For the past 12 years I have spent much of my spare time in the company of some 19th-century men and women who recorded their every thought and feeling for posterity. Whenever a Victorian read a new poet, or bought a house, or tried a new recipe, or met a public figure, he or she immediately took pen in hand to inform friends and relations. Not content with an eight or ten page letter on the subject, your average citizen a century ago would usually add a few pages of reflections to a daily journal.
As a result of this flood of communication --much of it fortunately to be found in historical libraries -- the historian, the biographer, or the novelist is able to get a rather accurate picture of life in any given decade and can penetrate the inner lives of his subjects.
But what, I keep worrying, will happen to the historian of tomorrow? What clues will he or she find to the daily doings and private thoughts of my contemporaries?
Precious little, I fear. If the family under study is like mine, the biographer will be up against a steady decrease in the quantity and quality of correspondence. The great-grandmothers still write letters, but they no longer provide us with a day-to-day account of their lives as they did 20 years ago.And we no longer receive wonderful family round robins, with inserts from all the great-aunts, giving all the details of their daily lives.
The middle generation, mine, still dashes off hasty notes to friends, full of careless cliches: Life is hectic. The rat race continues. Our trip was fun but exhausting. Hope we can have a real visit soon.m Once a year we harried souls attempt to make up for omissions with the dubious device of a broadside letter. "Dear scattered friends. . . ."m
The children, born after World War II, do not write letters at all. they telephone. The grandchildren send us crayoned drawings. No one keeps a journal , except for professional purposes.
People blame the telephone for the decline in letter writing. Many families now communicate by phone rather than by letter, it is true, but that is not the only difference. Our phone conversations are truncated; an exchange of headlines: We are fine. They are fine. The new job is fine. The car is in the shop (again). The grandchild likes kindergarten. The new wood stove is working.m
Gone forever, it seems, is that meticulous recording of the events of life which was once the warp and woof of family correspondence:
"On Tuesday, after we finished the ironing, Pa hitched up and we drove to market to get more peaches to put up. There we met Eliza Smith, Eliza Armstrong she was, and she told us that the Worth's son Joey was injured in battle at a place called Gettysburg."
Or daring prophecy:
"I do believe that if women are given the opportunity to advance on the scale of being, we may someday see our sisters taking an equal place with men in the trades and the professions."
We marvel that our ancestors had time for all the letters they wrote, and complain that the pace of modern life makes this impossible today. But some of my 19th-century friends accomplished more in one day than most of us can readily imagine. The difference is more one of attitude. The Victorians believed in Progress and in a Grand Design in which each life, however, humble, had some part. They therefore took themselves, and their thoughts, very seriously indeed.
With Longfellow they believed they must strive to live well so that they might ". . . departing, leave behind usm Footprints on the sands of time."m
Today we seem to have lost faith in our ability to make much difference in history, and along with that our sense that our thoughts might be worth preserving. In consequence we have given up correspondence and journal keeping. Historians worry that we are leaving no written record of our private lives. We don't even keep and preserve family account books the way an earlier generation did. Having discovered in writing biography that even a laundry slip can sometimes provide a valuable clue to a lost incident in history, I grieve about the gap we are creating.
The phenomenon created by the book "Roots" has set many families scrambling to gather old records and photographs and to interview great-grandmothers by means of tape recorders. This is a useful expedient to fill the gap, but in the long run it is much more important that we foster a return to the gentle art of letter writing and journal keeping.
Now that my oldest grandchild is in school, I am going to try to persuade him to lay down his crayon and take pen in hand to correspond with his grandmother. He can tell me about the seals and the eagles he can see from his window in Maine, and I will write him about the fire engines that rush by my window in Philadelphia. Not great literature, perhaps, but it will be a beginning. Like any fond grandmother I can't help wondering if someday he might not pla nt a footprint or two of his own.