Sunday, April 3, 2011


Delmore Schwartz was so enamored with the letters he composed to his friend Julian Sawyer that he'd read them aloud at his favorite Wisconsin bar—Perratoni's—to anyone who cared to listen (and to those who didn't).  This was the fall of 1931.  The image of a feverish poet performing in a bar isn't strange; what's strange is the image now of anyone clutching a stack of letters.  What was the last generation to compose letters, by hand, on paper?  When did emails generally replace written letters between besotted boys and girls?  I'm guessing the late 1990s.  Emailing was in ascension.  Then texting.  Now tweeting, for who knows how long.  (I could be wrong.)   Buzzed twenty-somethings in bars read aloud to each other emails or texts, clutching a hunk of molded plastic rather than a dog-eared sheet of paper, from a bright screen of 1's and 0's rather than an expanse of page and handwriting as unique as it is personal.

We seem to live in a particularly speculative age.  The speed of technological advancements and change is so accelerated now that there's little time for reasoned reflection gifted by perspective.  There's no Perspective Now.  I grudgingly acknowledge that preceding generations worried over this same thing, from concerns about the chugging coal train to concerns about air mail and television, but like each of my curious predecessors I feel that my historical situation is unique, frontier-striding, something borne only of my time in history.  So I speculate on the cultural shift from letter-writing to emailing/texting.  It's too soon to know the implications.  I wonder on the sensuous differences between an oft-folded, tear-stained, doodle-adorned, finger-kissed letter and an electronic correspondence brightly illumined on an Android or iPhone.  Certainly expression is the same if the form has changed.  Isn't it?  


The 21st Century Romantic Relationship versus the mythologized past.  When I was in college at the University of Maryland my girlfriend attended Northwestern, in Chicago.  In the somewhat-desperate mode of a long-distance relationship she sent me five to six letters a week, each bursting with energy and narrative and inspired language; lamely, I sent her far fewer, mostly tortured, Kerouac-lite, first-thought-best-thought screeds that I'd be embarrassed (but perhaps touched by) to read now.  She eventually transferred to George Washington University; a few years later when I moved to Athens, Ohio to attend Ohio University, her letter-writing started up again, though with less passionate frequency.  I don't know if she has my letters still (I suspect not), but the image of them in a box somewhere confounds me; they seem as much a relic now as Polaroids.  But there they are (maybe, probably not) humming against each other, present-tense documents of young love, each stamped uniquely with that adolescent mark of enthusiasm, naivete, and earnestness, aging inevitably.

Digitalmenship: our early century hybrid.  I don't mean to suggest that emails and texts aren't composed with the same urgency as last century's extended letters, obviously, but I doubt that someone lingers over an email, even a relatively lengthy one, or a text with the same sense of elongated time and reflection as a letter-writer did.  Even if a letter is written in spontaneous haste, it goes somewhere—into hands that open, unfold, handle.  A letter remains something tangible, has a dimensional quality of softness or gentleness that an email or text can't pretend to possess.  Sure, mails remain in Inboxes for a while, maybe even in a particular folder file.  But they remain inert, bytes in a mostly figurative sense.

"Letter writing" via The Partition Street Project

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