New Statesman – Apr 12,1919
It was announced during the week that Mr. J. M. Hogge, M.P., answers some 2,000 letters a week. His record is said to be 807 letters in three hours. Those of us who find it difficult to answer even one letter a day cannot but envy such a genius for verbosity. Given a secretary and a typewriter, however, even the most dilatory may become verbose. There is a luxurious feeling in sitting in a chair and booming out words without any of that tedium of wrist that accompanies writing. It is probably easier to dictate fifty letters than to write one. At the same time, it is clear that many persons do not find the act of writing a burden. Some of the busiest men are also the busiest correspondents. The man who hates letter-writing will have no time to write a letter even if he has nothing else to do. The man who likes letter-writing will find time to write a letter even on a day on which he has to address two public meetings, attend six committees, and write a three-act play. Mr. Gladstone had this miraculous gift of correspondence. Mr. Shaw, we fancy, also has it. The difficulty for such men would be not to write. Total abstinence from ink would be the greatest punishment with which you could threaten them. Their superabundant energy can express itself only through a fountain-pen. Those of us who are reluctant to write letters, on the other hand, are equally the slaves of our personality. We are shy of writing letters, perhaps, that are not worth sending. Even when someone writes to ask us a simple question we do not like to send a curt answer like a Cabinet Minister saying, ” The reply is in the affirmative.” We feel there would be something unfriendly in such brevity, and so we put off answering while we meditate a longer letter. The first time the average human being becomes conscious of the discourtesy of brevity is when in his boyhood he writes home to his parents for money. He knows he wants five shillings, but he is ashamed to say so bluntly, and yet there is nothing else to say. He begins : ” Dear Mother,—I hope you are quite well.” He would gladly run on at once: ” Please send me five shillings.” But he is sensitive enough to feel that the request for money should be kept in the back-ground—should be thrust into a postscript if possible. Even a letter which ran : ” Dear Mother,—I hope you are quite well.—Your loving son, Alfred. P.S.—Please send me five shillings ” would seem to him to be too abrupt in its greediness. Hence the child racks his brains to recall any incident of the day that may be worth mentioning to his elders. He is, as a rule, inarticulate as regards his affections, and he is not old enough to take pleasure in describing things seen or experienced. His letter, if he lengthens it, is a bald record of fact—people seen, drives, games. As length itself is an object, however, and he has a feeling that he ought to fill all the four sides of the notepaper, there is no fact too prosaic for him to set down. As he grows older, he becomes more critical as to the sort of facts that are worth setting down, and he adds the fear of dullness to the fear of brevity.
Now, there could be no greater preventives of letter-writing than the fear of being dull combined with the fear of being brief. The former forbids long letters ; the latter forbids short ones. That is the reason why many people never answer letters. It is not that they do not compose the answers, but that they do not send them. They lie awake at night composing them. We know a man who still spends sleepless nights composing a letter in reply to a second cousin in Australia who wrote to him eleven years ago to congratulate him on his engagement. It is not the same letter that it used to be. It has altered with the years. It had to be rewritten when the man married. It had to be revised when the first child was born. The birth of the second child was another piece of news that had to be embodied in it. And now that the eldest child is nine, and a prize-winner at school, even the second child’s birth seems a little out of date. And not only the narrative of the letter has changed from year to year, but the apologies with which the letter opens. At first, it was : ” My dear Cousin,—I owe you a thousand apologies, but as a matter of fact I was so pressed for time, what with my work and with house-hunting …” Then it changed to: ” I’m sure you will understand, but what with all the anxiety I have gone through owing to my wife’s illness …” Later on, he justified himself by relating how he had been moving into a larger house and one of the children had had whooping-cough. Wearying of the illness of the rest of the family, he began to deceive himself into inventing a long record of bad health for himself. He also referred vaguely to ” financial troubles,” though he found it difficult to remember any. Then there was overwork, then there was the war, then there was influenza. His latest letter is full of influenza. It is difficult to spread influenza thin enough to make it cover eleven years; but people who do not write letters are perfectly brazen when it comes to making excuses. They will go to almost any lengths in order to avoid making the frank confession that they suffer from the disease of epistolophobia. There are few commoner diseases, and yet there is no pity for the victims. They are universally accused of rudeness, ingratitude and pride. Their silence is regarded as insulting when it is really flattering. It is the silence of men who are not content to scribble off any old rubbish with a feeling that that will do well enough for their correspondents. They respect their correspondents too highly. And so they wait till they have something to say and time to say it. The further off the correspondent is, moreover, the more particular they are as to what they say. A letter that will do for Sevenoaks does not seem quite worth sending to India. As for Australia, one sits down to a letter to Australia in the mood of a man preparing to write a history of the civilised world. We do not know if everybody has this materialistic sense of space. We confess we have it strongly. We sincerely sympathise with the man whose second cousin in Australia congratulated him on his engagement. A letter from Australia throws a responsibility on a man from which the boldest may well shrink.
And yet, if there are good excuses for not writing to Australia, there are still better excuses for not writing to anyone at a less distance. After all, the infrequency with which one sees one’s Australian friends rather calls for an exchange of letters. When one has a letter from anywhere nearer home, however, one has always an idea that one may be seeing the writer before long and that there is no need to waste time in correspondence. There is a good deal to be said for answering urgent letters by telegram. The letter that cannot be answered in a telegram does not need to be answered at all. It is, we suppose, a good thing for the revenue that so many superfluous letters are written, but there is no denying that three-quarters of the letters written are unnecessary. What we protest against is the indignation of the people who like writing letters against the rudeness of the people who hate writing letters. There is a popular idea that letter-writing should be a matter of give-and-take. This is most unfair to the people to whom letter-writing is a form of torture. A. likes writing letters, and so he self-indulgently writes to B.; B. loathes writing letters, and he suffers anguish because he feels he is being rude in not answering A. at once. A. has all the pleasure of the correspondence, B. has all the pains. They might both be perfectly happy if it were generally recognised that their natures are different, and that A. should write all the letters, seeing that he enjoys writing. We have met many good conversationalists who are more than willing to carry on a one-sided conversation. Why is it that no one is willing to carry on a one-sided correspondence ? Why should a letter be paid for by a letter ? We are surely not merchants and hucksters in our friendship.
Anyhow, it is a safe rule that the only letters worth receiving are those from people who enjoy writing them. Letter-writing calls for that spontaneous overflow of the emotions that Wordsworth demanded in poetry. Walpole, Boswell, Cowper and Lamb were all natural chatterboxes with thepen. Boswell simply had to tell somebody, so he told his friend Temple. His letters are not tasks of friendship. They are things bursting to be written. They are the bubbling confessions of an egotist, as when he complains that his old Scottish father cannot appreciate him:
I write to him with warmth, with an honest pride, wishing that he should think of me as I am ; but my letters shock him, and every expression in them is interpreted unfavourably. . . . Temple, would you not like such a son? Would you not feel a glow of parental joy ? I know you would ; and yet my worthy father writes to me in the manner you see, with that Scots strength of sarcasm which is peculiar to a North Briton. But he is offended with the fire which you and I cherish as the essence of our souls ; and how can I make him happy ? Am I bound to do so at the expense, not of this or the other agreeable wish, but at the expense of myself? The time was when such a letter from my father as the one I enclose would have depressed ; but I am now firm, and, as my revered friend, Mr. Samuel Johnson, used to say, I feel the privileges of an independent human being.
Lamb’s letters, again, are obviously the work of a man who enjoyed writing them. Even when he writes to apologise to Dr. and Mrs. Asbury for having got drunk at a party in their house, he describes how he had to be carried home with more relish than shame. In the course of the letter he writes :
But then you will say : What a shocking sight to see a middle aged gentleman-and-a-half riding upon a Gentleman’s back up Parson’s Lane at midnight! Exactly the time for that sort of conveyance, when nobody can see him, nobody but Heaven and his own conscience ; now Heaven makes fools, and don’t expect much from her own creation ; and as for conscience, She and I have long since come to a compromise. I have given up false modesty, and she allows me to abate a little of the true. I like to be liked, but I don’t care about being respected. I don’t respect myself. But, as I was saying, I thought he would have let me down just as we got to Lieutenant Barker’s Coal-shed (or emporium), but by a cunning jerk I eased myself, and righted my posture. I protest, I thought myself in a palanquin, and never felt myself so grandly carried. It was a slave under me. There was I, all but my reason. And what is reason ? and what is the loss of it ? and how often in a day do we do without it, just as well? Reason is only counting, two and two makes four. And if on my passage home I thought it made Ave, what matter ? Two and two will just make four, as it always did, before I took the finishing glass that did my business. My sister has begged me to write an apology to Mrs. A. and you for disgracing your party ; now it does seem to me, that I rather honoured your party, for every one that was not drunk (and one or two of the ladies, I am sure, were not) must have been set off greatly in the contrast to me. I was the scapegoat. The soberer they seemed. By the way, is magnesia good on these occasions ? iii pol: med : sum : ante noct: in rub : can :. I am no licentiate, but know enough of simples to beg you to send me a draught after this model.
Who would not write letters if he could write after this fashion ? Lamb obviously enjoyed his letter as much as he enjoyed his liquor. With him, clearly, letter-writing was a form of self-indulgence. That is what letter-writing should always be. If we regard letter-writing in this light, those of us who seldom answer letters have quite as good a right to plume ourselves on our superior morality as teetotallers have.