Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Plus Ca Change...

"People don't write letters any more!" When I go around speaking about my novel, A More Obedient Wife -- which is based on letters written in the 18th century -- I almost inevitably hear this comment. E-mail, cell phones, Facebook: they've all replaced good old-fashioned letter-writing, goes the lament.

I'm not saying people are wrong about this (although there's something to be said for email, which theoretically can be printed out and preserved for posterity -- and which, also theoretically, can actually be as finely crafted as a good old-fashioned letter). But what they may be wrong about is the assumption that there's something modern about this complaint.

Proof (if any be necessary) that there is, indeed, nothing new under the sun came today as I was perusing a volume published in 1887. Entitled A Girl's Life Eighty Years Ago, the book is a collection of letters by Eliza Southgate Bowne, a remarkable young woman and an apparently prolific correspondent. (In distinctly 21st-century fashion, I was perusing this volume online -- Google Books is amazing!)

In any event, I began by reading the introduction, written by someone named Clarence Cook. Mr. Cook, after praising the quality of Eliza's letters, embarks on a lament about modern life (again, this is 1887): "No doubt we have gained much," Mr. Cook says, from modern inventions that have "reduced time and space to comparative insignificance." But, of course, we've also lost some things -- and "among these losses, that of letter-writing is perhaps the most serious. A whole world of innocent enjoyment for contemporaries and for posterity has been blotted out, and, so far as appears, nothing is taking its place."

And Mr. Cook goes on, in words that sound strangely familiar: "Nowadays no one writes letters, and no one would have time to read them if they were written. Little notes fly back and forth, like swallows, between friend and friend, between parent and child, carrying the news of the day in small morsels easily digested; it is not worth while to tell the whole story with the pen, when it can be told in a few weeks, at the farthest, with the voice. For nobody now is more than a few weeks from anywhere."

We can only speculate what paroxysms of despair Mr. Cook would suffer if he could be revived and plunked down in our midst, where "small morsels" of news do almost literally fly back and forth, and the few weeks of separation he marveled at has become no more than a few hours. He compares letters to the newly invented "toy, the phonograph," which "will repeat what has been confided to it in the very voice of the speaker, with every tone and every inflection as clear as when first it spoke." What, I wonder, would he make of Skype?

And yet, despite the decline of letter-writing bemoaned by Mr. Cook, historians have managed to find a fair amount of correspondence written after 1887. Perhaps letters got shorter (some of those early 19th-century letters were almost novella-length, having been composed over a period of days), but people continued to write them.

And no doubt one or two hundred years from now, historians of the future will find a way to unearth our own version of correspondence, even if it means digging up hard drives from landfills in order to retrieve our e-mails.

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