Many moons ago, while perusing the dusty shelves of a Cambridge University library, I came by chance across an old and worn copy of Hemingway’s Selected Letters. Several hours later, I had forgotten all about the topic I had visited that library to research, instead having veered into an entrancing ramble through many of the six hundred or so letters in the volume. They had been found in Hemingway’s Cuban home after his death, letters that formed parts of exchanges with everyone from family members, to his editors, to other prominent figures of the day, and they span much of his lifetime, ranging from 1917 right up to 1961, when he took his own life.
These letters are private correspondences that Hemingway never meant for publication, which made me, as their unintended reader, feel I had stepped a little sheepishly into the unguarded office of his mind and rifled through his desk drawers, but that was also partly why they became so fascinating. The man’s frank thoughts and feelings are on full display, punctuated and elevated by his very evident wit and linguistic flair. He writes home from Milan as he serves in the Italian Army Medical Corps during the First World War, as he tries to come to terms with the very real and imminent prospect of death: “Dying is a very simple thing. I’ve looked at death and really I know”. In later letters, he writes in unfiltered praise or condemnation of others’ books, or enthuses about boxing and bullfighting. Hemingway’s personality, experiences and thoughts on the world are perfectly encapsulated through the many flourishes of his pen, and the collection functions as a biography as complete and insightful as anyone could wish for. As you may tell, it is one of those books that has really stuck with me.
In the course of his correspondence, Hemingway also makes two claims about the act of letter writing itself. He casually muses that writing letters is “such a swell way to keep from working and yet feel you’ve done something”—it was, to him, the ultimate procrastination. Elsewhere, he asserts that “Plenty of times people who write the best write the worst letters. It is almost a rule.” I am a writer and editor by trade, which I would hope means that I write fairly well. Perhaps then, if Mr H is correct, I have little hope of being a stellar man of letters. Nonetheless, it is a form I have been drawn to for as long as I can remember, and I insist that it is not, in my case, an act of procrastination that serves as a welcome pseudo-productive distraction from loftier forms of writing. Rather, letter writing is a worthy end in itself and can, in the right circumstances, prove to be one of the most useful, effective, emotive and insightful means of discourse. Despite his self-effacement and levity, Hemingway’s own collected letters are a perfect testament to this.
I admit that I have little occasion to use letters as a form of correspondence with others. There seem few who can really be bothered with such slow and formal forms in an instantaneous world of abbreviated illiteracy, and besides, e-mail can be very efficient and performs many of the same surface functions as written hand. There are even some who use email with a similar level of traditional courteousness of tone and address, although such users seem few and dwindling. But conventions like these are not, for me, the principal advantage that the letter tends to hold over its electronic counterpart, nor are they the reason I do still write letters when the opportunity presents itself.
I think that a letter is what it is precisely because it is a slow thing. It is not in a hurry. The act of consuming the blank page before us is not hastily perfunctory, but calls for a little pondering, a little critical thought, a little pause to remember some anecdote or conjure some image that adds colour to the sketched outlines of ideas. At the same time, it is personal enough to feel like an emotional line to somewhere outside of us, yet just impersonal and spontaneous enough to allow things to slip through with a little less filter than may inhibit face-to-face interaction. At its best, the art of letter writing, if we may call it an art, facilitates a kind of engaged flow, a mindful and considered stream of thought. If two (or more) people can cultivate such a flow in reciprocity, then a very pleasant and meaningful exchange can ensue.
It is this same engagement of the faculties in awareness and expression that means a letter can be valuable even if it never sees a reply, and even if it is never sent. It is a recognised tool in therapeutic repertoires to recommend that a person write a letter to someone else, or even to themself, then screw it up and throw it away. While this might at first seem a rather extreme and pointless exercise, in fact it points to the worth in distilling thoughts and feelings about a subject and containing them on a page. Perhaps the awareness that no one else will ever read it stirs the highest levels of honesty and frankness.
In Collate, we are presented with a halfway house between the traditional letter and the e-mail. In forming that compromise, some things are necessarily lost. For someone like me who enjoys the tangible physicality of putting a fountain pen to a champagne-tinted page, I lament that this is a typed form of letter. It does nothing to revive the beauty and skill of writing in copperplate script, as was the norm in the not-so-distant past, and which I find so appealing. I also miss the physical presence of a letter dropping through my letterbox, although the platform is attempting to send physical copies in its early stages at least.
But in spite of such concessions, I applaud that the spirit of lively and considered exchange is alive here. I hope that this is a platform where we can all be encouraged to read, ponder and respond to others’ ideas and stories with a real measure of thought and respect. We also see here the potential to effect change in the world through the influence and visibility of the carefully constructed written word. Above all, I hope that in turning away from walls of instant feeds and reactions, we are here encouraged to slow down, to record something of our minds and souls that may one day earn a place in each of our personal Selected Letters.