07 April 2015

We Get Letters

A kind of odd thing happened on a recent evening in mid-March.  I was in the Washington, D.C., area and, unlike the New York Times, the Washington Post comes with Parade, that dinky, mostly junky magazine some newspapers circulate on Sundays.  I leafed through Parade as I was watching some TV before dinner that night.  The main subject that week was letter-writing and the main article was “Letters That Changed Our World” by Liz Welch.  It made me think of a conversation I’ve had with some friends and relatives recently.

In her article, which Welch sub-heads “The missives that move us, shake us and, sometimes, alter the course of history,” the author refers to a 1939 letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin D. Roosevelt which prompted the president to launch the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb.  She also writes about another letter to President Roosevelt, one written by Fidel Castro when he was 14 years old, “requesting $10 and Groucho Marx’s advice to Woody Allen.”  An illustration accompanying the article shows a note 23-year-old writer Eudora Welty, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1973, sent to the New Yorker proclaiming, “How I would like to work for you!”  Welch also refers to a book, Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience (Chronicle Books, 2014), which is an anthology of letters that reveal surprising aspects of historical events and figures.  All this is what made me recall my discussions.

I used to do research for scholars from universities outside New York, finding references and documents for them.  I used to do a lot of digging up of old letters sent from one historically important figure to another—Tennessee Williams’s and Elia Kazan’s letters were among the largest collections of correspondence through which I had to pore.  It’s made me think: What’s going to happen to collected letters for the generations of famous (not to mention the not-so-famous) people to come?  (I touched on this question in my ROT post “Books in Print,” 14 July 2010.)  First of all, most of their correspondence will be electronic—e-mails and tweets and texts—which may or may not even be saved, much less printed out on paper for filing in traditional archives.  (While letter-writing has declined, the average e-mail account sends or receives about 100 e-mails daily, according to one study.  Eighteen- to 29-year-old Americans send as much as 100 texts a day.)  E-mail is basically ephemeral; I know it can be saved, and offices and agencies are required to keep significant messages, but electronic communications are just evanescent.  What’s more, they can’t easily be passed along later to repositories like libraries.  As writer John Coleman expressed it, “Email is ‘permanent’ in its own way; our electronic messages are easy to keep and search in huge volumes.  But they aren’t tangible and enduring in the same way those old notes are.”

Second, even those old electronic letters and notes that are kept—on disks or hard drives somewhere—will eventually be impossible to access and read as the technology changes (which, in the computer world, can happen in a matter of a few years).  I already have old disks that I can’t read now, like old Betamax videotapes no one can play anymore unless you dig up an old machine.  (That’s not even counting the e-mails and other files I’ve plain lost from technical mishaps, like when I fried my hard drive years ago or when my last machine got a virus and I had to wipe the drive before transferring everything left to a new one.  I also changed e-mail providers a few years ago and lost all the old stash before I realized I could have transferred it.)

Since nearly no one writes letters much anymore—the postal service estimates that in 1987 the average household received a personal letter every two weeks, whereas by 2010 the average had dropped to once every seven weeks—there’s nothing to keep.  Author Jessica Kleiman admitted in Forbes magazine, after finding a cache of old letters and notes, “Had those been sent to me via email or text, I definitely would not still have them.”  I’m not casting aspersions on the quality of on-line correspondence in contrast to paper letters.  (I’m not really a Luddite: I use e-mail all the time and I compose on a word processor; I even maintain a blog.  This isn’t about disparaging the existence of electronic media, which has many benefits.)  I’m also not lamenting the loss of the art of writing letters which declined long before computers arrived on the scene.  I’m just contemplating the durability of electronic writing versus the paper kind, how it’ll last and be accessible in the future. 

Libraries keep old books and periodicals we can get to when we want them.  There are archival collections that contain the letters and papers of the Tennessee Williamses, Max Lerners, Jo Mielziners, Cheryl Crawfords, Brooks Atkinsons, S. N. Behrmans, and Elia Kazans (to name just a few with whose papers I’ve worked) and scholars, writers, and historians consult their holdings all the time.  Who keeps electronic publications?  Where would I go in the future to work with the e-mails or e-publications of a current figure I want to write about?  Nancy Reagan kept her husband’s letters (and my mom and dad kept each others’); who’s keeping Barack Obama’s private e-mails?  One of the projects on which I worked was The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams (New Directions, 2000 and 2004).  The two published volumes cover correspondence from 1920 to 1957.  Would an editor or a biographer 80 years from now be able to find e-mails, tweets, blog comments, and so on from today?  Someone saved Williams’s early letters (he was nine in 1920; his grandfather apparently kept some of his letters) and they’re amazingly revealing to look back at!  My parents (and, apparently, my own grandfather, too) kept some of my old letters from high school, college, and the army, but if I ever become famous, would any of my friends and colleagues have retained old e-mails for a researcher to look at? 

Even if they’re not erased, old e-mails or word-processor files will be stored on some obsolete hard drive somewhere, maybe irretrievable even if someone could find it.  Technology obsolesces while paper and ink always remains accessible.  Even if letters are stashed somewhere, someone can find them and read them.  We frequently hear reports of centuries-old documents that have been discovered hidden away.  Back in 2003, members of the First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan who were cleaning out some rooms in the basement of the church stumbled on two sermons exhorting the congregation to support the American Revolution.  The historic sermons were written in 1776 and survived tucked away in the pages of a ledger, easily legible again after 227 years.  If the Rev. John Rodgers, the church's pastor during the late colonial period, had written his sermons on a computer, it’s doubtful they’d have survived 25 years, much less 225!  Will 200-year-old e-mails be available for anyone to reread in 2215?  I wonder.

Some of Williams’s correspondence (and all of Kazan’s)—including postcards, telegrams, and random notes—are in the various archival collections of his correspondents’ papers in libraries and document repositories scattered around the country from New York City to Los Angeles and Cambridge to Key West.  Would e-mails ever end up in those kinds of places where they could be retrieved by writers of the future?  Many e-mail systems don’t even save messages older than a week or so.  They’re just erased, gone, sent out into the ether.  What will happen to the next Tennessee Williams, Elia Kazan, or Ronald Reagan (whose letters are published in I Love You, Ronnie: The Letters of Ronald Reagan to Nancy Reagan; Random House, 2000)?  Those letters are often fascinating and revealing.  If newspapers are the first drafts of history, then letters may be the notes for that draft.  That kind of thing may not be available for future writers and scholars.  They’ll either be lost altogether or deposited somewhere in a pile of old storage media that no one can read even if someone found them.  I mean, you find an old letter, telegram, or postcard, it doesn’t take any special technology to access it.  (In addition to the old letters of mine to my parents and my grandfather I’ve found, I also recently came across a collection of letters from my father to my mother while they were apart for several months when my dad was abroad before my mother joined him.  My dad also collected and bound the letters he and my mom exchanged during World War II.  And I can just read them!  Who’s keeping the electronic love messages of today’s courting couples, the latter-day Reagans and my folks?)

The same would be true of Tennessee Williams’s journals, selections of which (as well as those of artist David Wojnarowicz) have been published and, like the letters, reveal a great deal about his development as a playwright and how he formed many of this principles and concepts.  (I drew on one entry in Williams’s journals, later released as Notebooks; Yale University Press, 2006, for my essay “‘The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theater,” republished on ROT on 9 May 2012.  Wojnarowicz’s journals were published as The Waterfront Journals; Grove Press, 1996.)  I have paper journals that go back to my high school days, including travel diaries from trips to places like the Soviet Union (1965) and China (1980) that I can still read and reminisce over (or use for a blog post, as I did with my travelogue of Istanbul on 24 June 2010).  My friend Kirk Woodward has kept journals for most of his sentient life and has generously let me publish parts of them—or he’s written articles based on selected entries, in some cases along with old letters—on ROT (see, for example, “Kirk Woodward’s King Lear Journal,” 4 June 2010, or “A Year in Korea,” 18 January 2011, among others).  Today those would also be kept on computer.  Whether they’re word-processor files or an on-line blog like this one, they’re subject to disappearing into the ozone one way or another.  All those accounts of early experiences, travels, and ideas would be lost to us—and I can’t be the only one who finds those looks back tremendously fascinating and telling—when all there is is electronic media, as ephemeral and technically precarious as they are, like those old floppies I have that I can’t read anymore! 

Of course, it’s not just e-mails and computer journals that are perishable.  Websites in general are also, despite the myth that nothing ever disappears from the ’Net.  I can’t say that anything I post on ROT is worthy of saving, but let’s imagine that it is.  In 50 years, will anyone be able to find copies of my old posts?  I’ve published a few articles in on-line periodicals which don’t have paper editions.  Will my articles and anyone else’s in those cyber journals still be available for someone doing research in 10 or 20 years?  (Believe it or not, a few of my essays have been cited by later writers—and one on-line essay was even republished, albeit in a bowdlerized version and without my knowledge, as I described in “The Case of the Purloined Paper,” 5 February 2010.)  At least one of my contributions has already disappeared from an on-line journal’s site because the publication changed format.  Even the more prominent Internet writing, in e-journals like Huffington Post, Slate, or Politico: will anyone be able to research old articles on those sites in half a century like I can with old newspapers, Time magazines, or books?  It doesn’t seem as though any of those outlets, whose content includes significant writing and opinions that should bear on future accounts of our time, will be available for study and research.  (I’ve done many research projects, like “The Lost Première of The Eccentricities of a Nightingale,” 20 March  2010, or “The Washington Square Players: Art for Art’s Sake,” 21 and 24 June 2012, which required digging out old reviews.  I quote reviews in my current ROT play reports, and I include the Internet press in my survey.  Will a future researcher be able to find the old on-line reviews for a reconstruction of, say, Charles Mee’s Big Love, which I saw a few weeks ago, or Beth Henley’s Laugh, a world première on which I reported earlier this month?  It’s problematical at best.)

Kirk wrote me, when I broached the inclination to write this rumination, “When I put together my ‘autobiography’ [Kirk’s written an extensive memoir], based on letters and journals, I found that the amount of material for the most recent couple of decades was miniscule compared to that for the previous years.”  (Kirk estimates that less than a quarter of the memoir covers almost 45% of his life—since the mid-’80s, when home computers became common—“illustrating the point about fewer written sources.”)  My interpretation of this remark is that the recent record is lacking because it had all been inscribed electronically and has evaporated.  He also once sent me a copy of a wonderful memoir his grandfather wrote covering his life as a frontier lawyer for the first 60 years of the 20th century.  (Kirk wrote “A Lawyer and a Life” for ROT on 11 November 2010 based on that memoir.)  Today that chronicle would be written on a computer and, unless the author printed a copy on paper, it would exist only as electronic blips on some disk somewhere.  The same is true of the diary of Kirk’s late wife, Pat, which recounted her obsession with the Beatles in 1964—and which Kirk shared with us on ROT on 8 January 2013.  He could do that because it was on paper and he could access it.  I donated my copy of the reminiscence of Kirk’s grandfather to the local history division of the New York Public Library (“Obiter Dicta: Some Experiences During Sixty Years Practice in Kentucky Courts” by Ernest Woodward, call no.: ITY 01-10556) so that someone interested in that bit of Americana can find it.  What would happen to a latter-day counterpart?  (In 2005, I wrote an impromptu memoir of my 2½ years as an army intel officer in Berlin, but I wrote it on my computer.  Will it still be around in a readable form in 20 or 30 years?) 

This is a particularly topical subject at the moment because of the issue of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.  Though most of the coverage of the Clinton brouhaha focuses on the “gotcha” aspect, the desire to use the e-mails to find blame someone can pin on her for, say, Benghazi or some other things her adversaries can tar her with, in fact, one of the stated reasons for archiving official e-mails and electronic communications, just like the paper kind, is for the historical record.  Now and then, you hear someone mention that point in passing in a report of this story.  That, of course, is exactly the same thing as digging through Tennessee Williams’s or Elia Kazan’s letters and notes—historical (in that case, literary/artistic) research.

The issue with Clinton’s potentially missing correspondence, of course, is that it was either deliberately or carelessly discarded/not saved.  That can happen with paper mail as well.  What I’m considering is less conscious—the loss of the whole record of someone’s thoughts, ideas, ruminations, expressions simply because the format, that is, electronic blips on a storage medium, is innately ephemeral and obsolescent.   (As I said, writing on paper never goes out of date—it can be deciphered as long as it exists—barring, of course, everyone forgetting how to read the language, which can happen but takes centuries, not decades.)

There is, of course, another technical vulnerability that effects e-mails and other electronically-generated documents, whether on line or on a word processor: hacking.  Any computer system can be hacked sooner or later.  We mostly know hacking from the leaked documents that have made the news, such as the recent Sony incident and the thefts by U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning (now known as Chelsea), posted on WikiLeaks, and NSA consultant Edward Snowden, but hacking can result in the alteration of electronic records as well, of course.  There are frequent stories of some student who’s hacked a school’s computer system and changed grades, and the same thing can happen to electronic memos and letters.  Paper documents can, of course, be forged or altered, too—the embarrassment at CBS in 2004 when Dan Rather took at face value some memos purporting to show that George W. Bush had gotten special treatment during his Air National Guard service is a prime example.  The memos turned out to have been latter-day forgeries and the exposure discredited not only the 60 Minutes Wednesday report but Rather’s entire career.  But that’s not easy to accomplish or get away with.  Electronic forgery or alteration is much harder to detect and can screw up someone’s research with false information or the deletion of important facts.  E-mails are far more susceptible to this kind of manipulation than paper letters, but I’m focusing here more on the loss of access to a letter-writer’s entire correspondence—or a large chunk of it—due not so much to nefarious acts but the innate realities of electronic writing.

(There’s a sidelight to the issue of e-mail hacking.  To protect against it and maintain security and privacy, some e-mail users employ passwords.  That may safeguard the e-mail but it’d be a bane for a subsequent researcher if the password remains secret after the writer’s death.  You can’t really lock someone out of a paper letter unless you secure the file in a vault.)

Unfortunately, I don’t know the solution to this impending problem.  We can hope that e-mails and other electronic documents will be preserved—and safeguarded—somehow, that some kind of archival system will be devised so that researchers, scholars, and students can retrieve them in the future, and that there will always be some way to read those old e-documents.  But I don’t see any movement to assure that any of that wishful thinking will see realization.  The government may have a system of preserving and archiving official documents created by computers, and perhaps some corporations do, too, for their own uses.  (Among my research projects, not a few have required work on the collected files and papers of such organizations as the Rockefeller Foundation; the New York Shakespeare Festival; New Directions Publishing Corporation; the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center; the Gotham Book Mart; and Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Inc.)  Right now, however, it’s just haphazard whether someone saves and stores ordinary old electronic writing, the kind that you and I create—or the next generation’s Tennessee Williams or Elia Kazan—or not.  It’s just dumb luck that they can be located and then accessed again decades hence.  Like Kirk when he was trying to find resources for his autobiography, the next generation of researchers and writers may find the record from the last few decades into the coming ones lacking.  Will we ever see the collected letters of the great 21st-century writers, artists, business leaders, military commanders, politicians?  I fear we won’t—or that the output will be so meager it will amount to a few slim volumes of spotty correspondence.    On the New York Times blog Opinionator, for example, author Mason Currey wrote:

In recent years, a number of journalists and critics have lamented the death of the literary letter.  The publication of Saul Bellow’s letters in 2010 [Saul Bellow: Letters; Viking] and William Styron’s last year [Selected Letters of William Styron; Random House, 2012] were accompanied by waves of speculation about how many more such collections we can expect.  There was also no small amount of hand-wringing about how “The Collected Emails of Dave Eggers” (or whomever) will never cast quite the same spell.

I’ll say one thing for sure: I’m glad I won’t have to be doing the digging for those elusive letters.  It’ll be someone else’s job.  He or she has my condolences—though it’s doubtful anyone will know I felt this way: this message, too, exists only on computers!

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