The Death of the Letter


In recent years, a number of journalists and critics have lamented the death of the literary letter. The publication of Saul Bellow’s letters in 2010 and William Styron’s last year were accompanied by waves of speculation about how many more such collections we can expect.

There was also no small amount of hand-wringing about how “The Collected Emails of Dave Eggers” (or whomever) will never cast quite the same spell.

These are legitimate concerns. But a less remarked upon and equally worrisome question is what the death of letter writing – and its replacement by emailing – is doing to the process of creative writing itself.

Before the advent of email, many writers maintained a healthy relationship with their correspondence; they found letter-writing to be a useful complement to their main literary projects.

Letters were not only a way to stay in touch with colleagues or test out ideas and themes on the page, but also a valuable method of easing into and out of a state of mind where they could pursue more daunting and in-depth writing.

John Updike, for instance, often began his writing day by answering a letter or two. Cynthia Ozick has said that she does the same thing, answering letters after breakfast, before beginning her real work.

Ernest Hemingway, by contrast, turned to his letters when his fiction wasn’t going well; they were a welcome break from what he called the “awful responsibility of writing.”

Iris Murdoch worked on her fiction in the morning, wrote letters in the afternoon and then returned to her fiction for a couple hours in the early evening.

Thomas Mann’s days followed much the same pattern: serious writing in the morning, then letters, reviews and newspaper articles in the evening.

For these writers, and many more like them, keeping up with their correspondence was a valuable para-literary activity – not quite “real” writing, but something that helped them warm up for or cool down from the task. (And, of course, it should go without saying that many of these letters were beautiful works of literature in their own right.)

This is not to say that all writers found dealing with their correspondence pleasant.

HL Mencken replied to every letter he received on the same day that it arrived – out of politeness, he said, and also for more selfish reasons.

“I answer letters promptly as a matter of self-defence,” Mencken once explained. “My mail is so large that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me.” Charles Darwin was similarly compulsive. He made a point of replying to every letter he received, even those from obvious cranks.

If he failed to do so, it weighed on his conscience and could even keep him up at night. Is email really such a different beast? I would argue that it is.

I recently compiled a book about artists’ daily rituals, and as part of my research I spoke to several contemporary writers, painters and composers about their working habits. Nearly everyone was wary of the distractive potential of email.

The novelist Nicholson Baker, for instance, told me that he tries to avoid checking email too early in the day because “it just does change everything. As soon as you have a couple of emails pending, the day has a different flavour”.

In a 2010 interview with The Paris Review, the novelist David Mitchell voiced a similar sentiment. He talked of “hearing the blip blip blip of emails arriving in your inbox, and knowing that at some point you’re going to have to sit down and sift through them, but not today, damn it, not tonight, please, not until I’ve just finished this one last scene”.

It is this constant background awareness of email that can cause real problems. Unlike traditional mail, email is always active.

You can’t fire off an email and then put it completely out of mind; there is at least some slight awareness of the message’s continuing life, the possibility of a reply, the need to keep refreshing the stream of digital correspondence. And that’s the best-case scenario – more often, it is the nagging collection of unanswered emails that weighs on one’s mind.

So can contemporary writers – and non-writers who are overwhelmed by email, ie, pretty much everyone I know – take away any lessons from our literary ancestors’ less fraught relationship with correspondence?

One possible tactic is to set aside a portion of each day for email and deal with it only at that time – to process email in batches, treating it like a daily delivery from the postman rather than a constant slow drip of communication.

I realise that this is not an entirely original suggestion, nor one that is likely to work for most people.

An alternative is to adopt a habit that I have noticed in several especially busy editors and journalists, and it is simply this:

Spend as little time as possible reading and replying to emails, and dash them off with as much haste, and as little care to spelling and punctuation, as you can bear.

In other words, don’t think of them as letters at all – think of them as telegrams, and remember that you are paying for every word. – New York Times

A very fine letter

Ok, this is the third time The Southern Times is publishing this letter. But that is only because it not only captures the spirit of liberation that gripped Africa in the 1960s, but also because it is a fine example of letter-writing. This is the last letter that Patrice Lumumba wrote to his wife, Pauline, before Congolese collaborators working with Belgian agents and America’s CIA murdered one of the greatest leaders Africa has produced. – Editor

My Dear,

I am writing this without knowing whether you will ever get it, or when, or whether I shall be alive when you read it.

Throughout my struggle for the Independence of my country I have never for one instant doubted that the sacred cause to which my friends and I have given our lives would triumph in the end.

But what we have wanted for our country, the right to honorable life, untarnished dignity, to unrestricted freedom – these things have never been desired on our behalf by those important officials in the UN in whom we put our trust, and upon whom we called for help, because, whether they knew it or not, they were directly or indirectly supporting the colonialism of Belgium and her friends in the West.

They have corrupted the minds of some of our compatriots, others they have simply bought, and they have played their part in distorting truth and shackling our Independence.

What else can I say? Dead or alive, free or imprisoned by the colonialists, it is not I who matter.

It is the Congo, it is our poor people whose Independence has been turned into a cage in which we can be watched by those outside, either with positive pleasure, or with benevolent compassion.

But my faith remains unshaken. I know, and I feel in my heart, that sooner or later my people will shake off all their enemies, inside and outside our land, and that they will rise as one man to say “no” to the same and degradation of colonialism, and to assume once again their dignity under clear skies.

We are not alone. Africa, Asia and the free and freed peoples all over the world will always stand beside those millions of Congolese who will not give up the struggle until the day when no colonisers and no mercenaries are left on our soil.

I would like my children, whom I am leaving and may perhaps never see again, to be told that the Congo has a great future, and that it is up to them, as to every Congolese, to carry out the sacred task of rebuilding our Independence and our sovereignty; for where there is no dignity there is no freedom, and where there is no justice there is no dignity, and where there is no Independence there are no free man.

No brutality, no agony, no torture has ever driven me to beg for mercy, for I would rather die with my head high, my faith unshaken, and a profound trust in the destiny of my country, than live in subjection, seeing principles that are sacred to me laughed to scorn.

History will have its say one day – not the history they teach Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations, but the history taught in the countries set free from colonialism and its puppet rulers. Africa will write her own history, and both north and south of the Sahara it will be a history of glory and dignity.

Do not weep, my love; I know that my country, which has suffered so much, will be able to defend its Independence and liberty.

Long live the Congo! 

Long live Africa!



November 2013
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