Still a bargain!

Another rise in the first-class postal rate --patched my first scrawled missive as a boy -- past and future. I don't suppose that any swain will be the less likely to pour out his heart to a beloved because three additional cents have been added to the charge; between friends a few extra pennies cannot make a difference. But there comes a point when a man pauses, and as he lays pen to paper takes thought about the value and the meaning of his act.

Letter writing is in danger of becoming a lost art, and this not for economic reasons. I hate to disillusion our postal authorities, but I can assure them they are barking up the wrong tree if they expect the new 18 cent rate to balance the budget, save us from inflation, or perform other economic miracles. They are locking the barn door (if I may be permitted another cliche) when the horse has gotten out. To make letter writing more expensive just when it threatens to become extinct is an act of sapience comparable to increasing mass transit fares when people in large numbers are discovering that most mass transit is too dangerous, too uncertain in schedule, or too unpleasant in environment to want to make use of it.

The major element of letter writing is, of course, the telephone -- especially the telephone as it is employed by today's younger generation. When a conversation over that relatively newfangled machine required one to talk in a loud voice, and was likely to be heard by the party line over a considerable neighborhood, the contact between callers was apt to be brief and formal. It was enough, however, to start a flood of mutual sympathies, and often to be the precipitant of the more extended exchange permitted by a letter. Today, the telephone call is a substitute for the letter. It is not the means by which a rendezvous is arranged, but becomes -- in a teen-ager's long, intense, barely audible flow of words -- the rendezvous itself.

The essence of a telephone conversation is its evanescence. Except in the case of secretaries of state, who seem to keep "logs" of all their calls, the spoken words are erased as soon as they are spoken. For the historian and biographer this is a disconcerting loss. I have worked on one book where intimate correspondence was the key to re-creating a past epoch, and in preparation for another book I am now studying a voluminous collection of surviving papers and ephemera. How satisfying it is to have before one the thoughts of the otherwise unrecoverable day, passionate ardors, details of travel, or the minutiae of business and political affairs! Here are the hearts of men and women laid bare, their hopes and plans preserved in unalterable, though sometimes cryptic, words.

Literature also stands to lose by the decline of letter writing. In the old-fashioned, three-volume biography, the words "life and letters" stood together, inseparable aspects of mortality. To live was to communicate, and deeds and words were almost equal in importance. These biographies, though they may read ponderously now, give us more of a man or woman than most of the speculative and psychologically oriented accounts of modern existence.A collection of letters presented with a minimum of connective tissue can in itself be one of the highest forms of literature. Most of us would give up a good part of Stevenson's essays if his letters might be preserved forever. And is it heresy to say of Keats's letters that they are of a beauty equal to his poems?

Some letters are made to be disposed of: those so indiscreet as to require burning, others so banal as to be worthy of shredding. But the larger share of those exchanged between friends, deal they ever so modestly with life's narrow sphere, ought to be kept with at least the same care as old photographs. Read over with affection, with smiles, reviving presences gone from our ken, they are as doors opening into deserted chambers. For another generation such letters -- when discovered in an attic or preserved in the archives of a library -- make the past come alive.

Eighteen cents is 18 cents (as 20 may soon be 20); but here is still a bargain for those who keep their wits about them -- and love in their hearts.

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