The word ‘letter’ contains a set of meanings that represent the quintessence of our cultural history. At its simplest a letter is an alphabetical character, a basic component of the written sign system that underpins the greatest achievements of modern civilisation. (As Walter Ong observes in Orality and Literacy, it was their invention of the first alphabet complete with vowels that gave the ancient Greeks their ascendancy over other cultures.)
‘Letters’, the plural form, came to mean more generally the body of knowledge accessible to a literate or ‘lettered’ person – literature in the broadest sense. In the Enlightenment period – late 17th century and early 18th – there emerged the concept of a Republic of Letters: an international community of philosophers, scholars and literary figures in Europe and America linked to each other by their prolific handwritten correspondence.
Most commonly, ‘letter’ signifies a particular genre of writing – an epistle or missive, which until the recent advent of electronic communications was the main means of conveying a message to someone not physically present.
In early classical antiquity, written correspondence was seen primarily as a private exchange. ‘A letter’, said the Roman rhetorician Demetrius in the second century BC, ‘is designed to be the heart’s good wishes in brief.’ Cicero, who lived in the following century and used the epistolary form extensively, regarded it as ‘a conversation between absent friends.’ But later Roman writers often used the form with an eye to publication; for instance the letters of Pliny the Younger (e.g. his vivid account of Pompeii’s doomsday), though they had specific addressees, were later released for wider consumption, while Horace and Ovid wrote carefully crafted verse epistles and Seneca’s were really sermon-like essays. Also sermonic were the hugely influential epistles that Paul the Apostle wrote to groups of early Christians.
Even for personal letters, Cicero’s conversational analogy isn’t exact. As Demetrius remarked, an extemporary spoken utterance is quite different from something we commit to writing and send ‘as a gift’. But today this kind of gift-giving is nearly extinct. Does its disappearance matter much?
A 98-year-old friend of mine, Erica Becker, has contributed an article to a local U3A newsletter in which she reflects that she is ‘becoming an antiquity’ not only because of her age but also because she belongs to a dwindling number of people ‘who still write by hand, put pen to paper (create “manu-scripts”)’ – particularly in order to compose ‘real letters.’ Erica acknowledges the convenience of electronic messaging, but laments the fact that it lacks a personal touch. As she remarks:
A letter is tactile; the choice of paper and envelope, the things enclosed, the handwriting are all a signature of the writer’s personality, mood and feelings. There is some intimacy an email can never reveal. Besides, handwritten letters embody the historical period in which they are sent, not to forget the stamps carrying a tangible sense of time and place.
She mentions the absorbing interest of something that the 21st century will seldom provide for later generations: extensive published correspondence between literary luminaries. And she goes on to describe the personal pleasure of finding in her postbox, among the bills and junk-mail, those genuine missives that can be unfolded with ‘glorious anticipation’ and enjoyed without haste.
In Ong’s words, the way literate people think differs from the way anyone in an oral culture thinks, because ‘writing restructures consciousness.’ It’s also true, I’d say, that as some kinds of writing give way to others (e.g. letters being replaced by emails), there’s a corresponding change of consciousness. This brings gains and losses. It would be foolish to deny that the advent of electronic communication has been of great practical benefit. But part of me mourns the demise of hand-written correspondence, and I’m grateful that so much of it survives from the past.
My first novel, The End of Longing, wouldn’t have been written if my great-grandmother hadn’t preserved some letters written by and about her sister-in-law in the 1890s, together with a few related newspaper clippings. Handed down in the family, this correspondence gave me glimpses of two people, one from New Zealand and the other from North America, who spent time together in Australia before travelling to several other countries, where grievous things happened to them. The letters indicated an itinerary but left many questions unanswered. I began to imagine adventures, misadventures and mixed motives beyond than anything recorded in those fragmentary sources. And so, eventually, a novel emerged.
The research for another of my books, a non-fiction work, was only possible because I could make extensive research use of archived letters. In writing several of the chapters in Wordsworth and the Formation of English Studies I depended heavily on handwritten correspondence by literary figures (including Wordsworth himself) and educators – correspondence that had been meticulously curated by librarians (bless them) in Britain, Australia and the US.
There are many fascinating anthologies of correspondence. A recent one, handsomely produced with many illustrations, is Letters of Note, edited by Shaun Usher. It has an excellent accompanying website that includes a large archive of the material that Usher has collected – well worthwhile to browse through it here.
In the past, some people certainly earned the title ‘man (or woman) of letters.’ A selection of the witty correspondence of Madame de Sévigné (late 17th century) was a set text that I studied with great enjoyment as an undergraduate – but I’m glad I wasn’t required to read all 1,120 of her surviving letters. Her output pales in comparison with that of her compatriot Voltaire, who wrote more than 20,000 – and also used the letter form as a vehicle for literary satire in Lettres sur les Anglais, 1773. He wasn’t the first to develop the fictional possibilities of the genre; Montesquieu’s Lettres Persanes, a satirical proto-novel, came out in 1721. Several of the earliest novels in English, too, were cast in epistolary form, Samuel Richardson’s Pamela being the best known example.
Epistolary fiction remains alive and well, of course. Perhaps its appeal may even grow as readers become more nostalgic for (or curious about) the days of written correspondence. Having just started reading a recent novel by Western Australian writer Yvette Walker, Letters to the End of Love, I’m already impressed by the skilful way it combines a range of credibly individualised styles (there are three pairs of correspondents, writing in different periods and from different places) with a unifying shapeliness of structure and texture. Incidentally, I like the fact that the cover design nicely evokes both the alphabetical signs that make written communication possible and the stamps that make our postage system possible.
I’ve kept scores of private letters from family and friends, conscious that I can’t expect to receive so many in the future as in bygone years. I look forward to re-reading them when I’m in my rocking chair on the verandah of the Eventide Home (a distant experience, I hope). Distinctively individual handwriting will summon up associated memories of this or that correspondent.
For correspondence with a potentially wider literary interest, I’ve kept posterity in mind. A collection of manuscripts that I donated some years ago to the Flinders University Library includes letters I received from many writers – mainly Australian (e.g. Patrick White, Christina Stead, Katharine Pritchard, John Morrison), New Zealand (e.g. Frank Sargeson, Lauris Edmond) and American (e.g. Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Robert Duncan).
Those letters all pre-date our present century. I’m still getting used to the fact that, after being for so long such a central part of our culture and our everyday lives, letter-writing has quite suddenly almost disappeared.
Yet some new forms of communication, while not a full substitute for handwritten messages, can partly embody that sense of being ‘sent as a gift.’ I think of my blog as like an open letter. Composing a post, I have in my mind’s eye a few friends who (along with other people unknown to me personally) will probably read it. When it pops up as an email notice for followers of the blog, I hope they’ll feel something akin to the pleasurable anticipation that used to tingle in those olden days whenever an envelope addressed in a familiar hand appeared in one’s letterbox.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, to regard the blogosphere as a latter-day version of the Republic of Letters?