The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 1/Letter-Writing




A friend, who happens to have an idea or two of his own, is constantly advising his acquaintances in no case to become parties to a regular correspondence. He is a great letter-writer himself, but never answers an epistle, unless it contain queries as to matters of fact, or be an invitation to a ball or a dinner,—unless, in a word, real, not what he considers conventional politeness requires; in which event, his reply is despatched at once. Under all other circumstances, he ignores the last missive from him or her to whom his envelope is addressed. He studiously frames his own communications in such wise, that they do not call for an answer. He will totally neglect an intimate friend for months, then let fly at him epistle after epistle, and then give no sign of life for a long while again. If asked to exchange letters once a week or once a fortnight, he solemnly inquires whether the wind goes by machinery, and is, after a given interval, invariably at such o'clock,—adding, that it is his aim, not to keep up, but to keep down, correspondence. If accused of "owing a letter," he repudiates the obligation, and affirms that he will go to jail sooner than pay it off. If taxed with heartlessness, he retorts by asking whether it can be the duty of a moral being to insult a man by writing to him when there is nothing to say.

That these notions, whether they did or did not originate in an unfortunate love-affair, which my friend is said to have gone through in his youth, contain grains of truth may be easily shown.

I drop a letter in the New York post-office to-day; my friend in Boston receives it to-morrow and pens a reply at once, which finds me in New York within twenty-four hours. He may have understood and really answered my epistle. But suppose him to have waited a week. New matters have, meantime, taken possession of both his mind and mine; the topics, which were fresh when I wrote, have lost their interest; the bridge between us is broken down. His reply is worth little more to me than water to flowers cut a month since, or seed to a canary that was interred with tears last Saturday.

Correspondence is conversation carried on under certain peculiar conditions, but subject to the same rules as conversation by word of mouth, except so far forth as they may be modified by those necessary conditions. You do not take your partner's bright saying home with you and bring a repartee to the next ball, by which time she has forgotten what her bon mot was, and has another, every whit as good, upon her lips; you do not return a lead in whist at the next rubber; you do not postpone the laugh over the jokes of the dinner-table, as is fabulously narrated of Washington, until you have retired for the night. In social intercourse, minds must meet before one person can be brought to another's mood or both to a middle ground; it is the friction of contact, that creates conversation. A remark, not answered the instant after it has been made, is never answered. The bores and boors of society, not the gentlemen and ladies, ruminate upon what has been said, elaborate replies at leisure, and serve them up unseasonably.

For the purposes of correspondence, one may and must throw himself back into the immediate past and assume the mood that was his when he wrote and in which alone a reply can find him. But there is a limit to this power, which is soon reached. Not many letters will keep sweet more than two days. A little indulgence may, perhaps, be shown toward persons who are a week or a fortnight from us by the post, since otherwise we could never converse together. But even they should reply to only the weightier matters suggested, since what they say will probably be stale before it reaches the eyes for which it was written. For the like reasons, I hold a Californian or European correspondence to be an impossibility. As for him whose want of politeness fixes a gulf, a week broad, between himself and his correspondent, there is no excuse. As one reads a letter, an answer to whatever worth answering may be in it leaps to the lips; to give it utterance that moment is the only natural, courteous, and truthful course. Ten days hence, the reply, which now comes of its own accord, cannot be found; what might have been a source of pleasure to two persons will have become a piece of thankless drudgery. In vain the conscientious correspondent, at the appointed time, takes the letter which she would answer out of the compartment of her portfolio, whereon stationers, cunningly humoring a popular weakness, have gilded,—"Unanswered Letters." In vain she cons it with care, comments upon every observation in it, answers all its questions one by one, and propounds a series of her own, as a basis for the next epistle. Everything has been done decently and in order; but the laboriously-produced letter is a letter which killeth, and contains no infusion of the spirit that giveth life. This is not the writer's fault. It is and must be all but impossible, after a lapse of time, to reproduce the natural reply to a remark, or to concoct one that shall be vital and satisfactory to the other party.

Lovers, of all persons, it would seem, might with least danger postpone answering each other's missives, since their common topic of interest is always with them, and the billet-doux, after having been carried in the bosom a week, is as fresh as when taken from the post-office. What need for "sweet sixteen" to consume the very night of its reception in essaying a reply, which she might have written next week as well, since next week they two will stand in substantially the same relations to one another as now? "Sweet sixteen" smiles at such coldblooded logic. "To you others," thinks she to herself, "all sunsets may be alike; but in our horizon are constant changes, delicate tones of color, each

'Shade so finely touched love's sense must seize it.'

The mood into which Walter's note put me may never return again. Now it is correspondent to the mood in which he wrote; now or never must I reply. In this way alone can we keep up a correspondence between our natures."

But the stupid world will not accept, cannot even understand, these fine sayings. It looks at the question with very different eyes from those of lovers, boarding-school misses, and persons in the first moon of a first marriage. The peculiar relations between them may supply inspiration and vitality to such correspondence. But would Dean Swift have put the daily record of his life upon paper for another than Stella to peruse? Would Leander have swum the Hellespont for the sake of meeting any girl but Hero upon the distant shore? As it was, he was drowned for his pains. The rest of us cannot swim Hellesponts, keep diaries, nor correspond, as foolish young people have done and do. We have books to read, business to attend to, duties to perform, tastes to gratify, ambition to feed. Who could bear to have his correspondents always upon his hands? Who could endure such a tax upon his patience as they would become? Who would send for his letters? Who would not rather run away from the postmen, for fear of the next discharge?

In the analogy between conversation and correspondence may, perhaps, be found a key to the problem. Those of us who are not lovers, school-girls, or spinsters are not desirous of keeping up a colloquy, day in and day out. Nor are we in the habit of resuming a subject, in the next interview, at the precise point where we left it. A "regular" conversation, after the fashion of a regular correspondence, is, as between two individuals mutually unknown, or as among a number, invariably a failure. However recently persons may have parted company, at meeting they commence de novo; a new talk grows out of the circumstances and thoughts of the moment, which ends as naturally as it began, when the talkers get tired or are obliged to stop. Sometimes but one of two or three opens her lips, but conversation, nevertheless, goes on; since an open ear is the most pointed question, and sympathy is the same, whether or not put into words.

To conversation carried on at a distance of space and time, through the pen, not the lips, the simple and obvious principles upon which people act in the drawing-room or the fireside-circle are easily applied. Between those who really wish to talk together letters should fly as rapidly as the post can deliver them. If only one feels like writing, he should pour forth his heart to his friend, although that friend remain as silent as the grave. It would be as absurd to say that either party "owes the letter," as to charge him who had the penultimate word in a dialogue with the duty of making the first remark the next time he encounters her who had the last word. When the topic of immediate interest has been disposed of, a correspondence is over. It matters as little who contributed the larger proportion to it, as who contributes the most to a dialogue. When the end is reached, the story is done. It is for the party who is first in the mood of writing, after an interval of silence, to open a new correspondence, in which there shall be no reference to previous communications, and which may die with the first letter or be protracted for a week or a month.

Thus we are brought to a position not very far from that taken by my eccentric friend. General or regular correspondence is useless, baneful, and in most cases impossible; but special correspondence, born of the necessities of man as a social being, and circumscribed by them, may be from time to time possible. There can be no harm in an occasional exchange of bulletins of health and happiness, like the "good morning" and "how d'ye do" of the street and the parlor, or in making new-year's calls, as it were, annually upon one's distant friends. I know two ladies who have done this as respects each other for twenty years. But, as a rule, the shorter epistles of this description are, the better. Some simple formula, which might be printed for convenience's sake, would answer the purpose, and complete the analogy with the practice of paying three-minute visits of ceremony or of leaving a card at the door.

The employment of a printed formula in all cases, indeed, where one feels not impelled, but obliged to write, would save both time and temper. We lay down nine out of ten of our letters with feelings of disappointment. Were we to imitate the Scotch servant who returned hers to the postmaster, after a glance at the address had assured her of the writer's health, we should be quite as well off as we are now. My correspondent often begins with the remark, that he has nothing to communicate. Then why in the world did he write? Why has he covered four pages with specimens of poor chirography, which it cost him an hour to put upon paper, and us almost as much time to decipher? He sends me news which was in the papers a week ago; or speculations upon it, which professional journalists have already surfeited me with; or short treatises, after the fashion of Cicero's epistolary productions. He talks about the weather, past, present, and to come. He serves up, with piquant sauce, occurrences which he would not have thought worthy of mention at his own breakfast-table. He spins out his two or three facts or ideas into the finest and flimsiest gossamer; or tucks them into a postscript, which alone, with the formula, should have been forwarded. He writes in a large hand, and resorts to every kind of device to fill up his sheet, instead of taking the manly course of writing only so long as he had something to say, or, if nothing, of keeping silence. A kindly sentence or two may redeem the epistle from utter condemnation; for love, according to Solomon, makes a dinner of herbs palatable. But "Love," written beneath a formula, would have answered as well.

I should not dare to describe the productions of my female correspondents in detail. Suffice it to say, that most of them contain a smaller proportion of useless information, and a larger proportion of sentiment, vague aspiration, and would-be-picturesque description, than those of the men who pay postage on my behalf. They are longer, and sometimes crossed; it is therefore a greater task to read them.

My "fair readers"—as the snobs who write for magazines call women—have not, I trust, misapprehended my meaning and lost patience with me. I would not be understood as expressing a preference for one description of letters over another. Every person to his tastes and his talents. But a letter, which does not represent the writer's real mood, reflect what is uppermost in his or her mind, deal with things and thoughts rather than with words, and express, if not strengthen, the peculiar ties between the person writing and the person written to,—a letter which is not genuine,—is no letter, but a sham and a lie. A real letter, on the other hand, whatever its topic, cannot fail to be worth reading. Great thoughts, profound speculations, matters of experience, bits of observation, delicate fancies, romantic sentiments, humorous criticisms on people and things, funny stories, dreams of the future, memories of the past, pictures of the present, the merest gossip, the veriest trifling, everything, nothing, may form the theme, if naturally spoken of, not hunted up to fill out a page.

No reason for modifying my conclusions occurs to me. It may be said, that, after all, a poor letter is better than none, because advices from distant friends are always welcome. But would not a glance at the well-known handwriting supply this want as fully as the perusal of a lengthy epistle, written with the hand, but not with the heart? Does not our chagrin at finding so little of our friends in their letters more than counterbalance our gratification that they have been (presumably) kind and thoughtful enough to write? Would we not gladly give four of their ordinary letters for one of their best? But the instant they strike off the shackles of regular correspondence, and despatch letters only when they feel inclined, replies only while they are fresh, and formulas at other times, if need be, we have our wish; the miles between our friends and ourselves shorten, they are really with us now and then, and we take solid pleasure in chatting with them.

Am I told, that, until these ideas find general acceptance, it is dangerous to act upon them? that for an individual here and there to go out of the common course is only to make himself notorious, a stranger or a bore to his friends? Were such statements true, they would still be cowardly. We should be faithful to our convictions of what is due to truth and manhood and self-respect, be the consequences what they may. Because a few are so, the world moves. The general voice always comes in as a chorus to a few particular voices. As for friends who cannot appreciate independence of character or of conduct, the fewer one has of them, the better.

Such suggestions as have been thrown out are too obvious to have escaped any one who has given the subject a moment's thought. But who has time for that? People live too fast, in these days, to pay such attention as should be paid to those who are more valuable as individuals than as parts of the great world. The good offices of friendship, which are the fulfilment of the highest social duties, are poorly performed, and, indeed, little understood. Not many of those who think at all think beyond the line of established custom and routine. They may take pains in their letters to obey the ordinary rules of grammar, to avoid the use of slang phrases and vulgar expressions, to write a clear sentence; but how few seek for the not less imperative rules which are prescribed by politeness and good sense! Of those who should know them, no small proportion habitually, from thoughtlessness or perverseness, neglect their observance.

I know men, distinguished in the walks of literature, famed for a beautiful style of composition, who do not write a tolerable letter nor answer a note of invitation with propriety. Their sentences are slipshod, their punctuation and spelling beyond criticism, and their manuscript repulsive. A lady, to whose politeness such an answer is given, has a right to feel offended, and may very properly ask whether she be not entitled to as choice language as the promiscuous crowd which the "distinguished gentleman" addresses from pulpit or desk.

How the distinguished gentleman would open his eyes at the question! He is sure that what he sent her was well enough for a letter. As though a letter, especially a letter to a lady, should not be as perfect in its kind as a lecture or sermon in its kind! as though one's duties toward an individual were less stringent than one's duties toward an audience! Would the distinguished gentleman be willing to probe his soul in search of the true reason for the difference in his treatment of the two? Is he sure that it is not an outgrowth from a certain "mountainous me," which seeks approbation more ardently from the one source than from the other?

There are those who indite elegant notes to comparative strangers, but, probably upon the principle that familiarity breeds or should breed contempt, send the most villanous scrawls to their intimate friends and those of their own household. They are akin to the numerous wives, who, reserving not only silks and satins, but neatness and courtesy, for company, are always in dishabille in their husbands' houses.

Pericles, according to Walter Savage Landor, once wrote to Aspasia as follows:—

"We should accustom ourselves to think always with propriety in little things as well as in great, and neither be too solicitous of our dress in the parlor nor negligent because we are at home. I think it as improper and indecorous to write a stupid or silly letter to you, as one in a bad hand or upon coarse paper. Familiarity ought to have another and a worse name, when it relaxes in its efforts to please."

The London Pericles, the Athenian gentleman,—and there are a few such as he still extant,—writes to his nearest and dearest friend none but the best letters. It appears to him as ill-bred to say stupid or silly things to her, as to say what he does say clownishly. He cannot conceive of doing what is so frequently done now-a-days. He brings as much of Pericles to the composition of a letter as to the preparation of a speech. We may feel sure, that, unless he acted counter to his own maxims, he never wrote a line more or a line less than he felt an impulse to write, and that he had no "regular correspondents."

It is not every one that can write such letters as are in that delightful book of Walter Savage Landor, or as charmed the friends of Charles Lamb, the poet Gray, and a few famous women, first, and the world afterwards. It is not every one who can, with the utmost and wisest painstaking, produce a thoroughly excellent letter. The power to do that is original and not to be acquired. The charm of it will not, cannot, disclose its secret. Like the charm of the finest manners, of the best conversation, of an exquisite style, of an admirable character, it is felt rather than perceived. But every person, who will be simply true to his or her nature, can write a letter that will be very welcome to a friend, because it will be expressive of the character which that friend esteems and loves. The bunch of flowers, hastily put together by her who gathered them, speaks as plainly of affection, although not in so delicate tones, as the most tastefully-arranged bouquet. But who desires to be presented with a nosegay of artificial flowers? Who can abide dead blossoms or violent discords of color? Freshness, sweetness, and an approach to harmony, that shall bring to mind the living, growing plants, and the bountiful Nature from whose embrace flowers are born, the acceptable gift must have.

To attempt a closer definition of a good letter than has been given would be a fruitless, as well as difficult task. "Complete letter-writers" are chiefly useful for the formulas—notes of invitation, answers to them, and the like—which they contain, and for their lessons in punctuation, spelling, and criticism. Their efforts to instruct upon other points are and must be worse than useless, because their precepts cramp without inspiring. A few good examples are more valuable, but a little practice is worth them all. Letter-writing is, after all, a pas seul, as it were; the novice has no partner to teach him manners, or the figures of the dance, or to set his wits astir. By effort, and through numerous failures, he must teach himself. The difficulties of the medium between him and his distant friend, who is generally in a similar predicament, must be surmounted. Gradually stiffness gives place to ease of composition, roughness to elegance, awkwardness to grace and tact, until his letters at length come to represent his mood, and to interest, if not to delight, his correspondent. A rigid adherence to times and places and ceremonial retards this process of growth and advance, which is slow enough, at best.

But, although most correspondence is, from want of truthfulness, thoughtfulness, life, good judgment, and good breeding, very unsatisfactory, it cannot be denied that many good letters are written every day. Between lovers, parents and children, real and hearty friends, they pass. Young men on the threshold of life, while discussing together the grave questions then encountered, write them. Women, before their time to love and to be loved has come, or after it is passed,—women, who, disappointed in the great hope of every woman's life, turn to one another for support and shelter,—are sending them by every post. Mr. De Quincey somewhere says, that in the letters of English women, almost alone, survive the pure and racy idioms of the language; and the German Wolf is said to have asserted, that in corresponding with his betrothed he learnt the mysteries of style.

Such letters as these are worth one's reading, because the utterance is genuine and genial. The writers feel and express in every line an interest in what they are writing, and do not recognize the conventional rules which obtain where people rely less upon inspirations from within than upon fixed general maxims for their guidance. As in the drawing-room the gentleman or lady behaves naturally, and not according to the dancing-master, so in their correspondence the best-bred people act from nature, and not from instruction.

This work was published before January 1, 1925, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.