Recently I have been thinking a lot about letters. The kind—perhaps you might remember them if you were born before 1990—you wrote on paper with a pen, or maybe on one of those clacking machines called a typewriter. Having been born in 1990, my experience with letters has been limited to writing adorable requests to Santa Claus, futilely hoping to receive my Hogwarts acceptance letter and, several years later, crafting contrived nonsense about why such-and-such university should accept me into their laureled halls. I feel as though my relationship with letters has been so geared towards asking for something, so formulaic, and so fleeting, that until my postgraduate studies, I didn’t really think about letters, or think within letters; they were something of an outdated artifact. For me, and I think for many other Millennials, a letter was a prescribed form and a tool, not a literary genre, and certainly not an intimate self-confessional.
Michel Foucault (I’m so sorry for dragging Foucault into this) has described letters as a “technology of the self,” a space in which to study and understand oneself. “The examination of conscience begins with…letter writing,” he writes, a difficult concept to understand for someone like me who is still perfecting her emoji game and struggles to spell the word “sincerely” without autocorrect. Nobody really writes letters anymore, at least the kind that aren’t for official purposes. They are relics you find in your grandparents’ shoe boxes in the back of their closet, they are sealed for the eyes of the admissions committee only—if ever there was a self reflected within the lines of those letters, certainly it is a lost one, a secret one, or an old one that no longer remembers. And if letters have gone by the wayside, how are we supposed to examine our consciences now? Why were they such a profound mode of communication, only to become practically obsolete? Is the letter still a legitimate “technology of the self?” Or are there new technologies?
I began studying letters in earnest when I became a student of 18th and 19th century literature. Literature of that time (and still today) owes almost everything to the letter. Many early novels of the English language were epistolary works, novels written in a series of fictional letters between the novels’ characters. Consider, for instance, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa or Frances Burney’s Evelina or even early versions (though lost to time) of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Indeed, even after the 18th century heyday of epistolary novels, the letter has persisted in literature; to this day it is not uncommon for a novel to feature in its text an excerpted letter or a series of letters critical to the development of its plot or characters.
There must be something about letters that traditional prose cannot accomplish. Is it a relatively unmediated exposure to an individual psyche? Is it not the letter at all, but the context in which it is written and read? Is the letter the product or the producer of selfhood? Regardless, why is selfhood exposed (created? manifested?) through a dialogic medium, one that, if it does not demand, at least hopes for a response? If the letter did so much to birth modern literature, where has it gone, and is it ever coming back?
I’m not certain if the letter is the ultimate arena for modern selfhood, especially considering that letters have experienced two falls, one from a primary medium of literary expression, and the other from a primary medium of long-distance correspondence. Epistolary novels gave way to narrated novels, intimate real-life epistolary correspondence yielded to email, then instant messaging, then texting. Here is the part where I claim that technology killed the letter as if the letter were the first martyr in the tragic demise of the written word. But such a claim, in terms of letters and in terms of the concept of the written word with Tiny Tim’s crutch, is ludicrous and alarmist. The letter isn’t actually dead just as the written word isn’t dying. Both are simply changing and evolving alongside changing media and technology, or perhaps more accurately, both are complexly changing and evolving.
The letter is a selfhood starter pack requiring meditation on oneself, one’s place in the world, serious commitment to writing something engaging and control of one’s written voice. It is the foundation upon which other more complicated notions of selfhood may be constructed and explored. If we might consider texting as the new letter, it has shown the necessity for the written word to adapt to a sense of immediacy and increased interconnectedness. But should we mourn the letter? Is the letter a more worthy exercise of sustained thought? Surely, one might argue, a letter expounding upon the minutiae of one’s day is better than “Kk thx lol.” And that it just might be better if “Kk thx lol” weren’t just one of tens or hundreds of text messages sent intermittently to friends, family, and acquaintances throughout day. If letters are dialogic, texting is hyper-dialogic, and implies intense intimacy—instant access to a person’s psyche while still a space where one can construct multiple “textual” (no pun intended) selves.
Perhaps I should amend my previous statements. My relationship with the letter has been the most pervasive and meaningful mode of communication of my life; I have simply received it in a different form. Millennials are the result of deconstructed communication. Our letters are international and instant. They are piecemeal artifacts of intimacy. They are multimodal and rich with subtext. They are, I suppose, not your grandparents’ letters.