Pen and ink are not required for history

Last week I criticized this sentence in Roger Angell’s recent New Yorker piece on the demise of the post office:

Troops in Afghanistan and, until lately, Iraq keep up by Skype and Facebook, and in some sense are not away at all.

Reading it again still makes me angry, but if you’re curious why, read the original post. Today I’d like to criticize Angell’s maudlin, shortsighted, overly sentimental view of the post office and letter writing in general. The thesis his piece is that the demise of the post office, in many respects, can be directly attributed to the demise of the written letter, and with the loss of hand written letters, historian will be left with fewer and fewer artifacts from which to interpret history.

If we stop writing letters, who will keep our history or dare venture upon a biography? George Washington, Oscar Wilde, T. E. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E. B. White, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Vera Nabokov, J. P. Morgan—if any of these vivid predecessors still belong to us in some fragmented private way, it’s because of their letters or diaries (which are letters to ourselves) or thanks to some strong biography built on a ledge of letters.

I can’t help but wonder if Angell is under the misguided impression that email, text messages, tweets, Facebook status updates and other forms of electronic communication are ethereal and temporary?

Has he not heard the adage that it would be easier to erase a message carved in granite than an email or blog post from the Internet?

Has he not heard that every tweet ever sent is currently being stored in the Library of Congress?

I would argue that future historians will have access to resources that past historians could only dream about. Rather than reconstructing someone’s life from the carefully crafted, undoubtedly measured words found in letters and other written communication, historians will have access to the day-to-day communication of any historical person. Not only will this constitute a considerable increase in the amount of historical material for study, but in many ways, it will provide them with a considerably less filtered image of the figure as well.

Which is preferable? A series of letters exchanged between two public figures over a twenty year period, or every email, tweet, text, status update, blog post, and online comment sent over the same twenty year period?

Angell is crazy if he believes that historians wouldn’t opt for the latter.

Angell also argues that the loss of letter writing is an issue of quality and depth of writing, that today’s electronic communication does not convey the sense of humanity that a well crafted letter might.

The poets Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop conducted an enormous correspondence—four hundred and fifty-nine letters, between 1947 and 1977 (“What a block of life,” Lowell said), spanning three continents and, between them, six or eight different lovers or partners—but one need read only a few pages of these melancholic literary exchanges to know that the latest BlackBerry or iPhone never would have penetrated their consciousness.

I would argue that the 459 letters exchanged between Lowell and Bishop (which amount to about one every other month) is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of text messages, tweets and emails that these poets might have exchanged over the same thirty year period had the technology existed to do so. Lowell and Bishop were consciously writing for one another. One must assume that these letters were finely crafted and self-edited with their specific audience in mind.

Might we have a more honest, more realistic view of their relationship had their communication been more frequent and less filtered?

I think so.

The demise of the written letter, and of the post office in general, is sad, but it is sad mostly to sentimentalists and individuals who do not understand the permanence of bits and bytes. Aware that the post office was operating in the red for quite some time, I was shocked that postal officials did not eliminate Saturday delivery a long time ago and even switch to an every-other-day delivery schedule.

Would any reasonably-minded person be upset if home delivery of the mail was restricted to Monday, Wednesday and Friday if it allowed the post office to operate in the black?