Monday, 28 July 2008

Writing for Posterity or the Delete Button: Letters, E-mail and the Record of the Past

Will e-mails be a substitute for letters? Two programs on the CBC’s Radio One raised the question yesterday. The first was Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company where she interviewed Hermione Lee about Lee’s biography of Edith Wharton, The Fullness of Life. The second was a wide-ranging discussion on Cross Country Check-up, a nationwide call-in show.

Along with many other interesting things, Lee said that the release of a series of fascinating letters between Wharton and her lover Morton Fullerton helped spark re-evaluation of her and work in the 1970s. It is likely Wharton would be reassessed in light of late 20th century efforts to celebrate women writers, but the letters shined a new light on a woman of great intelligence but little luck in love.

John English, the official biographer of Canadian Prime Ministers Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, spoke a short time later about the gaps in the pictures of these two men which would exist, were it not for their correspondence. Trudeau and his mother were particularly good conservers of letters, so that English was able, for example, to read the last letter Trudeau wrote to his father. Fifteen year old Pierre tore the letter up before he sent it because he received the news that the elder Trudeau had died in Florida. Madame Trudeau took the scraps and pasted them back together, however, to preserve it for posterity. Trudeau also kept drafts of the love letters he wrote to his various flames.

For a biographer, these caches of letters are treasure troves, and for us all, they are windows on the past and the thinking of people who profoundly affected history. People certainly communicate today in writing, but it’s an open question whether anyone is properly archiving e-mail. Although, given the way that Trudeau’s mother obviously thought he was headed for greatness, there may be fledgling politicians out there who are printing out everything they write !

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