At the museum, I’ve got a number of interesting letters in the collection. First and foremost, there’s a set of World War I letters that I treasure. There are hundreds of them, that this fellow sent home to his fiancee. He was a lieutenant with an ammunition train, in France, and saw a lot of interesting things; he was there for about the last 9 months of the war, and then some of the “aftermath”, into Germany. The aspect of the letters that’s most fascinating to me is the way he’s censoring what he’s telling Harriet, his future wife, reassuring her all along he’s having a great adventure, everything’s fine, and then only after the war is over he starts telling her, actually, we were in a lot of danger. It’s pretty cool. The letters start when he’s sailing across the Atlantic to war, and the last one is the telegraph telling her he’ll be home tomorrow. It’s really pretty amazing. I get pretty excited when I’m talking about them, or showing them to someone. These letters? Are why we have archives, and museums, and why I do what I do.
But… who writes letters anymore?
That last time I maintained a letter-writing habit — I mean written letters that go through the U.S. Post Office — was back in 1996 or so, with a friend living in North Carolina at the time. I wish I still had those letters, because I don’t really remember much of what we talked about but they were great, and I’m happy to say she’s one of my closest friends today. We don’t write letters anymore — there’s email, and Twitter, and the phone (now that those pesky long-distance charges are little concern). And ironically, I can pull up every email we’ve shared in the past five years, through my Gmail account, in a manner of seconds. The letters, though, are lost to me.
Thomas Mallon, author of A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries, has recently published a new companion volume of sorts on letters, Yours Ever: People and Their Letters. In it, he looks at the letters of famous and semi-famous people, grouping them together in thematic categories: Absence, Love, War, Prison, to name a few. This structure has a surface value, at best; the letters therein sometimes hardly seem to relate to the chapter’s supposed topic, with the exception of the War chapter, which has some focus. Even so, as Mallon himself admits in the forward, there is obvious crossover between the categories. Letters about War will most likely touch on Absence. Or Love. This would seem only natural and unimportant, but it is worth mentioning that there is no other real rhyme or reason to be found in the organization of Mallon’s thoughts in this book. As the first chapter begins with the Paston Letters of the 15th century, I thought perhaps there would be a sort of chronological arc to each segment. There was not, however, and very little in the way of segueway between one topic and the next. The progression from one letter writer to the next is baffling. I’m sure there’s a connection between Nixon and Florence Nightingale somewhere, but I couldn’t quite grasp it.
Letters are such an important documentation of the human experience, however, from a very, very personal point of view, that perhaps there is something to be said for Mallon’s meandering methods. Maybe the whole point is that the connection between Nixon and Nightingale is that they both sat down and put pen to paper. They both decided to communicate their thoughts to one other person, and in doing so, left a record of those thoughts. The letter as written is a private communication, and the letter as published (even in excerpt) is an unforeseen public display of those intimacies. Woodrow Wilson, when writing his love letters to Edith Galt, surely never thought twice about the idea that anyone else would ever read, “If ever again I have to be with you for an hour and a half with only two stolen glances to express my all but irresistible desire to take you in my arms and smother you with kisses, I am sure I shall crack an artery!” But we have, and moving on from there to read briefly of Edward VIII’s besotted love missives to Wallace Simpson makes a great deal of sense.
The author mentions email (along with other modes of modern communication such as IM and Twitter) only in the Introduction, and then in a not entirely complimentary way. “The lack of emotional affect to much e-mail is a trait conceded even by the form’s enthusiasts,” he over-generalizes. It leads one to believe that perhaps Mr. Mallon is not an enthusiast or a even a devoted user of e-mail himself. Perhaps, like many of us and certainly like many professional people, he finds that his Inbox is so cluttered with work-related demands that he’s lost the pleasure of being able to instantly communicate with one’s friends. As he himself quotes Phyllis Rose from The Year of Reading Proust, “Like a collagen cream or estrogen which restores to the skin its lost elasticity, e-mail has given me back the spontaneity I had lost to the laziness of age.” One wishes that Mallon had rounded out his book with some examples of e-mail communication, but to be fair, this is a much more difficult task. Personal e-mail, in the decade and a half it has been in use, has rarely been archived or kept. While government agencies and corporations have measures in place to retain electronic records, including e-mail, this was not the case with the kind of communication Mallon is here discussing, the personal letter, in e-mail form. Gmail (and yes, I am unabashedly endorsing it) was the first personal web service to not just offer ample space for storage, but to push the idea of “archiving”, rather than “deleting”, old mail. As an archivist, I’m somewhat glad they did, because it may end up providing our only historical documentation of personal communication for the beginning of the 21st century.