Wednesday, January 21, 2009


As my friends and colleagues know, I esteem email. 

But like many, I worry that its instantaneity encourages laziness; that the quick to-and-fro promotes functional exchange, instead of careful expression.

I say 'encourages' and 'promotes', of course - not 'causes'.  The technology doesn't determine us.  

In blogs and emails, we can still try to genuinely, patiently express ourselves.  And even if we are brief, the aphoristic impulse can be worthwhile: the ambition for crisp, elegant prose.

Still, it can be both refreshing and illuminating to read the longhand, sometimes long-winded epistles of writers past.  If anything, it's a reminder of what's lost when we're impatient or blithely pragmatic.

For example, at, you can find 'early' letters to Henry James. Stored at the Houghton Library, Harvard, they were transcribed, edited and uploaded by staff of Salem State College.  

Here is a corker: a March 1873 letter from Charles Eliot Norton to James, telling the young author John Ruskin admired his work:

My Dear Harry 

Ruskin has been spending a great part of the day with me, in one of his sweetest moods. 

I read to him what you say of Tintoret, which had greatly pleased me when I first read it yesterday, in the Nation of March 6th —It would have been pleasant to you to see the cordial admiration he felt for your work, and to hear his warm expressions of the good it did him, to find such sympathies & such appreciations, and to know that you were to be added to the little list of those who really, & intelligently & earnestly care for the same things that have touched him most deeply, & influenced his life most powerfully.—You may be pleased from your heart to have given not merely pleasure, but stimulus, to a man of genius very solitary, & with very few friends who care for what he cares for. 


        He amused me by his indignation against the choice of Mr. Colvin as Professor of the Fine Arts at Cambridge, & his eager that you could have been put there in his place! 


Rachel Power said...

What an incredibly thoughtful and encouraging letter. But have you not received similarly effusive and affirming messages via email? I do miss seeing the sender's handwriting, and a letter in the mailbox is a special thing, but otherwise I find many put just as much of an effort into composing their emails as they would a written note.
I am still taken with your thoughts on archetypes BTW--further comments on my blog.

Damon said...

Thanks, Rachel.

As I said, I do like email. And, yes, I've received some lovely emails over the years.

But the technology - and the social climate that encourages, and is encouraged by, it - does lend itself to rapid receipt and response.

If anything, these long, spiralling letters are a handy reminder: of ambitious epistolary arts, electronic or in paper and ink.

On archetypes: I'll get back to you soon-ish.