August 21: Woe Betide Email and Social Media

“A widespread habit of careless writing affects very directly the thinking of a people.”

The Lost Art of Letter Writing
[excerpted from The Southwestern Presbyterian 27.23 (27 June 1895): 3, col. 4]

“Everyone knows, of course, that the actual number of letters passing through the mails of every civilized country is greater, rather than less, year by year.  But everyone also feels that these letters are no longer letters, in the true sense, at all.  They are amplified telegrams, bald and bare statements of fact; and they have the loose and disjointed and careless phraseology of the telegraphic message.  That sense of the fit expression, the graceful concept; that feeling for the lucid and connected exposition of the ideas, for the balance of the parts of a letter, for its composition, in short–the very term is pre-Adamite to the end-of-the-century ear — that used to pre-occupy the best letter-writers of another generation, have gone from our present day scribblers of hasty notes, as though such musty things had never been.  The only people who “compose” their letters now are cultivated old ladies.  Their college-bred grand daughters, intellectually armed and professionally equipped, exhibit productions in that line, of which, for the most part, it might be said, as Henry James remarked of the notes of invitation of the London society woman, that they have nothing in common with the epistolary art but the postage stamp.

It may be held that such an accomplishment is not, after all, of the greatest value.  But behind it there is an instinct, deep-seated in the race, that a widespread habit of careless writing affects very directly the thinking of a people.  And this one cannot but believe to be the case.  It takes no intellect to put plain facts into honest, self-respecting phrases.  But it takes self-restraint and attentiveness, and these lead in time to a disciplined and coherent way of looking at life.



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