Messenger of Sympathy and Love Servant of Parted Friends Consoler of the Lonely Bond of the Scattered Family Enlarger of the Common Life
Carrier of News and Knowledge Instrument of Trade and Industry Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and Nations.
A business consultant once passed around copies of the poem above and asked us to say what it was about. No one figured it out, but you probably know, because of the subject line of this email, this electronic letter.
Separated from colleagues, friends, and family, we’re using many forms of communication to stay in touch, to keep relationships alive. This has had a curious effect on me: it’s made me withdraw from social media and think longingly of the days when we wrote letters.
I’ve long seen online social media the “lite” version of human connection: not a terrible thing in moderation, like Coke Zero, but not a source of nourishment. Somehow this feeling has been amplified by social distancing.
I don’t want to drink Coke Zero. “Will we want to be around other people when this is over?” a journalist asked me. “Of course,” I said, “pandemics pass. We need to be together.” I even had a dream about it the other night, that I was with friends in a bar on a sunny afternoon, talking about the city while sipping beautiful cocktails, then walking through crowds, people everywhere in the sunshine, pouring out of restaurants, sitting in the park. Ray Oldenburg and I are coauthoring a new edition of The Great Good Place and I now have the job of writing about third places during and after COVID-19. We were interviewed about this on Boston radio recently, and you can listen to the WGBH program by clicking here. The segment about third places is at 43:00.)
In the meantime, while getting more Berkshire content online and working with Encyclopedia of Sustainability authors, I’ve been writing. One piece was for the journal of the T. S. Eliot Society, about the unfolding drama of the Eliot letters at Princeton, and that got me thinking about the peculiar quality, the depth of expression, the intimacy, that is possible in a letter.
The single best thing I’ve read about letters was in a book I picked up because it had an amusing title: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy–And the World’s Getting Worse. It contains a passage about different forms of communication. Here are a few lines:
Letter writing requires a prolonged focus. It sits you down by the fire—the firelight of flickering reflections and the warmed imagination.
I believe we may be actually closer and more truly communicating in letters than when talking. The vertical connection downwards and inwards, each on his solitary own, may be making a connection of souls through imagination, a connection that does not necessarily happen in live conversation or on the telephone. Read more…
That connection doesn’t happen with online social media, and it doesn’t happen, for me anyway, in emails. They’re too short, too fast, and too easy to copy or forward.
This leads me to ask you to record your experiences of 2020 in something more than tweets or clever remarks on Facebook. Write something longer, please, about what’s going on around you, what people say and do, how you feel. Be honest. Dig deep. This is a strange and frightening time. But there are wonderful things happening, too. Let’s remember it all.
Every time I go back to old papers and letters, I discover just how much I have forgotten. Yesterday, for example, I was looking for something to illustrate this e-letter to you. I went to the file cabinet where I’ve stuck really old papers and pulled out a handful of airmail envelopes. They were letters I had written in the early 1980s to my best friend in California. There were envelopes from Australia, where I spent two months after graduating from UCSB, and from England, where I ended up for the next decade. There was a single letter mailed from Japan in 1981.
That one startled me because I’d spent only 24 hours in Japan, on a stopover between Sydney and London. In the envelope was a typed letter. Had I sat down and typed a letter during a 24-hour visit that included a trip far out of Tokyo (so far that I almost missed by plane to London)? No, I had typed it in Sydney, added another handwritten page in Tokyo, and mailed it from there. I felt like I was meeting my younger self again, bouncing off the page as she recounted all the things she’d already done in Tokyo and all the things she planned to do.
A bigger surprise was that I might have ended up in China twenty years before I did. Instead of the layover in Tokyo, I might have stopped in Hong Kong, and I wrote about trying to get a job on a private yacht in order to go to China. I added that I might return to Australia after taking care of some business in London. Considering that I had no money except what I was earning as a temp secretary and that I’d grown up in a family that only went abroad when a rich uncle – Uncle Sam – paid for it, I’m surprised that I was so casual about bouncing around the world. How would I know any of this for certain if my friend hadn’t returned these letters? How will you know what you experienced during COVID-19, how will historians know, if we don’t record it?
I’m especially glad when there are two sides of a conversation. That’s rare, of course, and for the most part the people I wrote to a lot did not write as much as I did.
One-sided correspondence has been on my mind this year because of the discovery of a treasure trove of letters that are only one side of a four-decade relationship. Emily Hale preserved the 1,100 letters T. S. Eliot wrote to her, but he had all her letters burned before he died. Her voice was silenced, and all she left was a short summary of their relationship. You can read about this in the latest issue of Time Present, the newsletter of the T. S. Eliot Society. My contribution is also available here. (If you’d like to read the other contributions and don’t have access via a library, drop me a line.)
I do not have copies of dozens of letters I wrote in 1991 because my correspondent, my distant lover, hated the fact that I used a computer. He called me “the green lady of black technology.” Because I felt he might be right about technology but damned if I was going to write a book on a typewriter, I would type a letter on my computer, print it, tuck in a few dried flowers I’d picked in the Devon hedgerows, and then delete the file.
We were both writers. I was young, with a first book out and another in progress. He was an older, established author. We were divided by an ocean, and a marriage.
Like Emily Hale and T. S. Eliot: divided by an ocean and a marriage. But the similarity that interests me is that, just as in the Hale-Eliot story, only the male correspondent’s side endures. My letters, apparently, were destroyed. But I kept his. Years later, I was able to fish out two letters describing his encounter with William H. McNeill, the historian who became my dear friend and mentor until his death in 2016. I couldn’t have given Bill anything more interesting. So intrigued was he that he asked if I might be able to produce my long-ago lover so they could resume their debate (and, I assume, give Bill a chance, at ninety-something, definitely to win the argument).
While it’s interesting to see my younger self reflected in someone’s letters to me, I wish I had the ones I wrote. One of them would describe a day when I drove to the Devon coast. I walked for a while then sat on a bluff and wrote a letter. The cliff-top was covered in a sweep of bluebells and purple storm clouds were billowing on the horizon. That’s the picture I have in mind, anyway, of what I would have described to him before folding the pages, licking the envelope, and dropping it into a red letterbox.
Would my memory be proved right, if he returned my letters? Would I be embarrassed by my professions of love? I don’t know, but I would like to.
Here’s a story from the 1918 flu pandemic, relayed to me by John (J. R.) McNeill. His father Bill McNeill was born in October 1917 and told me that he “survived it.” But did that mean Bill had actually had the flu as an infant? So it seems, from an account Bill left. But John adds:
There is a story that I was told by either my father or grandfather many decades ago, which none of my siblings recalls. I can’t vouch for it. The story is that my grandparents, newly arrived in Chicago for JTM’s doctoral work, did not know anyone and when they fell seriously sick, they put their babies in a basket on the table in their apartment with a note asking anyone who might find them to take care of them, and then lay down to die. But they did not die, their babies survived, and all ended well.
Please take a look at your correspondence – email, Twitter, Facebook, WeChat, WhatsApp, Whatever – with people you care about. How much of your life – your daily life as well as your inner life – do they record? How about writing a diary? (You can dictate into text using Otter.ai – it’s remarkably accurate.) Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl was written as letters to an imaginary friend, by the way, and I’m sure that’s part of the enduring appeal of her writing.
If you have letters, keep them safe, or offer to return them to the writer. Save your personal email correspondence. (It’s easy: put all the emails you want to save in a folder, highlight them, go to File, then Save As, and choose Text Only to create a single file with the entire record.) Download your Facebook history. And record your memories of this strange, anxious, transformative period in human history.
The poem at the beginning of this letter is called “The Letter” and is carved in the white granite of the building that formerly was the Washington, DC Post Office, now is the home of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum. It was written by Dr. Charles W. Eliot, former president of Harvard University and slightly adapted by President Woodrow Wilson.
Letters of Note and Letters in Need
Letters of Note is a wonderful gathering and celebration of letters that was created by Shaun Usher in the UK. You can subscribe, or buy a book, and he has now started Letters in Need: “I’m especially worried about the countless people–many elderly and vulnerable–who now find themselves isolated in their homes, alone, unable to see friends and family, some facing months with very little human contact, if any at all. . . . I’d like to try sending a letter to some of these people. Nothing deep, just something to take their minds off the current crisis. A moment of connection.”
Women’s roles as letter writers are occasionally described as autobiographical, but women’s letters equally portrayed knowledge of political affairs, frequently listed business transactions, or subtly undercut perceived social roles. In China, the historian Ban Zhao (45–116 CE) wrote a tract for her daughters on proper feminine behavior in a patriarchal society. The family letters of the English matriarch Margaret Paston (d. 1484) reflect her belief in the importance of letter writing as a form of power and persuasion in medieval England.
T S Eliot in Love
While I tended to agree with the reviewer who wrote, “The prospect of reading TS Eliot’s every last letter is boring beyond tears,” all that’s changed. The Eliot who wrote to Emily Hale is far from dull. Read more at The Love of a Good Woman and The Princeton Story Continued.
Anthony Trollope and the Penny Post
National postal services transformed communication in the nineteenth century. Here’s my favorite account of the early days of the British “penny post,” from An Autobiography, by Anthony Trollope, published in 1883. Trollope was a novelist who also worked for the postal service, and efficiently combined postal inspections with his favorite sport, fox hunting:
I was paid sixpence a mile for the distance traveled, and it was necessary that I should at any rate travel enough to pay for my equipage. This I did, and got my hunting out of it also. I have often surprised some small country postmaster, who had never seen or heard of me before, by coming down upon him at nine in the morning, with a red coat and boots and breeches, and interrogating him as to the disposal of every letter which came into his office. And in the same guise I would ride up to farmhouses, or parsonages, or other lone residences about the country, and ask the people how they got their letters, at what hour, and especially whether they were delivered free or at a certain charge. For a habit had crept into use, which came to be, in my eyes, at that time, the one sin for which there was no pardon, in accordance with which these rural letter-carriers used to charge a penny a letter, alleging that the house was out of their beat, and that they must be paid for their extra work. I think that I did stamp out that evil.
In all these visits I was, in truth, a beneficent angel to the public, bringing everywhere with me an earlier, cheaper, and much more regular delivery of letters. But not infrequently the angelic nature of my mission was imperfectly understood. I was perhaps a little in a hurry to get on, and did not allow as much time as was necessary to explain to the wondering mistress of the house, or to an open-mouthed farmer, why it was that a man arrayed for hunting asked so many questions which might be considered impertinent, as applying to his or her private affairs. “Good morning, sir. I have just called to ask a few questions. I am a surveyor of the Post Office. How do you get your letters? As I am a little in a hurry, perhaps you can explain at once.” Then I would take out my pencil and notebook, and wait for information.
And in fact there was no other way in which the truth could be ascertained. Unless I came down suddenly as a summer’s storm upon them, the very people who were robbed by our messengers would not confess the robbery, fearing the ill-will of the men. It was necessary to startle them into the revelations which I required them to make for their own good. And I did startle them. I became thoroughly used to it, and soon lost my native bashfulness;–but sometimes my visits astonished the retiring inhabitants of country houses. I did, however, do my work, and can look back upon what I did with thorough satisfaction. I was altogether in earnest; and I believe that many a farmer now has his letters brought daily to his house free of charge, who but for me would still have had to send to the post-town for them twice a week, or to have paid a man for bringing them irregularly to his door.
Dear Michael, We could be on the phone and instead we are writing letters. Why do we not simply talk long-distance coast-to coast, Connecticut to California, taping the conversations as we did for the L. A. Weekly interview that started this whole book? What will happen when we write letters instead of talk? You realize that by writing we are shifting the genre. No longer ;ill the ideas come out hot owing to the double presence, back and forth, two chairs in a room together or pacing up and down or eating and drinking at a restaurant table or on a park bench. Now, alone, three thousand miles apart, each sits, pen in hand—or do you type right into the machine? This shift into writing is what the French thinkers today make so much of—the écrit, the paper trace. Written words require a rhythm and a reflection so very different from the carefree spontaneity of the oral mode that jumps right out when we talk with each other. Therefore, these letters will be, supposedly, more cool and distant. And, anyway, wasn’t that our point in including letters in this book—to give the book some cooling-off and reflective distance? However—and mark my words, young man—I believe we may be actually closer and more truly communicating in letters than when talking. The vertical connection downwards and inwards, each on his solitary own, may be making a connection of souls through imagination, connection that does not necessarily happen in live conversation or on the telephone. I am saving, Mister Interviewer Ventura, that an interview does not have to take place “in person.” Now, if this be so, or enough “so” to be worth exploring, then the immense hyper-communication industry of portable phone and cellular phone, satellite dish and call waiting, of fax, beeper, modem, answering filters, and voice-activated recorders—all those oyster shell-colored, plastic-covered chip devices that turn the citizen into hacker, plugged into everyone everywhere—”I am because I am accessible”—does not, repeat, not, put an end to my aloneness but rather intensifies it. If I must be networked in order to be, then on my own I am out of the loop, out of communication, null and void, nowhere. I can’t be reached. If to be means to be reachable, then in order to be I must stay networked. Result: the contemporary syndrome, communication addiction. One of the acute tensions of daily life strikes when the phone rings and you don’t want to answer. Do you, Michael, let the phone ring and not pick it up? My daughter does. Do you put on your answering machine, call into your answering service, before going out the door so as not to miss—miss what, actually? What are we afraid of missing? The telephone ads recognize the right tie between loneliness and phoning. “Reach out and touch someone” reminds me how alone I am when not in touch. The more I feel alone, the more I phone; the more I phone, the more I am aware I am alone. A vicious feedback circle. I hear you in my mind saving, “But Jim, it works.” Phone sex, phone shopping, conference calls, family group calls; the red hot line that can start and stop a war. They say George Bush is on the phone a good part of each day. Can’t be alone. And imagine this: Day in and day out an SAC plane flies around somewhere over the country, thirty thousand feet up, maintaining our national security communications center, a flying fortress phone booth keeping America safe. Even love works by phone talk. How many couples carry on their verbal intimacies long-distance! When I lived in Dallas, it was standard among families (maybe lovers too) to end their conversations with “I love you” breathed into the pastel, plastic, perforated mouthpiece provided by Southwestern Bell. So, why write letters? When I sit down to write, I’ve stepped out of the loop. I’m no longer in the addictive pattern. I’m simply here, on this frosty, moonless night, alone—but I am not lonely. It is silent, a little scratching of the pen point or the hum of the machine. I am not spread out through the network, not so much connected as collected. I’m not so much responding directly to you as I am pondering indirectly and generating, from my soul to soul, your image as recipient of this letter. I am not really writing to you. It’s not the actual you whose voice I know on the phone, whose body I see when we talk. This “you” to whom I write is a visionary, imagined Michael with whom my imagination is in touch, calling forth my imagination and freeing it from the confines of your actual voice and face. I enter an imagined space, and that’s what I mean by my phrase ‘generating from my soul to soul.” Wearer connected by means of imagination. Imagination spins a web, its network, to ensnare your fantasies. This is less a communication than a cosmic enterprise that is really not bound by time or space. Isn’t that precisely what the great letters of the past reveal and why they still appeal beyond space and time? Just think of the web of imaginative writing, written from ships after months away at sea, by explorers lost in wastelands, by those locked in prisons, written from trenches with sudden death imminent, written to lovers one has met but once or shortly—connections of imagination through imagination that are meetings of souls, in which there is no “relationship” going on at all. Narcissism! Autoerotic! Fantasy! So might psychotherapy describe such outpourings. But wouldn’t you rather get a letter of that sort than a phone call? So, I believe I am actually closer to the soul of the person I am writing to than when engaged in conversation, and therefore, fundamentally—and here is the shocker—if this soul connection is going on in imagination, I am less alone when immersed in a letter, even if physically distant and not in touch. To keep in touch could now mean something altogether different: it could mean, “stay away—and write.” The greatest of all letter writers, Mme. de Sévigné, said she was glad when her daughter took off so that the letters to her could begin again. “Stay away and write” could be taken to imply that I don’t like bodies, but that is not at all what I intend to say. I am merely contrasting the differences between talking and writing, because we need to make clear the difference between the parts of the book that begin in talk and the parts that begin in writing. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” reveals some truth about the heart’s need to sink into its chambers to find its thoughts and put them into words that do not come to the lips in the presence of the other. How is it possible that works done in absence, in solitude, in remote distance, such as paintings and songs, poems and novels, works of imagination, communicate between the soul of the computer and the viewer, reader, listener? Again, Michael, we don’t have to talk to communicate. Let’s keep clear the distinction between the vertical connection downwards, deeps touching deeps, and the horizontal connection outwards, beeps answering beeps. The tiny microchips, so light and fast, are the thin silicon wings of Hermes the divine messenger. (Get Ginette Paris’s book Pagan Grace for the chapter on Hermes and communication technology. She shows the subtlety that makes Hermes both God of communication and patron of liars.) Our civilization has taken him over into its monotheism, a one-sided Hermes hypermania—and therefore concretized because one-sided—the hyperactivation of a single God. The subtlety is lost in the yes-or-no of information thinking. And we are moralized by this new Hermetic madness into slogans like: get plugged-in; connect, only connect; never mind the message, it’s the medium; keep networking. Info bytes; twenty-second bites; government reduced to “spin control.” The Persian Gulf War shows that the incredibly difficult task of controlling Mars, the God of war, depends in our time on managing Hermes. As information is our new God, Hermes has replaced Yahweh, and, like him, Hermes too has become a God of war. Hermes in antiquity was paired in the city with Hestia, she of the hearth, she who sat still, focused. (Focus is Latin for fireplace, hearth.) Letter writing requires a prolonged focus. It sits you down by the fire—the firelight of flickering reflections and the warmed imagination. I used the word recollection, a Platonic word. implying that when we write letters the mind both focuses and also strays afield, seems partly under the influence of the muses. A musing goes on that harks back to their mother, Mnemosyne, Memory. The phone just doesn’t seem to allow all that to come in. hone talk with the bill running by the second is especially foreshortened. Meandering costs money. Directness of phoning, the hand gripping the receiver, the ear hot under the pressure, leads to dreadful misunderstandings. How many devastations have happened in your life simply by wrong phoning? So, to end this letter about letters, let’s again remember the different feeling between love letters and love phoning. A love letter becomes a keepsake—or a time bomb in a divorce court! Love letters hold incredible potential. People used to lock them away, tie them in ribbons, burn them as they lay dying. They are documents of passionate imagination, frail sheaves of such pain. We write and rewrite them to find the right way, the right word. But with love phoning (even the term seems impossible), though the activity buzzes through the night all over America, we feel whatever went wrong can be rectified by another call. Hang up in fury and call back five minutes later to fix it. Addiction. And, too, a letter to a friend is different from a call to a friend. A letter takes a lot of effort. In the case of writers, letters to and from friends become publishable. But the way things are going now, with long—distance rates coming down and time under pressure, writers like you, Michael, will keep recording machines for your calls. Instead of publishing the collected letters, someday they will be selling tapes of the collected phone calls of Michael Ventura. Don’t hang up on me. Yours, Jim
Karen Christensen is an entrepreneur, environmentalist, and occasional scholar who also writes about how women gain and wield power. She is the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, a research associate of the Fairbank Center at Harvard, a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, and founder of the Train Campaign. She was a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Press, Read Karen’s occasional dispatches from the frontlines of international publishing at Karen's Letter on Substack, and follow her on Twitter etc @karenchristenze.