Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dead Letters

We had a wonderful family Christmas of the sort I would wish for all my readers.  The smaller ones have now departed with their larger adherents in tow; and quiet has once again descended upon my study, where I sit with all my Christmas loot tidily arranged on a composing stone behind me.  It’s back to serious work.  Well, semi-serious.  I’m trying to write about the cultural background of Valérie (1803), an epistolary novel by Julie de Krüdener.

The bloguiste’s assembled Christmas loot.  The recurrent gastronomic motif may seem compromising, but less so than the usual multiple bottles of Listerine and sticks of underarm deodorant.  Top prize goes to my two little Kosher-keeping granddaughters Lulu and Cora, who somewhere came up with a convincing facsimile of my favorite French pork sausage in chocolate.

I’d be surprised if you had ever heard of Madame de Krüdener.  She was at first a friend and later a literary rival of Mme de Staël, the more famous author of the more famous epistolary novel Delphine.    (I must say that I prefer Valérie to Delphine if for no other reason than that the scholarly edition of the former is exactly eight hundred page shorter than the scholarly edition of the latter.) But the form of the epistolary novel itself you surely know.  It is a narrative deployed in fictional letters supposedly written by, or to, or about the fictional characters.  The epistolary form was particular important in the novel’s eighteenth-century youth, when it enjoyed famous practitioners.  Richardson’s early blockbusters Pamela and Clarissa are in epistolary form.  In France there are famous letter-novels by Montesquieu, Rousseau, and Chodleros de Laclos.  Goethe’s Werther is epistolary.
            Well, the thing is this: a few days before Christmas I got a letter.  It was not an annotated Christmas card, but a real letter, written on real paper folded within a real, stamped envelope and really delivered to my house by Mike the letter-carrier.  It was personal, substantial, thoughtful, well written, full of interesting and surprising news and ideas.  Since not everyone welcomes even such publicity as is commanded by an obscure professorial blog, I shall identify the letter’s sender no more precisely than to say that I knew him forty years ago as an undergraduate crowned with the success of a brilliant student career and radiant with promise—meaning, incredibly, that this golden youth of memory must now be sixty years old!  Widely interspersed episodes of contact over the decades gave me distant glimpses both of remarkable professional achievements and challenging dislocations, but we have essentially been out of touch.  
As he kindly mentions an awareness of my blog, he may read this.  If so, he should know that I intend to answer the letter properly in the next few days.  In the meantime, its mere existence has crystallized in my mind a cultural apprehension vaguely forming over the past many years: the demise, the very sad demise, of the personal letter.
The chief reason there were so many epistolary novels in the eighteenth century is that the entire culture was epistolary. People who could read and write—meaning all of polite society, and large swaths not so polite—read and wrote letters. Hence if art is truly an imitation of life, as our classical criticism tells us, nothing could be more artistic than an epistolary novel.
The contribution of our great letter-writers has been enormous.  Just here on my own shelves I have twelve elegant tomes of Madame de Sévigné (seventeenth century) and nine much thicker volumes of Horace Walpole (eighteenth).  The first six volumes of the Pléiade edition of the letters of Voltaire, which take him only to the age of 65 (he died at 84, pen in hand) and are all I can afford for the moment, come in at about 10,000 pages on bible paper in an eight-point font.  Altogether we have more than 20,000 of his letters, written around the edges of what we usually think of as his “work”.

 Action: Gerard ter Borch the Younger (1671-1681)

The tradition carried on into the Victorian era and beyond.  Think of all the wonderful Life and Letters of nineteenth-century figures.  By no means is all of this material is highbrow in nature.  One of the first extensive English letter collections we have (the Paston Letters from fifteenth-century East Anglia) is as full of grubby bourgeois concerns as anything imagined by Balzac or Trollope.  Many viewers of Ken Burns’s justly famous television series on The Civil War have been struck by one feature of its documentation—namely the informal letters written by soldiers on either side of the conflict, and generally addressed to distant family members at home.  Many of these men were private soldiers of modest social station and limited formal education, raised on farms in Indiana or Tennessee.  What is likely to seem extraordinary to us is that so many of them wrote with such competence, and often enough with elegance and even eloquence.  It might be possible to draw from this evidence postulates potentially useful for such theorists of American education as the hapless Arnie Duncan, but the point here is an historical one.  These men were the late inheritors of a culture in which competence in letter-writing was among the fundamentals of literacy.

Reaction: Jan Vermeer (1632-1635)

All this is vanishing, if not in fact long-since vanished.  The great age of letter-writing was enabled by material innovation (cheap rag paper, ink producible in quanity, the metallic quill, improved carriage wheels, a regular postal service, and various other things rarely brought to mind), and it is being abandoned by material innovation.  I very much doubt that our cultivated progeny will find pleasure in The Collected Email of Jonathan Franzen, Tom Robbins’s Greatest Tweets or The Cell Phone Records of Tama Janowitz—not even if read on a Kindle.