The Demise of Letter Writing ... And Its Consequences

Roundup: Talking About History

Historian Tristram Hunt, in the Sunday Times (London) (July 18, 2004):

Following the Sotheby's auction of James Joyce's delightfully filthy mailings to Nora Barnacle ("My sweet little whorish Nora, I did as you told me, you dirty little girl..."), academics have warned that the current generation's love letters are in danger of being lost to technological advance.

With so much personal information stored on electronic devices and with e mails and text messages deleted on a daily basis, scholars fear vital insights into 21st-century British society will be mechanically obliterated. To tackle this looming "electronic deficit" in our national memory, the British Library has decided to archive snapshots of the 2004 internet along with a sample of personal websites.

... The story of mankind is, in part, the story of the democratisation of communication and, with each step forward, the cultural old guard has reacted with dire warnings about the consequences.

Indeed, the very transition from oral to literary communication was itself a contentious development with few trusting the written above the far more credible spoken word.

In ancient Greece, military commanders sent a messenger to report verbally on events before delivering a written account. But it wasn't until the Victorians that Britain became a letter-writing nation.

The introduction of the Penny Black in 1840 transformed the post from a messy process with recipients paying for delivery to an effective pre-paid system.

Emerging alongside Britain's rail network, the penny post had a profound effect on mass communication in a society fractured by the flexible labour demands of the industrial revolution. Weekly letter mail doubled while supporters of the Penny Black celebrated the increased "conveyance of thought" as a symbol of moral progress.

But there were discordant voices. The conservative Quarterly Review called penny postage "one of the most inconsiderate jumps in the dark ever made by parliament" and feared the political consequences of mass mailing.

Similar concerns greeted the introduction of the postcard in 1870. Originally a German innovation, it quickly caught on in Britain with an astonishing 70m sold in the first year. Again there was scepticism, with Chambers Journal quick to dismiss them. "The envelope is not likely to be knocked off its perch of vanity by any mere card," it said.

Moreover, in a warning that lawyers would later repeat about e-mails, the journal worried about the dangers of "writing private information on an open piece of cardboard that might be read by half a dozen persons before it reached its destination".

There were others who lamented the demise of the letter-writing art, the potentially radical uses of this novel media and (with the arrival of picture postcards) declining social mores. These were reservations that only multiplied when it came to the telegram and then, horror of horrors, the telephone. At each stage, Victorians and Edwardians shared our modern fears over the cultural impact of democratic dialogue.

But what conservatives and romantics mourned in the loss of sophisticated literary correspondence, historians have only gained.

Few sources offer us a richer insight into 1900s' England than the postcard. It was, as historian Tom Phillips puts it, "the phone call of the early part of the century". It was informal yet structured; private yet public.

As with today's e-mail, punctuation was absent, jokes knowing and phrases endlessly recycled. These are not the letters of Napoleon and Josephine, but they provide in the fast-changing language but unchanging sentiments (weather, health and transport) fascinating testimony to unsung social conditions and enduring national characteristics.

Rather than being feared, the growth of e-mail, internet traffic and text messaging should be welcomed. Not only does its transience accurately reflect our modern restlessness but also, like the postcard, such media provide a transcript of our oral culture....

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