“the vividness of impression . . . of the recording hand”

Clarence Cook, from whose book A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago (1887) the recent posts (here, here, here, here, and here) of Eliza Southgate Bowne’s letters are taken, expressed in the Introduction his pleasure in reading Eliza’s letters. “[They] are not . . . the letters of a practised writer, nor was there ever in her mind any thought of publication. It was the age of ‘epistolary correspondence’: all the girls of [her] acquaintance were writing letters to their friends, long ones, often, made up in the manner of a diary, with a week’s doings recorded day by day; for postage was dear, and to send blank paper an extravagance. . . .” Cook also expressed regret that letter-writing was in decline. His remarks resonate today and are worth reproducing.

No doubt we have gained much, so far as the material convenience of the great public life is concerned, from the invention that, for all practical purposes, have reduced time and space to comparative insignificance. We have, however, lost some good things, which those who lived in younger days must always regret, and for which there is small compensation in the material gain we have received in exchange. Among these losses, that of letter-writing is perhaps the most serious. A whole world of innocent enjoyment for contemporaries and for posterity has been blotted out, and, so far as appears, nothing is taking its place. Is it the newspapers? But how scattered, how disjointed, how impersonal, the record they contain! . . . Nor do memoirs or biographies give us what we want. They are too formal, too self-conscious; they want the spontaneity, the vividness of impression, the lightness of the recording hand. These things letters give us, and letters alone. . . .

To the readers of successive generations, they speak with the living voice of the writer; they recall the fugitive emotions, the joys, the sorrows, the whims, the passions, as we read we persuade ourselves that we are part and parcel of the times they record. . . .

Nowadays no one writes letters, and no one would have time to read them if they were written. Little notes fly back and forth, like swallows, between friend and friend, between parent and child, carrying the news of the day in small morsels easily digested; it is not worth while to tell the whole story with the pen. when it can be told in a few weeks, at the farthest with the voice.

Do take some time from tweeting and texting to write a long letter to someone. For inspiration check out the many blogs dedicated to renewing the art of letter-writing. This question posed by one strikes me as wonderfully apposite: “What will we leave our grandchildren? The username and password to our email accounts?”

A Girl’s Life Eighty Years Ago: Selections from the Letters of Eliza Southgate Bowne, with an introduction by Clarence Cook (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), pages viii and ix. You can download a free e-book of this work HERE.

posted February 24th, 2014 by Janet, CATEGORIES: Letter-writing


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