Blanketing opinions that I'll probably regret soon.

Monday, November 26, 2007

People don't write like they used to.

My friend recently gave me a British book written in 1890 called The Complete Letter Writer for Gentlemen. The writing is flowery, but polite, well-written, and easy to read. What a difference that is from the way most people write typical emails today. These old letters contain no "LOLs", "yr"s, or "OMG"s. The debased state of modern writing on behalf of the general public has been decried ad nauseam but it's worth repeating. Here are two examples from the book.

A declaration of love from a man to a woman in the late 1800s:
Sunderland, 16th September, 18--.
MY DEAR MISS WILLIAMS,---Ever since the fatal or auspicious evening that I was introduced to you at Mr. Cooper's, my mind has been so filled with the one idea of yourself, and my whole soul so absorbed by the imperious passion of love, that my thoughts have been completely distracted from every daily pursuit, whether of business or recreation. Doubt, fear, delight, and a thousand other emotions have successively agitated me, and all my efforts to repress or stifle these feelings have been in vain. Being no longer able to resist their impulse, I crave your pardon for the liberty I take in addressing you. You, my dear Miss Williams, are alone the cause of my unhappiness, and you must become the arbiter of my fate, for I shall be the happiest or most miserable of beings according as you reciprocate or despise my sentiments. But I will not, can not, entertain the sad foreboding that a heart of so much tenderness and purity as my charmer's could ever consign a fellow-creature's prospects of future felicity to utter annihilation. Oh! how ardently I long for one word to calm my troubled mind; and it is in your power, my dear, to give the magic utterance. Bestow but a slender thread of hope, and it will relieve me from a state of inexpressible anxiety; if you do not love me, say at least that you do not hate me, for never, never could I survive the dreadful alternative of being hated by the adorable being whose love I prize more than existence itself. Anxiously and impatiently shall I look for your reply, and do pardon this rhapsodical letter, for I am in such a state I can scarcely form one sane reflection, but that
I am,
Your devoted servant till death,
Someone soliciting a loan from a friend:
Friday, 19th September, 18--.
Albert Ritchie, Esq.
MY DEAR SIR,--A disappointment in the receipt of a remittance having involved me in a temporary embarrassment, I reluctantly avail myself of your generous friendship by applying to you for aid under the painful circumstances. The sum required is Twenty-Five Pounds, and if you can grant me the accommodation of this amount without entrenching on your own convenience, you may depend on being reimbursed punctually on the 1st prox. An immediate reply will extremely oblige,
My dear Sir,
Yours faithfully,
Brilliant! Letter writing is truly a lost art. Now that HF is away, when it comes to emailing I'm challenged to come up with something better than the LOL's and CU L8Rs that usually pepper our text messaging on days I know I'm going to see him soon.
It's been fun, and romantic - writing (and receiving) real love letters. There are so many great words in the English language that we've almost abandoned in everyday communication. In this case I'm learning that absence really is "such sweet sorrow."
I think you are hitting on a subject here LB that has wide ranging implications. Only recently I heard on NPR how the "slowly-being-lost" art of writing is so vitally important to setting a solid base of all future learning in the younger years. Saw another article on Slate which hinted at teenager cell phone texting to be a huge detriment to communication skills, including writing.

While I casually agree, I also try to keep in mind that modes of communication have been changing since man could paint on walls and when one mode morphs into anthoer, the older generation has qualms. The human race will endure no matter what. How smart the race will be is for future history to decide.
As a lover of English, and a future English teacher, I feel I must comment. I think you're totally wrong. I'm GLAD people don't write like they used to. If they had to waste that much pen and paper to ask:

1. do you like me? yes/no (circle one)

2. i'm hard up, man. can you help a brother out?

then I can't imagine what conversation was like-other than long-winded and mind-numbing. What a pain in the ass. Give me simple sincerity to flowery diplomacy any day. If I were you, I'd burn that book. :P
Thanks for the comments, guys. Let me reinforce my point here with a little anecdote and more of my reasoning.

I got this same feeling a few months ago when I was at the Hampton Roads Maritime Museum. They had an excellent exhibit on the USS Monitor which included spoken recordings of letters that the sailors onboard had written home to their loved ones (1860s). The word choice, concision and sincerity in these letters was beautiful and I got tingles down my spine standing there listening. And these were common people no authors!

Again, I had the thought that modern written correspondance between average people is of much lower quality, mainly due to the ease of communication we all have, the modern lessening of formality in the written letter, and the simple fact that people think their little lives are so fast-paced that they can't spend extra time correcting punctuation, grammar and spelling errors. (I'm guilty of this too ... sometimes).

Not trying to be an Andy Rooney here, but it's simply the institutionalization of stupidity and ignorance. Of course the "human race will endure" --- we're not talking about nuclear war here --- but the quality of the written word among average people is slipping, has slipped. The implications may not go wider than that simple debasement, but it's still a debasement of something valuable --- the written word.

ps: That book was a gift from a friend so there will be no burning!
You've clarified your point beautifully and you almost had me. Almost! Right up until the end. I think simplification and debasement are two very different things, and I don't agree that simplification or lack of proper spelling or grammar even qualify as a debasement. In fact, those rules of standardization, which are meant to keep us from having to think too hard, also have the unfortunate effect of locking us into one way of thinking, ie: the "right" way. I think it's much more interesting and exciting when we read text that's ambiguous precisely because we don't stick to the rules anymore. Language is a living organism, and it should never be static! If you want a great example, read some Spencer. He misspells things and reorders words ON PURPOSE because the ambiguity makes it so much more interesting and adds tons of layers of meaning. This guy did it in the 16th century, and his work is canonized, so he was no slouch! So, quit shillin' for the man dammit! OK. Class dismissed!

First, obviously language is a mutable, "alive" thing --- new words are always coming and going, grammar changes, etc. For English, that's even more true than languages like French which is actually protected by the French Ministry of Culture who decides what can and cannot become new, officially!

But contrast an author like Henry Miller (or Spencer) who moved and shaped English like he saw fit with a recent letter written by Lindsay Lohan to Robert Altman's family which is a great example of how many people write and debase the written word. LL, from the Independent:

"I am lucky enough to of been able to work with Robert Altman amongst the other greats on a film that I can genuinely say created a turning point in my career," she began, less than certainly. "He was the closest thing to my father and grandfather that I really do believe I've had in several years... He left us with a legend that all of us have the ability to do." A little lower down, she fell into improv philosophy, apparently riffing on the notion that life is too short to waste: "Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourselves' (12st book) - everytime there's a triumph in the world a million souls hafta be trampled on. - altman Its true. But treasure each triumph as they come." And she signed off, "Be adequite. Lindsay Lohan."

Contrast that with the opening paragraph of Tropic of Cancer:

"It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it. I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God. This, then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty ... what you will. I am going to sing for you, a little off key perhaps, but I will sing. I will sing while you croak, I will dance over your dirty corpse ... To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordian, or a guitar. The essential thing is to WANT to sing. This then is a song. I am singing."

I'm right. You know it!
I'd say the problem with your example is not how these two writers wrote, it's WHAT they wrote. Lindsay Lohan's problem is that she had nothing of substance to say. Her use of (or lack of) proper grammar and spelling are the least of her problems. Maybe what you're really complaining about is that, these days, words are cheap.
At the risk of stepping into this war between LB and Johanna I have to say letter writing itself is definitely a lost art. I feel archaic when I mail the occasional letter -- they're so less frequent now than ever. However, there's still great pleasure to be gained from receiving a personal letter from a friend -- much more exciting than an email.

That letter from Lohan is a hoot.
I thought of something else LB:

The 2 examples of a past and present communication does not mean that the contemporary public of those writers contained people just as dumb as LL and with similar communication skills (I am sure the past and present ratios of smart to dumb people is debatable). While I certainly agree that good writing skills are an absolute key to conveying thoughts and ideas properly and tantamount to a good education, I am not convinced that the slow decay of traditional letter writing is "institutionalizing ignorance and stupidity". Technology has always changed modes of communication and an element of romanticism is always lost, only to be replaced by new standards of the art of writing
I couldn't agree more! At the risk of pissing off my friend Lonnie, what I didn't like about the examples in his original post was that, beneath all of the flowery language, neither message was meaningful. If being civilized means dressing up a pig in silk, then forget it.
I'm with Johanna. The letters, though they're funny and quaint and that's why I gave you that book, remind me of business presentation-speak, in which overly complex language is used to dress up simple topics. A disruptive paradigm shift consuming product cycle bandwidth is a fancy way of saying "shit happened and we're off schedule." That's how those letters read to me.

Lonnie, look at your Tropic of Cancer example. A beautiful passage. Notice how "defamation" is the fanciest word there. Most of the words are one-syllable. The message is powerful, but the words he uses are strong and simple and sturdy. The letters you posted are full of flowery lacy crap-language. And Lindsay Lohan is a teenager and it's ridiculous to compare her to Henry fucking Miller. Let's look at some of the letters you wrote when you were 21, huh? I bet the only difference is you were quoting Chomsky and Engels instead of Robert Altman.

Be adequite,
BTW, I think you totally agree with Johanna and me but you pretend like you don't because you like to argue. ROTFL!
Let me sum up the points being made by all of us.

Point #1 - Nowadays, the thought, time, creativity, effort, and especially the end product written by "common" people is generally worse off than it was 100 years ago. (Rosie, Cuff's, mine, and sort of Shrubs').

Point #2 - Nowadays, the thought, time, creativity, effort, and especially the end product written by "common" people is generally better off than it was 100 years ago. (Johanna's and sort of Jim's point).

Point #3 - Nowadays, the thought, time, creativity, effort, and especially the end product written by "common" people is just different, not better or worse. (sort of Jim's and sort of Shrubs' point).

The best way to figure out the best of the three is to go back and read old letters and compare them to today's. I gave one example from today (Ms. Lindsay) which is a good example, even amoung educated people. If you all do a little poking around --- not just my Gentleman's Guide --- you'll choose point #1 for sure.

p.s. The Miller reference was just in response to Johanna's Spencer reference --- not to put the two writers on the same plain by any means.
Isn't educated spelled edumucated?

just kiddding.
Oh no, Lonnie! no no no! You can't say that if I do some poking around and find some contemporary letters that they would not be as good as the old ones. Not as flowery? Maybe. But you have to look no further than the zillions of personal blogs and letters that are floating around out there right now and which literary academics consider a new genre in literature to know that there is a ton of great personal, everyman writing out there. Your original point, that with emails and technology in general, people are less careful with their words also goes the other way; the opportunity for self-expression is boundless, and because of that, the body of good modern work that exists is much greater in scope than the old stuff. Listen, all I'm saying is, don't be seduced by conventional form. Form for form's sake is cold and meaningless. Now, the letters you heard read, that's something! I'm sure they were sincere and thoughtful, but archaic style or vocabulary aside, you can find many wonderful examples of that sort of writing in modern day. You should recognize that one of the purposes of the sort of conventional writing that seems to appeal to you was that it was meant to be a class divider and withhold learning from the lower classes. It was not, as you suggest, meant to uplift, but to segregate. Fuck that.

And btw, it's emudecate. duh. ;)
Lets go back to Quill and Ink! Oh and overt racism!
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