The other day, I sat down to write a letter to our college-age daughter, who is spending a semester abroad. Years ago, it would have been far easier. My wife and I were in college together and, during breaks, separated by a few thousand miles, we wrote each other frequently.
I wrote others, too, including my grandparents. I have two boxes of old letters and other paperwork out in the garage, and we only recently discovered an unopened birthday card from my grandparents, from 1983. “There better not be a check in there,” my wife joked, probably picturing them struggling for years to balance their checkbook and getting confused. Sure enough, there was—I missed out on $25 as a poor college student.
Letters were easier to write back then, because there was no internet, and long-distance calls could get expensive. Today, with Facebook Messenger and its competitors, one doesn’t even need a working cellphone to talk back and forth, with video, between Missouri and Tuscany. As I tried to write our daughter, I knew that whatever news I related would be old by the time Poste Italiane got the letter to her. In fact, we were told the letter would take four days or so to get to Florence, and another four days or so to get from the post office to her address.
Not too long ago, a friend gave me a book of Thomas Merton’s letters. The book, The Courage for Truth: Letters to Other Writers, starts with several written to Evelyn Waugh between 1948 and 1952. Waugh helped Merton prepare his masterpiece, The Seven Storey Mountain, for publication in England, whittling it down by several thousand words and improving the title, and Merton dedicated his historical work Waters of Siloe to Waugh.
This book was like a missing piece of a puzzle, as I had already read part of the conversation in Mark Amory’s collection The Letters of Evelyn Waugh, which unfortunately contains only one of Waugh’s seven extant letters to Merton. When the inspiration hit me to put the two collections together into one book of back-and-forth correspondence, the way it should be done, a quick search found my idea already executed a few years back. Mary Frances Coady’s Merton & Waugh: A Monk, A Crusty Old Man, and The Seven Storey Mountain will appeal to readers who appreciate the two writers and their milieu.
In his thick collection of Waugh’s letters, Amory starts off by commenting that the art of writing letters has been “pronounced dead as often as the novel and with more reason.” His collection was published in 1980, and he spots an explanation: “The telephone is rightly seen as the main enemy; the collected private recordings of eminent figures may soon be with us.”
At an age when telephones have given way to smartphones that are used less for phoning than for email, texting, and social media, the problem is exacerbated. Written communication has become digital and instant, even transitory. And the tool alters the content, much as the medium becomes the message. One does not write emails the way one wrote letters in the past.
Which brings up another problem, as I wrote to our daughter. I used to love writing longhand on yellow pads, especially with the smooth flow of fountain pens, whether fancy or disposable. In this electronic age, my handwriting has deteriorated to the extent that a colleague once remarked I could skip medical school and start writing prescriptions right away. For writers, first the typewriter, then the computer, was a god-send. And I resorted to writing my words to our daughter with Word.
In Merton & Waugh, Coady mentions that Merton wrote thirteen letters to Waugh, and Waugh only seven to the monk. Waugh’s were all handwritten, as one would expect; but after writing his first in longhand, Merton resorted to a typewriter. As Waugh saw in Merton’s book drafts, the monk with the vow of silence was downright garrulous on paper. Coady notes that Merton himself acknowledged “that long-windedness tended to be a literary fault of silent Trappists who found themselves tapping the keys of a typewriter.”
Waugh provides some good advice to Merton in a 1949 letter, the one included in Amory’s collection. “You scatter a lot of missiles all around the target instead of concentrating on a single direct hit,” he writes. “It is not art. Your monastery tailor and boot-maker would not waste material. Words are our materials.”
We write now not on a typewriter, but on a keyboard, and often with just our thumbs, and educational authorities are debating the importance of “penmanship,” once a critical skill. A 2015 article in The Atlantic blames the change in pens, to ballpoint, as having a deleterious effect. Again, as our tools change, so too does how we write, and what we write.
Oddly, one professor sees a right-wing conspiracy in cursive. “We get very interested in cursive when we feel that our morals are in a state of decline, all hell is breaking loose, people are doing whatever they want,” Tamara Thornton, author of 1996’s Handwriting in America: A Cultural History, told The Washington Post. “And I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch that the sort of people who believe in the standard model of the family get very nervous when we depart from the standard models of the cursive script.”
Waugh would undoubtedly respond: She’s onto us!
I may have used a keyboard for my letter, but I do think it would have been more valuable to our daughter had I written it out (even if it would be harder to read). Notes from loved ones long gone are so much more meaningful when we can see their writing. My grandfather’s handwriting, more difficult to decipher as he got older, will always represent him in my mind, still struggling with English so many years after immigrating from Italy, just as those few notes from an old college tutor, a beloved Jesuit who passed away suddenly my senior year, will always make me picture him. His tiny writing, often in pencil, matched his brilliant and humble personality.
One by one, the quirks that make us unique as individual persons, quirks present in the written word, are being sublimated in an age where gifs and emoji are taking the place of real thought. Our tools are reflecting our culture, and affecting our minds and hearts.
K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who works in corporate communications.