Book review: ‘To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing’ by Simon Garfield

GRAHAM BARCLAY/Bloomberg News - Oscar Wilde is said to have dropped letters from the window of his home, hoping that someone would take them to a mailbox.

Lisa Bonos is Outlook’s assistant editor.

When I headed home after a summer romance not long ago, my new friend asked me to write to him. Somehow e-mail didn’t seem substantial enough, but when I sat down with a pen and paper, I was stumped.

Sure, I can write a funny birthday card or an earnest thank-you note in my sleep. But, like most millennials, I don’t usually keep in touch at a snail’s pace. What could I say in a letter that wouldn’t feel outdated once it had traveled several thousand miles? What’s important enough to put down on paper vs. too trivial to mention? And what if my reader was now involved with somebody new? I had no idea what kind of world my letter would be dropping into or if it would arrive at all.

(Gotham Books) - “To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing” by Simon Garfield (Gotham Books).

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This uncertainty used to be a routine part of our daily correspondence — and Simon Garfield misses that. Garfield, a British journalist and prolific author, knows he’s not going to persuade anyone to chuck a smartphone for personalized stationery. But his new book, “To the Letter: A Celebration of the Lost Art of Letter Writing” — which surveys the history of letter-writing and delivery and features excerpts from letters tender, frank and solemn, by writers famous and obscure — might stir you to send a handwritten note or two of your own.

Why bother? Well, for one thing, you can touch and treasure a letter, which has far more personality than words on a screen. “Emails are a poke, but letters are a caress, and letters stick around to be newly discovered,” Garfield writes. But he suspects these caresses will soon cease: “The last letter will appear in our lifetime. It will be personal, emotional, maybe even handwritten, but crucially it will be physical, the evidence of human connection.”

In digging through two centuries of letters, Garfield unearths a heap of epistolary ruins. Most of the story is fascinating, but sometimes it gets tedious. Do we really need three chapters on letter-writing advice guides through the ages? Like even the most engrossing letters, Garfield has a tendency to ramble. At least it’s a style that mirrors his subject. And the trove of letters by two lovers separated during World War II, interspersed between the chapters, offers a breath of emotion amid the history lessons.

We learn that, while the language has varied a little, the way we open and close letters hasn’t changed much since the 5th century B.C.; that letter recipients — not senders — used to pay the cost of delivery in late-17th-century Britain; and that, well into Elizabethan England, postmasters snooped and suppressed anything that was anti-monarchist or threatened national security. Now that’s a dynamic we NSA-wary e-mailers can understand.

Quirky stories abound. There’s the enterprising young Londoner who mailed himself in 1900, essentially paying the postal service to walk him home. And there’s Oscar Wilde, who had the supposed habit of dashing off letters and dropping them out the window of his Chelsea home, trusting that some kind soul would place them in the nearest letterbox.

The decline of letter-writing far predates the Internet. “For many it started in 1840, with the first adhesive stamp,” Garfield writes. “The snobbish and well-to-do believed cheap postage would lead to the equivalent cheapening of an art form best left to the professionals.” In 1919, the Yale Review lamented that “the art of writing letters has been lost,” with blame cast on the telephone, the typewriter, the telegraph, even the train — for delivering letters too promptly.

There’s some dramatic irony in the letters that unwittingly recorded history. Pliny the Younger, for example, thought his description of Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in 79 AD — “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames . . . their bright glare emphasized by the darkness of light” — was barely worth jotting down. “Of course these details are not important enough for history,” Pliny wrote 20 years after the event that entombed Pompeii, in a letter to a friend who had asked about the death of his uncle in the eruption. “And you will read them without any idea of recording them; if they seem scarcely worth putting in a letter, you have only yourself to blame for asking them.”

But just as the world did note and long remember what President Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, Pliny was proved wrong: His letters are the only contemporary documents of Vesuvius, Garfield writes, “preserving in words what the volcano preserved beneath ash.”

“To the Letter” is richest as it gets personal. You can appreciate the works of great writers, but there’s nothing more intimate than reading their letters, which, with the possible exception of director-screenwriter-actress Miranda July’s recent collection of celebrity e-mails, is a pretty dead genre. For example, we see how Emily Dickinson used her letters as a virtual book club — writing to friends and family about what she was reading — and first explored the idea of being a poet. In 1862, she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an abolitionist, Civil War soldier and literary critic, asking if he was “too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”

Anais Nin and Henry Miller’s letters show the anguish of their extramarital affair: “Anais I can’t say much now — I am in fever,” Miller wrote in a 1932 note on being in her presence but being barred from showing affection. “I could scarcely talk to you because I was continually on the point of getting up and throwing my arms around you.”

And in the letters of Henry VIII and Napoleon are glimpses of powerful men standing “emotionally naked,” as Garfield puts it. “Not everyone can lead a successful invasion of Austria, Italy, Egypt, Spain and Germany,” Garfield writes, “but we can all fall in love with love, and we can all, as readers, revel in a doomed affair.”

We can also revel in the drama of courtship, which is revealed up close and very personal in the dozens of letters between Chris Barker and Bessie Moore, who were getting to know each other from a distance while Chris was serving with the British army in World War II. The letters reveal the drudgery of the front lines while also being extremely intimate and engrossing. Chris and Bessie start out as acquaintances, but as Bessie’s engagement to someone else falls apart, the letter-writers’ friendship grows to the point that, in Chris’s words: “If we were within smiling distance of each other, we should soon be doing rather more than that.” One month later: “I want to awaken you as you have never been awakened.”

These letters get pretty steamy, yet Chris and Bessie worry that the magic will fizzle if they’re ever able to more-than-smile at each other: “I too am a little scared — everything in letters appears larger than life size, like the photograph, it didn’t show the white hairs beneath the black, the decaying teeth, the darkening skin. I think of my nasty characteristics, my ordinariness. Yes, I too feel a little afraid . . . [of] the actuality instead of letters.”

I won’t spoil the ending, but their letters are a large part of what makes this book compelling.

As for my attempt at romantic correspondence, my note got no reply. But I took solace in what Henry Thoreau once wrote to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s young daughter: “Do not think that you must write to me because I have written to you. It does not follow at all.”

Garfield is smart to celebrate letter-writing rather than lament its decline. He can tell that preaching against e-mail won’t inspire anyone to choose the post office over pixels. But tugging at our heartstrings just might.

lisa.bonos@washpost.com

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TO THE LETTER

A Celebration of the Lost Art
of Letter Writing

By Simon Garfield

Gotham. 464 pp. $27.50

 
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