Sincerely Yours LOL!

The recent publication of Robert Lowell’s letters makes us wonder, will someday collections of today’s scribblers’ correspondence include emoticons? A look at the last gasps of letter writing.

It’s hard to pick up the book review section of a recent magazine or newspaper and not find a lengthy appreciation of The Letters of Robert Lowell, a door-stopper edited by Saskia Hamilton. The collection, which runs from the poet’s college days to shortly before his death, has much “to say about the way he both bestrode and was swallowed by his times, when poets and poetry still dwelt deep within the culture’s vital creative nucleus instead of prettily orbiting its edges,” notes Walter Kirn in the New York Times. “Here, at last, is Lowell in vivid and complex chiaroscuro,” writes Jonathan Raban in the New York Review of Books. The reviews of and essays on the book are uniformly excellent, as well; they dig through the letters and sift out all sorts of new and wonderful insights into the poet’s life. As it was with the release of his collected poems two years ago, the release of Lowell’s letters is an event to celebrate.

And it’s one we should savor, because there won’t be many more like it. Who, after all, writes letters anymore? Sure, lots of mothers write gushing reports to their friends bragging about their children each Christmas, and thousands of postcards and thank-you notes fly through the mail every day. But what about the serious letter, the seed of the epistolary art, the sort of work that, for all its casualness, we can nevertheless cherish as art? In the electronic age, is it possible to find an author “in vivid and complex chiaroscuro” in an email?

The outlook isn’t good. First, it’s important to recognize that the letter, as an art form, is different from the novel or poetry in that it is largely a product of necessity. A letter is written primarily to communicate information to the recipient. Not all letters are urgent, of course; simply getting a friend up to speed on your latest romantic adventures, the failure of your latest novel, or your mother’s nagging is reason enough. Writing a letter is also a personal act; you write letters to a particular person, not an audience, and that’s what makes them so special later on, and so different from other literary forms. They are uncalculated expressions of the author’s private thoughts, thoughts which often carry intense emotional weight. In many of the Lowell letters, critics have found the saplings from which some of his greatest poems later developed. What’s more, there is a passion in the hand-written letter that is absent from typing. How many times do you underline a phrase? How much pressure do you put on the pen when you’re explaining how much you miss your boyfriend?

On the other hand, letters are investments. Serious letters require an eye for spelling and grammar, a willingness to revise, and attention to tools employed: the right ink, the right paper, the right envelope. As a child I loved to write letters simply because I got to decorate them with colorful stamps. They demand a commitment that in turn creates the opportunity for artistic expression to flourish.

Without the need to write letters, few do, and fewer learn how. And so letter writing dies.But things change. We hear all the time about the death of the novel—with TV and the web and all the many new media, who has time to read a book? But the real concern should be how all these things are killing the letter. Not, of course, because we don’t have time to write. Rather it’s because we have many other ways to write. And much more efficient ones. When I was a senior in high school I had a girlfriend in Dayton. I still have all the letters she wrote me, and they still strike a deep resonance. I later dated a woman for four years, many of those spent in different cities, and during that time we exchanged fewer than a dozen serious letters. Not because I loved her less than the girl from Dayton, but because during the six years between the two relationships came email. Suddenly, I could write as many times a day as I wanted, virtually for free. No longer did I have to worry about getting everything into the letter; I could send an addendum five minutes later if need be. Nor did I have to worry about spelling—the computer could take care of that. And handwriting, of course, was a nonissue. In fact, the lackadaisical conventions of email militate against careful attention to detail. The idea behind email is speed, not precision; when was the last time you corrected someone’s mistake in an email?

And email is nothing compared to online chats. Were I a teen today, I would never spend the time to write a letter when I could spend that time actually conversing—albeit through a keyboard—with my girlfriend. Serious letter writing presupposes a gulf of experience, time, and physical distance between communicants. But email—and online chatting, and cheaper long-distance phone rates and plane flights—shrinks that gulf dramatically. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I probably would have stayed with that girlfriend longer had I been able to keep in better contact. But being in closer contact, I also would not have needed to press so many thoughts and experiences into a single communication, because I’d be communicating them to her virtually as they occurred.

By this I don’t mean to put my love notes on par with even the most juvenile of Lowell’s letters. But at the risk of oversimplification, it’s a good bet that this has been the experience of most people. Without the need to write letters, few do, and fewer learn how. And so letter writing dies.

Of course, the fact that fewer people write letters does not have to mean that letter writing as an art form necessarily disappears. Two people could always decide to write letters to each other, despite more efficient means, in order to revel in the form’s aesthetic possibilities. But here’s the paradox: The aesthetic quality of letter writing derives largely from its non-aesthetic qualities: its casual formality, its communicative strength. A letter is a piece of art only indirectly, unconsciously. Good letter writers do not think to themselves, “I am going to create a piece of art, and if it communicates something to my friend, so be it”; it’s the other way around.

We can hope that even as the letter dies, something emerges to replace it—perhaps, as email writing evolves, people will find ways to imbue it with a communicative force that operates on something other than the literal level. Perhaps by studying the letters of Lowell and others we can even glean some ideas for melding the old and the new. For now, though, let’s enjoy the troves of letters we have, and be glad that someone had the foresight to put them into books.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen