The Incomplete Letter-Writer


IT would be delightful to be able to write good letters, but I think it would be more delightful to be able to receive them. We hear a great deal nowadays of the lost art of good letter-writing, but we hear nothing at all of the equally rare art of good letter-receiving. To inspire a person to write the letters of a Carlyle, one must bean Emerson; to be able to receive — or understand — the letters of a Robert Browning, one must be an Elizabeth Barrett. In almost any ‘Life and Letters’ one learns to estimate pretty correctly the interest of even the most casual note by glancing at the name of the person addressed.

The good writer needs something more than a passively good reader: he must feel a vivid consciousness of the personality he is addressing, — a certainty of understanding, of sympathy and interest, — a general responsiveness to his own point of view. Surely we can all divide our friends into groups of those who are easy to write to, and those who are difficult. I trust that I am not the only person of my acquaintance who frequently finds herself creeping, like a snail, unwillingly to a desk piled high with unanswered letters, and instead of reducing that ominous white drift which threatens to snow its victim under, takes pen in hand and writes a perfectly gratuitous and unnecessary letter to the one friend in the world to whom no letter is owing.

What is it that makes your letters to Mary labored and artificial, while your eager pen — when addressing Margaret — seems possessed by some spiritual ‘ control,’ as it scrawls the spontaneous and fluent phrases which only you could write, and which you could write only to Margaret? Mary may be no less dear to you, no less appreciative of you, than Margaret, but substitute her name for that of the more sympathetic correspondent ‘and the pain that is all but a pleasure will change to the pleasure that’s all but pain.’

Of course I am not so rash as to say that there is never an occasional letter-writing genius whose literary productions possess the dual quality of mercy, and bless him that gives and him that receives. Paul could not have been vividly aware of the composite personalities of the Corinthians and the Galatians he was addressing, yet we — who are not even Thessalonians — read his Epistles to them with pleasure and profit.

But, generally speaking, there is scarcely any relation in life requiring a more complete rapport and understanding than that which should exist between correspondents. In conversation there are many aids to establishing the electric current of sympathy, — the voice, the smile, the expression of the face, all serve to quicken the connecting spark, — but in correspondence all these are lacking. The writer sits biting his — or, more generally, her — pen-handle while she stares into vacancy and tries to conjure up the absent individuality and address it in terms which, without facial or vocal assistance, shall successfully reveal her own ego. With jaw set into lines of perfunctory epistolary intercourse, she seems sternly to apostrophize her invisible friend: ‘Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn’d,’ I’ll write to thee.

If persons who complain of receiving stupid letters would only realize that the blame rests largely with them, and not with the writer! I believe a dull person’s letters to a clever friend would be better worth reading than the other half of the correspondence. For some reason a pen-holder (I mean the human holder of a pen) is abnormally sensitive to contagion from the unseen person with whom he wishes to get into communication. Perhaps steel is a conductor of psychic influences; at all events, it is a comforting thought that when I write you a stupid letter it is your fault, and when you write me a delightful one it is my virtue.

Those of us who are not ‘ elegant correspondents,’ should derive consolation from the thought that the quality of the letters we receive depends upon our receptivity. The art of appreciation thus becomes an integral part of the art of creation, and we, as silent partners, play an important part in English letters.

And so we find that a ‘complete letter-writer ’ is incomplete unless he have a complete letter-reader worthy of his inky steel. Most of them have not, and that is why the great majority of letters are more blessed to send than to receive; but it is the fault of those of us who expect to be stimulated without having ourselves given forth stimulus. The fountain-pen — the very Fons Bandusiœ of letter-writers,

Unde Ioquaces Lymphæ desiliunt —

will run dry if we do not enliven its black stream with a little of the red blood of understanding, of humorous appreciation and human sympathy.