Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, January 5, 2009

the age of correspondence

Fred Wilson says that we have entered an “age of correspondence” because now we write so much more than we talk on the phone. This has been noted before: if the telephone brought to an end the great age of letter-writing, a different kind of writing has been created by the age of email and text-messaging.

There are a lot of things that could be said about this, and I’ll probably say some of them later, but in this post I just want to reflect on one thing: the anxiety this situation is causing libraries and archives — the institutions that collect the correspondence of famous people. Fifty years ago those custodians worried that the telephone was going to eliminate correspondence, that the revelatory letters of great men and women were going to be replaced by electrical signals that vanish into the air, never to be captured, irrecoverable. And there’s no doubt that people wrote less in the Telephone Age; but plenty of correspondence has remained for archives to collect and scholars to study, especially among writers. One has to suspect that many authors kept writing letters precisely in order to create a future archival presence for themselves. Don't think they’re not aware of such things: even in the eighteenth century Sir Horace Walpole, one of the great letter-writers of that or any other day, knew perfectly well that his letters would eventually be collected and published.

And maybe authors today are carefully preserving their emails in Walpoleian fashion — scholars hope so. But even if they are, it’s hard to tell what this means for the archivists. Even if an author wills her collected correspondence to a library, how will that be done? Will the executor of her estate email a zipped folder of text files to the head librarian? And then will the libraries hoard such collections, making them available only to the few properly qualified — or will they just post them on the internet? In any case it’s hard to imagine families getting rich after a bidding war for a recently-deceased artist’s letters and papers, as has happened so often in the past.

I also imagine that scholars in the future will spend a lot of time scouring the web for evidence of authors’ online presence. If someone decades from now ends up writing a biography of the wonderful John Crowley, surely he or she will notice that Crowley had his own blog; but will he or she find that Crowley once discomposed John Holbo by commenting on a blog post Holbo wrote about him? And if someone writes a book claiming that James Wood was the great literary critic of his day, will that scholar discover Wood’s response to Daniel Green’s snarky blog post about him? This kind of thing happens all the time.

Of course, there are also those authors, like Lee Siegel, who participate in conversations pseudonymously or anonymously. How many of those interventions will be discovered?

Many questions to be answered in the coming years.

I will just add this, though: in writing my books about W. H. Auden and C. S. Lewis, I spent a lot of time poring over their correspondence in libraries — primarily the New York Public Library for Auden and Wheaton’s own Marion Wade Center for Lewis. Some decades from now it’s unlikely that many scholars will need to travel to particular archives or libraries in order to do their research: they will be able to do a great deal of it from their laptops, wherever they happen to be. But certain experiences will be lost: the quality and feel of the paper the authors wrote on, for sure; in many cases (whenever email dominates) the variations in handwriting and even in typescript. The material conditions of authors’ lives will be less vivid to scholars, with what consequences I do not know.

I have a vivid memory of my study of the Auden letters in the NYPL: they were organized by recipient, and every now and then I would come across a letter scrawled — Auden had horrific handwriting — on the curious orange stationery of the In Town Inn of Lubbock, Texas. They all bore the same date — it was the late Fifties or early Sixties, I believe — which suggests that Auden didn't find a lot to do that night he spent in Lubbock. I enjoy imagining what his room must have looked like, as he sat at the little desk and dashed off letters to friends, pausing from time to time to take what he called “an analeptic swig” from his flask of hooch. And I think of his wonderful comic poem “On the Circuit”. Future scholars are likely to have fewer small pleasures, small moments of imaginative vision, like that one.