Hey, Mr. Postman

Why e-mail can never replace the letter.

It never fails. No matter the place—cocktail party, lecture hall, classroom—whenever someone learns that I spent 20 years researching and writing a biography based on the handwritten letters of three 19th-century sisters, the question is promptly raised. How are biographies of 21st-century subjects going to get written when people today just don’t send letters—or, if they do, their letters take the evanescent form of e-mail?

I hate to admit it, but I don’t have a good answer. Of course, as many have discovered to their regret, e-mail never really disappears. But wherever its final resting place—a kink in your hard drive, or your server’s ethereal storage bin—e-mail will never be found wedged behind an old dresser drawer, tied in neat bundles in a trunk in your grandmother’s attic, or “relaxed” of its folds and arranged chronologically in acid-free file folders in a library archive. Even when you’ve got hold of it, e-mail—so often dashed off in place of a phone call—rarely achieves a high literary standard. And it almost never supplies the biographically useful details that letter-writing did back when the contents of a sealed envelope were the best means of communication over a long distance.

Usually I offer the thought, comforting to me at least, that biographers will just keep on delving into lives from the increasingly distant past. Biography, the only literary form today in which a reader is reasonably certain to encounter a sprawling chronicle of an intensely lived life, has always competed well with the 19th-century novel. More old letters will continue to surface in attic trunks and back-of-the-closet shoe boxes. And there will always be new ways to interpret those letters we already know about, as Thomas Mallon’s survey of several dozen volumes of published correspondence, Yours Ever: People and Their Letters, pleasingly demonstrates.

Reading another person’s letters allows us to play biographer, whether we are writing the life or not. Mercifully, Mallon’s Yours Ever is not one of those anthologies of singularly “great” letters that take all the biographical fun out of epistolary voyeurism by separating the missive from its milieu. A master of the “brief life,” a form he once celebrated in an essay called “Life Is Short,” Mallon for the most part quotes only snippets from the letters he has rifled (mostly written by literary figures), fashioning deft sketches of the correspondents. The result is his own delightfully idiosyncratic dictionary of literary biography, organized by theme—absence, friendship, advice, complaint, love, spirit, confession, war, prison—and sprinkled with such gems as the famously punctilious New Yorker editor Harold Ross’ kiss-off letter to his wife: “Living with you on the basis that I have in the past is, I have concluded, impossible. … If you could send me a note here outlining your viewpoint I would appreciate it.”

In the best of these mini-biographies, such as his portrait of journalist Jessica Mitford, we get a sense of a full life lived through words. Mitford, an English expat living in California, adored the letters she received—”Oh for the writing on the env!” she declared late in life. “As friends died off,” Mallon observes, “she missed the arrival of their letters more than the people themselves.” Her own impending death required a letter, too, written one insomniac night two weeks before the end to her husband (was he lying next to her in bed as she wrote?): “Bob—it’s SO ODD to be dying, so I must just jot a few thoughts.” Here Mallon, zealous snipper that he is, leaves us dangling—but a glance at his copious bibliography sent me off to the library to satisfy my curiosity: What were those thoughts? “I’ve SO enjoyed life with you in all ways,” Mitford continues her chatty letter, collected in Peter Sussman’s Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford: “I must say I’m glad it’s me first as I v. much doubt I’d bother to go on much if it was you.” Her closing suggestion in a letter most notable for its glimpse of an enduringly companionable, generous love: “Be thinking of someone agreeable”—as her replacement.

For literary critic F.O. Matthiessen and his artist lover Russell Cheney, who exchanged 3,000 letters over the 20 years from their first meeting in 1924 to Cheney’s death in 1944, letters served as more than a means of communication—they became “tactile couriers” of the “lover’s very DNA,” as Mallon writes. Early on, the ardent idealist Matthiessen defined the relationship as “a marriage that demands nothing and gives everything.” Yet, forced to live apart for much of the “marriage,” and often in secret when together, the couple came to understand that it was letter-writing that allowed them to feel, as Cheney wrote, “I live with you all the time.”

Just as compelling as Mallon’s love stories are his accounts of several famous literary feuds, introduced with the observation that such rivalries “flourish between professional writers because the breed has difficulty resisting a display of weaponry it can fashion in its own verbal shop.” Verbal chop shop, Mallon might well have said. In one of these, Vladimir Nabokov sparred with Edmund Wilson, surprisingly, over the Russian native’s skill in translating Eugene Onegin. Wilson trashed Nabokov’s translation as “full of flat writing, outlandish words, and awkward phrases”; Nabokov countered that Wilson’s “Russian is primitive, and his knowledge of Russian literature gappy and grotesque.” The ill will smoldered for most of a decade, with Wilson still stirring the embers in his late-life memoir Upstate, which Nabokov dismissed as “a flow of vulgar and fatuous invention.”

Although nothing stings quite like being “flamed” over the e-waves, Mallon mourns the passing of the handwritten, or even hand-typed, letter—whether loving or vicious. “The glaze of impersonality over what pops up on that computer screen” spoils what once was the thrill of learning to “recognize the quirks of a person’s typing, and typewriter” or a new friend’s handwriting, which “has an intimacy and force that can never be matched.” Never mind biographers; all of humanity will lose something incalculable as letters—those “tactile couriers”—vanish, to be replaced with “uniform pixels on a monitor.”

Mallon quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of the letter as “a kind of picture of a voice.” Handwriting, even if simply a signature scrawled at the bottom of a typed page, has always been part of that picture. Some of Mallon’s correspondents, like WWI poet Wilfred Owen, considered letters an embodiment of the letter writer. “It seems wrong,” Owen wrote to his mother from the front in January 1917, “that even your dear handwriting should come into such a Gehenna as this.” It’s hard to feel the same way about e-mail, IM, or a text message. No matter how you receive it, an electronic transmission, with “Forward” just a click away, can never seem as personal, private, or real as a handwritten letter meant for you alone.

“Please keep me alive with letters,” wrote V.S. Naipaul in 1952 from Oxford to his sister Kamla in Trinidad. Nineteen and devastated by the rejection of his first novel, he was suffering from a loneliness so severe it resulted in a nervous breakdown. Maybe Naipaul wouldn’t have felt so lonely if he and Kamla could have Skyped regularly or filed updates for each other and scads of “friends” on Facebook. Or would Vido have felt even worse? Is the virtual friend any more than a tease when genuine comfort is needed? Please keep me alive with your e-mails—? It’s an appeal only Google could love.