Anne Applebaum was online on Friday, Aug. 3, to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
When I read in Sunday’s New York Times that Hillary Clinton’s college-era letters to a high-school friend had been miraculously preserved for posterity —(“Since Xmas vacation, I’ve gone through three and a half metamorphoses”)—I braced myself for the inevitable parodies. There were so many possibilities! Surely, my Washington Post colleague Ruth Marcus would now imagine Hillary Clinton’s elementary-school-era letters to a playground friend. (“I do hope you’ll join the committee I’ve created to ensure equal sandbox time for all.”) Surely, the New York Times’Maureen Dowd would do a snarky version of George W. Bush’s college-era letters to George H.W. Bush. (“Dad, can you lend me some money to buy a term paper?”) Surely, someone would spoof Hillary’s old letters to Bill, Dick’s letters to Lynne, George’s to Laura. And then I thought: letters?
I used to write letters. Long ones, too. They described nothing in particular and achieved nothing in particular, but they weren’t supposed to. They were intended, in that pre-Internet, pre-Skype moment, to keep in touch with people who lived on a different coast or across the Atlantic. Some were written by hand, some typed on clunky Apple computers and printed out on that antediluvian computer paper with little perforations along the sides that we used in the days before laser printers.
I had forgotten about that paper, in fact, and about the dot-matrix printers that went with it, until I discovered a cache of letters during a recent house move, all of which had been written using precisely that sort of late-1980s equipment. Just as Hillary’s letters to her friend John Peavoy seem to have contained no damaging revelations, according to the New York Times, my friends’ letters didn’t, either. Instead, they contained light gossip about mutual acquaintances, ostentatiously witty musings about politics, and a good deal of exaggerated complaining about the dullness of our entry-level jobs.
The sight of these ancient missives instantly filled me with nostalgia, not least for those dull entry-level jobs. One of the people who wrote letters to me 20 years ago is now so busy he can’t be expected to take a phone call, much less write a letter. When I do communicate with the rest of them, I do so by e-mail, usually a few sentences at a time.
But the letters also filled me with nostalgia for letter-writing itself. Though I won’t pretend that this activity is morally preferable to e-mail or instant messaging, letter-writing certainly was stylistically preferable. Letters had a beginning, a middle, and a carefully crafted conclusion. Effort was exerted to make them discursive, amusing, and readable.
E-mail, by contrast, is intended to convey instant thought and to evoke fast responses. Theoretically, there is no reason not to write a long, elegant e-mail, but the medium works against it. Personally, I’m inhibited by the mental image of the recipient scrolling impatiently to the bottom, trying to get to the point so that he can get to the rest of his mail. And then there’s the need to write several dozen a day, as opposed to an occasional single letter.
There isn’t any point in mourning this cultural change: It’s sad, of course, in the way that, say, the domestication of the American wilderness is sad—but it’s probably just as irreversible. Letters have gone the way of the gentle anecdote, the meandering sentence, and the ironic paragraph. Try lengthy irony in an e-mail, and you’ll be misunderstood. Try it in a newspaper column, and you risk furious attack. I once attempted to mock Americans’ deep suspicion of voting machines, in contrast to our implacable faith in the solidity of ATMs and the safety of Internet shopping. Eight paragraphs of tongue-in-cheek do not go down well in the culture of instant point-scoring.
Hillary’s letters sound, of course, exactly like what you’d expect from a 19-year-old college girl in the 1960s. Alternately self-deprecating (she disparages her writing as “my usual drivel”) and alienated (“God, I feel so divorced from Park Ridge, parents, home, the entire unreality of middle class America”), they reveal precisely nothing about Hillary-the-candidate 40 years later. Who knows why Hillary described herself wearing “a pair of dirty denim bell-bottoms, a never-ironed work shirt and a beautiful purple felt hat with a purple polka-dotted scarf streaming off it” or what she meant when she called herself a “compassionate misanthrope.” Letters were once used to try out different personalities and writing styles, to make oneself appealing to the intended recipient, to entertain. Hers are no different.