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Does Anybody Write a Letter Anymore?


By Merle RubinMerle Rubin, who writes from Pasadena, Calif., specializes in reviewing literature for the Monitor. / July 5, 1989

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.

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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.