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The Humane Art: Virginia Woolf on What Killed Letter Writing and Why We Ought to Keep It Alive

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.”

“A letter should be regarded not merely as a medium for the communication of intelligence,” advised an 1876 guide to the art of epistolary etiquette, “but also as a work of art.” More than half a century later, and another half century before the dawn of email as we know it today, one of the greatest letter writers of all time turned a concerned eye toward the death of that singular art form. In April of 1940, Virginia Woolf was tasked with reviewing a new biography of 18th-century English art historian Horace Walpole, a prolific writer of sixteen published volumes of letters. Woolf’s essay, titled “The Humane Art” and found in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (public library | IndieBound) — which also gave us Woolf on the malady of middlebrow and the piece she read in what became the only surviving recording of her voice — is less about Walpole or his biography and more about the art of letter writing itself: its private function, its cultural evolution, its uncertain future in the face of emerging forms of media.

Countering the biographer’s assertion that Walpole’s letters were “inspired not by the love of friends but the love of posterity” — a tool of history rather than of his inner world — Woolf considers the general genius of the letter writer:

If we believe that Horace Walpole was a historian in disguise, we are denying his peculiar genius as a letter writer. The letter writer is no surreptitious historian. He is a man of short range sensibility; he speaks not to the public at large but to the individual in private. All good letter writers feel the drag of the face on the other side of the age and obey it — they take as much as they give.

Woolf makes the curious but instantly sensical proposition that the rise of her very own ilk — the paid writer — is what spelled the decline of fine letter writing:

Was it … the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art?

In prescient sentiment that resonates all the more loudly as we consider the currency of the social media age, she points to new media in particular as the dagger at the heart of the personal letter:

News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!

As though with blogs and Tumblrs and Facebook feeds in mind, Woolf writes:

Instead of letters posterity will have confessions, diaries, notebooks… — hybrid books in which the writer talks in the dark to himself about himself for a generation yet to be born.

Returning to Walpole, she considers what his letters — and the traditional art of epistolary correspondence in general — reveal about the vitalizing role of real letters in our lives, as an anchor to both our tribe and to our own identity. As we continuously struggle to understand what binds our past selves and our future selves together into the same person, Woolf points to the power of the letter, which bridges two privacies, in assuring us of our own selves, at once stable and self-renewing:

Above all he was blessed in his little public — a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence. Besides the wit and the anecdote and the brilliant descriptions of masquerades and midnight revelries his friends drew from him something superficial yet profound, something changing yet entire — himself shall we call it in default of one word for that which friends elicit but the great public kills? From that sprang his immortality. For a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living.

Whether it is an act of supreme irony or supreme affirmation that Woolf herself ended her life with a letter — and a letter so cruelly commoditized by the era’s parasitic news media — remains an open question.

Page from ‘How to Write Letters,’ 1876. Click image for more.

Complement with Woolf on the creative benefits of keeping a diary, writing and consciousness, and her breathtaking love letters to Vita Sackville-West.

Published November 20, 2014




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