Friday, September 12, 2014

Letter-writing: on the wane?

A question from 1909:

Is letter writing, in the artistic sense, a lost accomplishment? There are plenty of people who would not linger long over a reply. It is often asserted that Rowland Hill and the penny post killed the old-fashioned style of letter. That is not true, however, for it survived in old-fashioned hands into the mid-Victorian era, when it received its coup de grâce by the invention of what our fathers, when in a superior mood, called that “modern abomination,” the ubiquitous post-card. Correspondence has since its advent grown pithy, brisk, prosaic. The majority of men have not the time in this cast-iron, express-paced age, with its telegraphs and telephones, and constant business and social demands, for the old elaborate letter of genial gossip and kindly compliment. Sentiment, some would even say, is at a discount, and whatever may be the cause, imagination and fancy, to say nothing of wit and humor, have grown curiously rare under a penny stamp. The world is too much with us now. Our interests are too many, our work too insistent, our mental indolence perhaps too great, for that expansive style of correspondence which has vanished for the most part with quill pens and sealing wax.

Stuart J. Reid, in the Introduction to Horace Walpole’s Letters (London: Cassell, 1909).
Damned post-cards! Nevertheless, Reid says, “letter-writing is not a lost art.”

This tiny volume of Walpole’s letters is one of the books I have from Jim Doyle. I took it off the shelf the other day, after not looking at it for many years.

Related reading
Other letter-related posts (Pinboard)
Rowland Hill (By weight, not distance)
William Wordsworth, “The World Is Too Much with Us”

[Mac Dictation for “pithy, brisk, prosaic”: “pissy, brisk, Prozac.”]

comments: 6

Anonymous said...

There are few things worse than hand writing a letter when an email would do.


The Crow said...

It isn't a lost art, though the practice of writing letters waxes and wanes - for a multitude of reasons...some of which I'll relate in my overdue response to your last one; which I was most glad to receive, should you wonder.

Slywy said...

Me too. Although my weekend may have opened up some.

The correspondence between writers like Gaskell and Dickens is fascinating, and between Gaskell and her friends. I also reading a forward to a Brontë novel how little governesses earned and how their correspondence supplies and postage had to come out of this pittance (in addition to laundry and other basics). Before the phone and everything else, getting a letter from home, or getting a letter from your daughter, must have been a major event. When I was a kid, all of us (parents too) looked out for the mailman, and my parents would comment on how early/late he was. My mom read letters aloud. My aunt sent me postcards from her travels. I love mail. :)

Slywy said...

read in a forward

Wow, do I need a break.

Michael Leddy said...

A brake? Your not the only one.

I’m slightly behind (or “a bit buttocks”) in my correspondence too.

There’s now a volume of Willa Cather’s letters — I never thought I’d see that. The sheer volume of some writers’ letter-production is reason for amazement. We must just do the best we can. :)

Fresca said...

Postcards were the Twitter of the day, eh?

The main people I get paper letters from are my 89-y.o. auntie and a friend in prison.

This friend, like a 19th cent. governess, makes a pittance working full-time in prison and has to pay for postage out of that.
Whenever I get a letter from her, I'm aware she had to work most of an hour to pay for the stamp.