A few blogs ago, I was whining and complaining about the decline of all things literate: cursive script gone from the schools, editing that goes no further than spellcheck, and above all, letter writing that has dwindled to email.
But why mope? We’re all writers here; hence, we’re all readers; hence, we have access to the written treasures of the centuries. I went to my bookshelves and within minutes pulled down an armload of books likely to contain the kind of letters no one writes any more. Here is a sample to brighten your day.
In the parlance of his own day (the reign of Charles II of England) John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester was a rakehell. Not the man you would expect to write this letter to his new bride:
I know not well who has the worst on’t, you, who love but a little, or I, who doat to an extravagance; sure, to be half kind is as bad as to be half witted; and madness, both in love and reason, bears a better character than a moderate state of either.
Full disclosure #1: Rochester was an earl, but an impoverished one. His bride, with whom he eloped, was very, very rich.
Full disclosure #2: After a lifetime of drinking, whoring and brawling, Rochester repented on his deathbed and died in the odor of sanctity. On the other hand, we have only his friends’ word for this.
In Sense and Sensibility, Lady Middleton is wary of the Dashwood sisters, fearing that they may be “satirical” of mind. Wonder who Jane Austen was thinking of? Jane to her sister Cassandra:
Another stupid party last night…. I cannot anyhow continue to find people agreeable; I respect Mrs. Chamberlayne for doing her hair well, but cannot feel a more tender sentiment. Miss Langley is like any other short girl with a broad nose & wide mouth, fashionable dress & exposed bosom. Adm: Stanhope is a gentlemanlike Man, but then his legs are too short, & his tail too long.
E.B. White and his wife hobnobbed with the literati of The New Yorker. It didn’t go to their heads. White to his brother:
The summer reached a sort of peak the day we went to the Blue Hill Fair and K [White’s wife] tried to take a leak in the bushes just as the trap-shoot started. She came out with only a minor flesh wound, but she might as well have been through Anzio. We all thought it was very comical, and one shooter (I heard later) got 25 pigeons out of a possible 25.
Helene Hanff, author of 84 Charing Cross Road, in New York, to her supplier of out-of-print classics, Marks & Co. of 84, Charing Cross Rd., London:
De Tocqueville’s compliments and he begs to announce his safe arrival in America. He sits around looking smug because everything he said was true, especially about lawyers running the country….
Did I tell you I finally found the perfect page cutter? It’s a pearl-handled fruit knife. My mother left me a dozen of them…. Maybe I go with the wrong kind of people but I’m just not likely to have twelve guests all sitting around simultaneously eating fruit.
While we’re on politics, you needn’t depend on cable news for furious denunciations of partisanship. John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, explaining why the excellent law codes of antiquity have been lost:
Why are those Laws lost? I say the Spirit of Party has destroyed them, civil, political and ecclesiastical Bigotry. Despotical, monarchical Aristocratical and democratical Fury, have all been employed in this Work of destruction of every Thing that could give us true light and a clear insight of Antiquity. For every One of these Parties, when possessed of Power, or when they have been Undermost and Struggling to get Uppermost, has been equally prone to every Species of fraud and Violence, and Usurpation.
And while we’re on the Adamses, a final love letter from one of the great love stories of history. Abigail Adams, in Braintree, Massachusetts, to John Adams, in France representing the newly independent United States, 1778:
How insupportable the Idea that 3000 leagues, and the vast ocean now divide us – but divide only our persons for the Heart of my Friend is in the Bosom of his partner. More than half a score years has so riveted it there, that the Fabrick which contains it must crumble into Dust, e’er the particles can be separated.
Now please sit down, think of your brightest, funniest, most verbal friend, and write him or her a letter. On paper, with a pen, in script. Just to keep Tinkerbelle alive.
I was thinking the other day about the dying institution of marriage. The mystery I’m writing involves an inheritance which, in turn, hangs on the outdated concept of legitimacy.
Mind you, I’m all for dropping any stigma (if any remains) on being born “out of wedlock.” But honestly, older people, if you had been asked in your youth what major changes might occur in your lifetime, would you have predicted indifference to the presence or absence of marriage vows? Of substituting “if it works out” for “till death do us part”?
Anyway, I sat down and tried to come up with other dying institutions that I had thought would live forever. Lo and behold, nearly every one that occurred to me involved reading and writing — one of the core complexes of life for likely readers of this blog.
I had occasion to write something down for one of my grandsons not long ago. He frowned at the note – I thought my handwriting was the problem. I got no farther than, “Oh, sorry, that word’s….,” when he rushed to reassure me. “Oh, it’s okay, Grandma. I can read cursive script.” He can’t write it, though. The schools now teach printing, not writing, because who writes anything longer than a grocery list anymore?
Letters (in the sense of correspondence) no longer exist. Their factual content is now transmitted through email. Their creative, imaginative, playful and literary qualities are just gone. (Worse: their playful qualities are have shrunk and hardened into emoticons created by some wretch chained in an office cubicle.) Email is to letter-writing as tweeting is to thinking.
Now that apps have homogenized all forms of information transfer, “writing down” is no longer a distinct activity with defined functions in society. Do our grandchildren get the point of “The Typewriter,” the famous piece of music that duplicates the rhythm of typewriter keys, the ding of the bell at the end of the carriage and the slam of the carriage return? This tune, without comment, once conveyed “composition” or “news reporting.” (Click the link to hear the Vienna Philharmonic play it, with percussionist Martin Breinschmid on the typewriter.)
Editors are as the dodo. I am still unpublished, but I hear by the grapevine that publishers no longer employ such people. Or if they do, the evidence has vanished from much of what is published. My blogging colleague Eleanor Ingbretson recently read a mystery involving that nasty marine animal, the leech. It was spelled “leach” throughout. WTH. You know what I meant. (That link will take you to the blog of the same name, where you will find fellow mourners of the craft of words.)
(Subcategory of the above: use of the subjunctive. And don’t get me started on “may” and “might.”)
Paper is gone, too, or at least unnecessary. I think text is made of electrons now, but I really haven’t the faintest idea. Vandals burned the monastery libraries of Europe; hackers may yet wipe out War and Peace.
We have lived in the age of the Antonines, and Commodus is upon us. (Don’t bother me with questions when I’m being crotchety. Google it.)