays as an excuse to send cards (even belatedly) via post. Until last year, I had been faithful in mailing Christmas letters to friends and family in my brief stays at home.

So if reading is more alive and well than we think, is postal correspondence healthier than I imagine? Or am I not alone in my fear that email and instant communication have usurped the handwritten missive?

In my personal anecdote, the number of letters written and received of late has dwindled. One of my determined correspondents joined the priesthood and has been spending his year in silence, prayer and contemplation. My mother can’t find the time to write out messages on the postcards she buys on her travels. My grandmother retired, the unstructuring of her time making her ironically a worse correspondent. Others find the trip to the post office too daunting. I am thwarted by the high price of postage to the U.S., sending dozens of letters and cards in bulk each time friends or acquaintances head to the States. Correspondence takes effort by both parties, though it can long continue on the hopeful efforts of one side before extinguishing for good.

Other forms of modern communication help me keep in better and cheaper contact than is possible via post, with its seemingly inexorable slowness. Yet letters are often about slowing down; handwritten thank-you notes are standard because they show the extra effort the beneficiary has taken to mark their gratitude. The lines of conversation in letters often take a different tack, because those things which must be hurried have found other outlets. In letters we can find a vehicle to say things not always appropriate in other fora. However, I find there is less to write about and therefore less desire to write when I have already shared everything by email or via chat. To repeat underlines how “old” the news is by the time it arrives.

Long emails can convey the same information, intimacy and emotion as a letter, albeit in a less-friendly digital form. Paper is no less fragile than bytes of data, but most letter writers savor it more, finding comfort in the folded pages and familiar handwriting of their friends and loved ones. Emails are naturally more convenient, especially as critical information is concerned. Another benefit: they are free. Yet this ease of email has led some, most notably President George W. Bush, to forgo its use altogether, either for fear of leaving a digital trail or of shooting off a candid response which could quickly be forwarded to others.

Sadly, it appears our letters are not safe either. In a July 29 New York Times article, Mark Leibovich reveals excerpts from letters Hillary Clinton (then Rodham) exchanged with a high-school friend during their undergraduate years. In those four years, and largely in the first two-and-a-half, Hillary wrote 30 letters to John Peavoy, now an English professor at Scripps. The sentimental part of me loves that Peavoy held on to those letters for so many years. The judgmental part of me loathes that he offered up those letters not once but twice for publication.

When contacted about the letters, Mr. Peavoy allowed The New York Times to read and copy them. . . .

Mr. Peavoy’s letters to Ms. Rodham are lost to posterity, unless she happened to keep them, which he doubts. He said he wished he had kept copies himself. “They are windows into a time and a place and a journey of self-discovery,” he said in an interview. “This was what college students did before Facebook.”

The letters are Mr. Peavoy’s only link to his former pen pal. They never visited or exchanged a single phone call during their four years of college. They lost touch entirely after graduation, except for the 30-year reunion of the Maine South High School class of 1965, held in Washington to accommodate the class’s most famous graduate, whose husband was then serving his first term in the White House. . . .

In the late 1990s, Mr. Peavoy was contacted by the author Gail Sheehy, who was researching a book on the first lady. He agreed to let Ms. Sheehy see the letters, from which she would quote snippets in her 1999 biography, “Hillary’s Choice.” When Mrs. Clinton heard that Mr. Peavoy had kept her old letters, she wrote him asking for copies, which he obliged. He has not heard from her since.

“For all I know she’s mad at me for keeping the letters,” said Mr. Peavoy, a pack rat who says he has kept volumes of letters from friends over the years.

I doubt that if Hillary is the letter writer she seems to be that she is in fact upset that he held on to her letters, especially as she herself jokes in one,

she planned to keep his letters and “make a million” when he became famous. “Don’t begrudge me my mercenary interest,” she wrote.

I wonder instead whether she has indeed held onto his letters and if she rather feels betrayed by her pen pal’s indiscretion with their correspondence. For me, Peavey’s actions break a fundamental code of corresponding, largely because the audience intended was only ever Peavoy. Releasing a personal email would fall under a similar ethical category. This stands in contrast to personal blogs or public postings made on social networking sites, whose audience is understood to be unlimited. There may be a generational shift brewing in the blurring of public and private, to which this idea of audience is crucial, but I believe Peavoy firmly rooted in the old and therefore capable of knowing better.

That is not to say that I don’t think these letters could be made public, in her Presidential Library say, were Hillary to be elected to the White House. They don’t provide very deep insights into the actions of the woman today, but are interesting from a historical and biographical standpoint and could prove useful in future research. But releasing them now, prior to the protection that a Presidential Library provides, represents to me a breech of the good faith between letter writers.

Is Peavoy right that Facebook has replaced intimate correspondence between young people? Has technology increased or decreased your letter-writing habits? Do you recognize an ethical code between correspondents?

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6 Responses to The Lost Art of Correspondence

  1. Jennie says:

    I write letters. Not a lot, but I’m also not much of an email corresponder for more than basic informational issues.

    If you think that Peavoy violated the trust with Rodham Clinton, what do you think of the multitude of published volumes of letters, usually authors? I’m thinking of the latest version of the correspondence of E. B. White in particular? Or is it different because White has passed on and Rodham Clinton is running for president?

    The archivist in me wishes for more letters because letters are more likely to be saved than blogs or email. It’s interesting you mention Bush. Bush is not the only president to eschew email. Clinton only used a computer twice. The main reason is that anything done on West Wing computers automatically becomes part of the record. Email becomes dangerous. (And oh! The scandals involving Presidential email!)

    I have a few text messages saved on my phone forever, and a few emails, but I’ve saved most of the letters I’ve received.

    And I even have the wax seals! (But I tend not to use those as often…)

  2. Jennie says:

    Oh! The main point of my comment! I really want to read “For the Love of Letters” by Samera O’Shea. It looks good.

  3. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I have all my letters and cards, but I have most of my emails too. These days gmail makes it all too easy for the budding archivist or autobiographer.

    If no one’s using the West Wing computers, is that why they were sending official emails from RNC email accounts?

    I think there is a difference between releasing someone’s letters when they’re dead or when they have reached presidential status and when they’re still alive and more a matter of gossip than anything else. The letters weren’t particularly revelatory, leading a friend to posit that the campaign may have encouraged their release. I’m not exactly sure what Hillary would have to gain by that, however. But if she gave her assent, then that changes the entire picture.

    Again, this is because I think there is codex on personal correspondence. I don’t think that codex disappears when one of the authors achieves celebrity status. That status simply increases the interest and the price for the other party. But it doesn’t make it right.

  4. Dana says:

    I used to write more letters, but like you said, the ease and seduction of more instantaneous forms of communication have mostly served to kill that. Plus, I spend way more time at the computer, where I can write a “letter” to someone when it occurs to me, than I do at a desk with appropriate paper and pen and envelope and address book. I also think I’m more inspired to write letters when my life is (was) interesting (ie, when I lived in Japan.) Maybe that was just because of the hilarious stationery, though.

    Another interesting point that applies particularly to you, Hilary, is that the last time I mailed you a postcard, the German postal service ATE IT! That is hardly encouraging. At least my emails and comments get to you. It was a really nice postcard, too. Stupid international post.

  5. poetloverrebelspy says:

    That is true Dana, though can we really be certain that it was the Germans and not the Brits? I have to say that it’s still more fun to receive a postcard from someone’s travels than to read a more detailed version on their blog, though. Audience, I suppose.

    Mailing things from Russia was like playing the lottery. Will it arrive? Will it arrive in less than six weeks? During my semester abroad, a girl received a letter with the stamps cut off (yes, with a hole in the envelope). She was offended. I told her to be happy they delivered the letter!

  6. kidsilkhaze says:

    I know more than one wedding invitation and thank-you letter was lost over the Atlantic Ocean!

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