THE venerable art of letter writing has long been in decline. Time and the telephone have taken their toll. It's customary to deplore the dire effects of the telephone - its insistent ring, its intrusiveness - and to lament the loss of the far more civilized letter that waits politely to be opened, allows the recipient to peruse it at leisure, and consigns itself to the various possible fates of being torn up, treasured, burned, or issued in a posthumous collection.
Still, I'd rather telephone. Like so many other spoiled children of technology, I don't seem to have the time to write letters. Heaven knows what we're all so busy doing: churning our own butter? building log cabins? working 60-hour weeks in sweatshops? The truth is, we probably have the time to write, but not the patience.
The telephone promises instant gratification. Who knows when our letters will be answered! There's a lot to be said for the charm and flexibility of that original instrument of communication, the human voice. And with the price of stamps always going up, and long distance rates going down, soon it may even be cheaper to call than write.
It's daunting to think what may be lost in the process.
What if Abelard and H'eloise had poured out their hearts on the telephone? If Robert Browning had wooed Elizabeth Barrett by ringing her up regularly? If France's great letter writer Mme. de S'evign'e had given her daughter all the news of Louis XIV's Paris on the phone? If, instead of writing letters that later served as a handbook of worldly advice, Lord Chesterfield had called to tell his son how to behave?
What if Keats had merely ``talked out'' his emerging ideas about poetry instead of working them out in letters that still shed light on his astonishing achievement? What if the apostles had opted for conference calls instead of epistles to distant flocks?
Some letters become part of the culture of letters: literature. The Latin root of both words is littera - meaning a letter (of the alphabet). The act of writing is the key to both: at once a form of communication and a method of recording.
So many letters we write and receive serve the narrowest purposes of communication: letters of inquiry, complaints, business and legal documents. These are the letters that ``have to'' be written.
What of the letters we choose to write and take pleasure in writing? These, too, are communicative, but they may also serve as a way of recording our experiences and perceptions. Writing such letters satisfies the need of the writer in all of us for self-expression and communication. And unlike the aspiring poet or novelist, who may have a hard time finding a readership, the letter writer can be reasonably certain of reaching his intended reader.
T.S. Eliot's remark at a lecture he delivered at Yale in 1933 encapsulates the overt and covert desires of the letter writer: ``We want to confess ourselves in writing to a few friends, and we do not always want to feel that no one but those friends will ever read what we have written.'' Volume 1 of The Letters of T.S. Eliot (1898-1922), edited by Valerie Eliot (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, San Diego, 639 pp., illustrated, $29.95) gives us a vivacious portrait of the young poet, at once candid and self-consciously posing for posterity.
The letters range from elegant disquisitions on his studies in philosophy to his first wife's poignant complaint to Eliot's mother about the shabby state of the struggling writer's wardrobe. Both touching and amusing are Eliot's letters to his friend and fellow poet Conrad Aiken. ``His verse is well-meaning but touchingly incompetent,'' writes Eliot to Aiken in 1914: He is speaking of Pound, whom he will later commend as il miglior fabbro. Writing about himself, and urging Aiken to do likewise, Eliot declares, ``Letters should be indiscretions - otherwise they are simply official bulletins.''
Certainly, it's for these ``indiscretions'' that most of us pore through the collections of famous people's letters, although we may encounter rather too many ``official bulletins'' along the way. The final volume of the definitive edition of The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy (Vol. VII: 1926-1927), edited by Richard Little Purdy and Michael Millgate (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 304 pp., $65) smacks less of the man than of the monument that he became. This superb work of scholarship will nonetheless be welcomed, not only by scholars, but also by all Hardy enthusiasts, who - like the biographer or historian - value whatever can be gleaned about the object of their enthusiasm.
In contrast to such definitive editions, some collections are assembled with the aim of entertaining the ordinary reader with choice specimens of the letter writer's art. Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1956, selected by Rupert Hart-Davis (Norton, New York, 244 pp., $22.50) sympathetically displays Beerbohm's lighthearted, kindly, ornamental personality - along with some of his charming drawings. Beerbohm's correspondents included Shaw, Edmund Gosse, Lytton Strachey, and Arnold Bennett. But ``the incomparable Max'' truly outdoes himself in replying to Olivia Truman, a 14-year-old fan of his brother, the actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree. ``I am flattered by your suggestion that I should write my memoirs,'' replies Max, ``only my life has been so very uneventful; the nearest approach to luridness was that I almost met you, and it would hardly fill a volume to say, `It was about this time that I almost met that remarkable woman Olivia Truman.'''
Another correspondence that gives pleasure, not from the ``luridness'' of passionate revelations, nor even from the celebrity of the correspondents, but merely as an opportunity to listen in on two good friends exchanging gossip, stories, ideas, and opinions is The Lyttelton Hart-Davis Letters, the final two volumes of which are promised from Academy Chicago this fall. As fans of the first four volumes already know, these letters between retired schoolmaster George Lyttelton and editor and publisher Rupert Hart-Davis make for hours of light, yet stimulating reading.
The Selected Correspondence of Kenneth Burke and Malcolm Cowley, 1915-1981,'' edited by Paul Jay (Viking, New York, 448 pp., $29.95) takes us through World War I, the Lost Generation, the Thirties, and onward in the company of two prominent American literary figures, friends since high school, discussing literature, politics, personalities, and literary politics.
The letters of an enigmatic man like T.E. Lawrence are bound to have an appeal to readers in search of anything that sheds light on his character. T.E. Lawrence: The Selected Letters, edited by Malcolm Brown (Norton, New York, 568 pp., $27.50) includes a series of unusually frank letters that Lawrence wrote to George Bernard Shaw's wife, Charlotte, in which the author of ``The Seven Pillars of Wisdom'' gives voice to the private obsessions that shaped his strange personality. For Lawrence, the opportunity to express himself freely to a friend on paper afforded him the scope to discuss what he felt he could not discuss in his published work.
The greatest degree of intimacy, one might think, would be found in love letters. But love letters are not always models of what existential philosopher Martin Buber called ``I-thou'' communion. Sometimes they show a lack of mutual understanding.
Stephen Crane's soul-baring missives to a lady who did not return his feelings are a case in point. ``It seems to me that I like you wonderfully more, after confessing so unreservedly,'' wrote Crane to Nellie Crouse. The excitement of his own self-revelations apparently blinded him to the reality of the situation. In The Correspondence of Stephen Crane, edited by Stanley Wertheim and Paul Sorrentino (Columbia University Press, New York, Two illustrated volumes, 772 pp., $75 for the set), the author of ``The Red Badge of Courage'' emerges as a curious mixture of ingenuousness and duplicity, at least in his dealings with women. Following the Crouse affair, we find him penning passionate letters to an actress, while wooing another woman who eventually became his common-law wife.
A woman of powerful intellect, imposing presence, and immense erudition, the novelist Edith Wharton was a formidable letter writer whose correspondents included Henry James and Bernard Berenson. Wharton's biographerR.W.B. Lewis and his wife Nancy have selected some 400 letters out of a possible 4,000 for The Letters of Edith Wharton (Scribner's, New York, 654 pp., illustrated, $29.95). The heart of this collection may well be the letters Wharton wrote her lover, the American journalist Morton Fullerton. As Wharton passes from the early stage of joyful transport through phases of anxiety to real anguish, it becomes painfully evident that neither her considerate attitude toward Fullerton nor her realistic expectation that passion might fade was sufficient to shield her from hurt.
Reading these letters, one is reminded of the inescapable irony that love letters are generated by the absence of the beloved, and that sometimes letter writing, like love, can be an exercise in solipsism instead of an act of communication. Most ironically, often those letters that failed to communicate - that fell on deaf ears - have the most power to move us, reading them years later as innocent, yet involved, bystanders.