There’s a charming little piece over at Book Riot on famous dead writers who would be blogging today if they were alive. Oscar Wilde was mentioned in the Comments’ section of the post as one who would be. Another is the poet Lord Byron. These two gentlemen were the greatest letter writers I know of–witty, profound, and outrageous (sometimes all in the same letter.) Rupert-Hart Davies edited a good edition of Wilde’s letters, omitting the perfunctory correspondence but keeping Wilde’s best letters, including that extraordinary piece of self-defense, De Profundis, written to Lord Alfred Douglas after Wilde lost his libel suit and was tossed into Reading Gaol for being a homosexual. Lord Byron’s Selected Letters and Journals were edited by his best biographer, Leslie A. Marchand. Since I’ve already mentioned Wilde’s homosexuality (it’s always a topic when discussing his life, but of little value when discussing his work), it’s fair to remind you that Byron was, for most of his life, bisexual. He’s frank about it in his letters and journals, as he is about most things. His forthrightness and honesty are the qualities that keep people coming back to his letters almost 200 years after his death.
What previous generations gained from reading Wilde’s letters and Byron’s was a sense of the times in which they lived. We here in the present can gain that sense also, but we can gain something else, too. We can regain the art of letter writing itself, an art we have lost completely, if I may say so.
We should not have lost it. In fact, because of the development of e-mail and its ability to allow us to edit our work and wing our messages anywhere in the world, we should be better at letter-writing than ever before. Instead, we truncate our messages in e-mail. We dumb down our correspondence on the aptly-named social network Twitter to just a few keystrokes (“I wd die 4 U”, or some such). As a result, we’ve created a culture in which everybody talks, but nobody says anything.
Worse, when someone does try to say something, we don’t understand her, particularly the emotions she’s trying to convey. I’ve lost count of the number of message-board posts I’ve read wherein the tone of the post has been completely misunderstood by those who read it because they don’t understand irony, satire, wit, or sarcasm, and consequently can’t recognize it when they see it.
Our society would be far better–livelier, more thoughtfully-engaged, and, yes, even kinder and more tolerant–if we regained our knowledge of the literary tools involved in letter-writing and began to put them to use ourselves more often. The best way–maybe the only way–to do that is to read Byron’s letters, and Wilde’s and Dorothy Parker’s and imitate them. We’d gain a great deal. We’d learn not only what to say, but how to say it. We’d no longer have to read a letter or an e-mail from someone we know and wonder, “Is he happy?” “Is she angry at me?” We wouldn’t have to guess; we’d know. And when we wrote someone back to tell her how we feel, she wouldn’t have to guess, either.