Sunday, January 21, 2007

Rebirth of the Epistolary Arts

Not all that long ago, people wrote. Nearly all of them did.

Whether it was a short business communication to one's grocer or a lengthy, chatty letter to a relative who lived in another town, it was writing. And it was everywhere.

Sometimes, if you like to browse antique stores like I do, you see evidence of this ubiquitous activity of the everyday chronicler of news, information, and opinion. Postcards from postwar Europe. Birthday cards with personal notes inside. Thick sheets of spidery writing tucked, long forgotten, into an old, dusty book that sits forlornly on a shelf next to a tattered copy of Pamela, which, of course, is itself an epistolary novel.

In fact, you can't read seventeenth and eighteenth--but mainly eighteenth--century literature without finding numerous examples, albeit fictional ones, of the letter-writer's art. These letters were far more than the formula of "Dear Ellen, how are you and the little ones?" that replaced them by the mid-twentieth century. The letter writer was a sort of mini-journalist. All the news that was fit to ink--and some things that weren't--were neatly penned on several pages with the writer's full awareness that many more people than the original adressee would see and read them. Letters were passed around the family and discussed for days. A good letter might be read more than once, savored, pondered, ripped to shreds and then repaired before being answered.

There are some who think that blogging is just a new form of vanity. There are others, particularly in the old establishment media, who find it a threatening activity. What, should ordinary citizens, everyday people, sit around and write their own little unimportant thoughts and ideas, sometimes on the big events of the day, sometimes on their favorite pie recipe? This is something new and dangerous!

No, it isn't. The telephone may have replaced the letter as the main vehicle for the quick conveyance of information and for lengthy, idle chatting. E-mail may be convenient for business communication and the sending of birthday cards.

But for the displaced epistolary chronicler, there is only the blog. Once again, cousin Maria's progress in school and the pending arrival of Aunt Helen's baby can jostle against the war in Iraq and a list of proposed solutions to the Problem of Education. Once again, the total strangers who drop by can discuss the writer's take on the Democratic Party's presidential nominees and be graced with that pie recipe. As it should be, as it was, as it will be as long as people remember how to write.

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