On the Gentle Art of Letter-Reading

FROM time to time, one of my associates in the Select Order of Old Fogies launches an essay on the decay of letter-writing as an art. He bemoans the disappearance of the letter that rambled for twenty pages through lush meadows of gossip, leaving a trail of epigrammatic philosophy to mark its course, and was good enough for the writer’s posterity to print in a gift book. Of course, his lamentation is directed really against the telephone and the typewriter, stenographers and phonographs, cheap travel and cheaper lettergrams and cheapest newspapers, or, rather, the era of activity of which these are fruits and symbols. To write the old sort of letters required a degree of leisure and an absolution from petty desires and sordid cares which are hardly conceivable under present conditions of commerce and the cost of living. Our ancestors put into their letters what we now put into monographs and essays and ten-minute chats with the Contributors’ Club. All that, is left for a letter nowadays is the remnant that can’t be said faceto-face at the cost of a short trip by steam or electricity, or ‘hello’-ed over a wire. It’s a waste of time to spend it on composing such a trifle; so you tell your amanuensis what to say, and your signature does the rest.

Although, having a livelihood to earn, I cannot sympathize with the sentiment which would set the Clock of Progress back a hundred years or so, I have a complaint of my own to register against the modern correspondent: he does n’t half read what the other fellow writes to him. If he did, his letters would make up in substance for what they lack in style. I dare say this fault, too, will be charged to the atmosphere of hurry which envelops the present generation; but that excuse is insufficient to meet his case. Nine times out of ten, his so-called answer is not an answer at all, but means one or more additional letters or no results; therefore economy would lie in doing the thing properly at the outset. From my folio of specimens I choose a brace so typical that everyone will recognize them at sight.

To the proprietor of a summer hotel I write: ‘I want two connecting rooms with bath bet ween, with outlook on the water, and not above the fourth floor, with two single beds in each room, for the whole month of August. If you will be able to accommodate me, please let me know size and location of rooms, and terms for the month, with full board, for party consisting of two adults and two children ten and twelve years of age.’ Neither Addisonian in elegance nor Lamblike in geniality, perhaps, but surely simple enough for comprehension by the most commonplace mind. Back comes Mine Host’s answer: —

‘Our rooms, single and in suite, command beautiful views of the ocean on one side of the house, or of the mountains on the other. Rates, according to location and number of persons occupying, from $20 per week upward. Shall be pleased to furnish you with any information desired.’

Then, for goodness’ sake, why has he not furnished the information I not only ‘desired,’ but specifically asked for? It would have required no greater effort to say: ‘We can give your party the accommodations mentioned in your letter of June 16, for the month of August, for $400. This offer will remain open for receipt of your acceptance by mail or wire till midnight of June 22.’ There we should have had the whole bargain in a nutshell, to take or leave as I saw fit, with no need of further long-distance wrestling over facts and terms.

Of a seedsman I inquire, in a letter very brief, absolutely to the point, and enclosing postage for reply, which of two flowering plants whose bulbs I have bought of him grows the taller. It is already time to set out the bulbs, but I want to put them into next summer’s bed in the order of their height. In response I get a most polite note from him, assuring me that he takes great pleasure in mailing, under another cover, an illustrated catalogue of all the garden supplies he keeps for sale, and will take further pleasure in filling promptly any order with which I may favor him, express prepaid on orders exceeding $2.00 to one address, unless sent C. O. D., and so forth and so forth. As the illustrated catalogue travels by third-class mail, I lose two days in waiting for it. When it arrives, I find it a rather bulky pamphlet, with an index obviously not compiled by an expert, by the aid of which I succeed, after an hour’s digging, in bringing to light some descriptive text about my two plants. It shows that they average the same height of growth!

It would have cost that man, at the most, the labor of putting together one sentence of five or six words, to answer the question I propounded, and spare me the infliction of a pageful of phrases which gave me no fact I had asked for, and none I did not already know from the advertisements he had been bombarding me with for the last, dozen years.

In spite of all the talk about the modern disregard of manners, both seedsman and landlord were courtesy itself so far as externals go; yet neither carried the spirit so far as to do for mo the little service requested. The seedsman did better in this respect than the landlord; but why should we be reduced to such a choice between evils? A like criticism will apply to half the personal and intimate letters I receive from friends. One or two even ignore the address plainly given in my dateline, and persist in sending their answers to non-existing numbers or undiscoverable streets.

My dear old grandfather, who wrote all his own letters in a hand which, down to the day of his death, was almost plain enough for a blind man to read, taught me never to attempt to answer a letter without placing it before me and reviewing it scrupulously, paragraph by paragraph. Hundreds of times have I devoutly blessed his memory for that lesson in the commonsense of correspondence. Whenever, lured by the pell-mell spirit, of the age, I stray from his precepts, I rue it; and I can feel the flush of shame overspread my face as I follow a first letter of response with a second, rendered necessary by the belated discovery of a point left uncovered. The old copybook legend, ‘Haste breeds carelessness,’ is as true as it was in the days when good penmanship and good morals went hand-in-hand in the training of youth. If slam-bang and hurlyburly have given its coup de grâce to the once gentle art of writing letters, is not that all the more reason why, before it is too late, we should rescue the half-dead art of reading them?