The Washington Post Column

When We Wrote Letters

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 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 Maureen Dowd would do a snarky version of George Bush Jr.’s college-era letters to George Bush Sr. (“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. They described nothing in particular and achieved nothing in particular, but then they weren’t supposed to. They were intended, in that pre-Internet, pre-Skype time, for keeping 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 we used before laser printers, the kind with little perforations along the sides.

I had actually forgotten about that paper, and about the dot-matrix printers that went with it, until I discovered a cache of letters during a recent move, all of which had been written using 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. 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 that he can’t be expected to take a phone call, let alone write a letter. When I communicate with the rest of my old pen pals, I do so by e-mail, usually a few sentences at a time.

Of course, 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 long, elegant e-mails, 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 messages a day, as opposed to a single, occasional letter.

There isn’t any point in mourning this cultural change: It’s sad in the way that, say, the domestication of the American wilderness is sad, but it is 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 even 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 a culture of instant point-scoring.

Hillary’s letters sound exactly like what you’d expect of 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, the woman she is 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 various personalities and writing styles, to make oneself appealing to the intended recipient, to entertain. Hers are no different.