The Correspondent Breeze:
From the Sublime to the Subliminal
(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp.1-8)
THIS PAPER should be called an anti-paper or a post-paper. The subtitle, ‘From the Sublime to the Subliminal’, is two degrees northwest of what my colleague, Paul Magnuson, calls ‘goofy’. I think one should quote one’s colleagues as often and as deferentially as possible.
It is part of a large ‘goofy’ work which is historical but not historicism, neither ‘neo’ nor ‘post’, not trivial, Foucauldian, nor ideological. What is it called then, what I do? What do we all do? And, as Jim McKusick asked the other day, what do we call all of this cutting-edge work that we all do? I think it’s called Romanticism. That may sound reductive but since we are Romanticists, whatever we do is Romanticism. (Hmm . . . ed.) For a year, conferences everywhere announced the decline of Romanticism, its death and resurrection. Romanticists do that. Alan Richardson, who believes in Romanticism, said to me that he didn’t care if someone were working on the postal system in the Romantic period so long as it was honest work. For him that was absurd triviality. He didn’t know that my lecture was to be about the postal system, and hardly a last resort, or a pathetic attempt at originality. It was my first choice because I really believe, as everyone who lives by paper must believe, that the most powerful piece of paper in the world is the postage stamp. ‘The Correspondent Breeze’ is of course recycled: I have used it myself several times. It is contemporary and relevant to half a dozen topics from the divorce of Princess Carolyn to the London Corresponding Society, Swedenborg’s correspondences, Wordsworth’s sexuality, and, yes, even to the Romantic imagination, as M.H.Abrams called it. Indeed correspondence is so prevalent in the early nineteenth century that Magnuson himself in his new Reading Public Romanticism says that it was ‘literally a corresponding society.’ And since it is the literal that I prefer, I shall for several reasons, mostly personal, confine my discussion of correspondence to the mail, primarily its history during the Romantic period, an obvious topic; but no one, not even a graduate student—desperation personified—has considered it.
I love mail. I think that’s why I became an editor to get more of it—and I did. Sadly, I soon learned the Morton-Paley-principle, which he shared with me one morning while we were circling the lake in Grasmere: ‘An editor’, he confided in that wonderfully assuring way that is the Paley style, ‘is by definition someone who never receives a good letter.’ Nonetheless, over twenty years editing The Wordsworth Circle, I wrote, received, collected and, although I could never figure out why, saved letters, in alphabetical order, along with the crispy little carbons in five or six file cabinets periodically railing at one assistant or another (even the fictional ones) to get the filing done. That
is what one does with letters. Indeed, that’s what one does with assistants. When it was time to move from Temple to NYU, I worried about this wall of file cabinets, haunted by Thoreau’s image of life as pushing one’s barn down the road in front of you. That wasn’t in the spirit of my move. So I began to sort through them and after about a week or two, destroyed them. Nick Roe cringed at this story—there goes the history of Romanticism.
In fact, mostly, whether they are from the famous, the familiar, or the obscure, these letters ask the same question: When will I have an answer? When is it being published? Where is my issue? How much? Are you sure? How many? May I have permission? How could you be so stupid? (That is a question.) The files included masses of dreaded readers’ reports, anonymous, about 4,000 of them, each with its attendant, Would you? Thank you. Where is? How long? I am pleased…, or, I am sorry to inform you…, all concluding, Thank you very much for your interest in TWC. We hope you will continue to participate in our activities . . . which means, Please subscribe. These reports, of course, had to be destroyed or friendships, reputations, in one case a marriage, would have been destroyed. In fact, dear Nick, the history of Romanticism was safe because nothing important or suited to the public record was in the file cabinet. History cannot be written in alphabetical order.
One particular kind of letter never even made it to the file cabinet. They are mean-spirited, aimed at published essays or reviews. They resemble reviews except that the authors have not accomplished enough themselves to be reviewers, and they take this form: What Peter Kitson forgot…, What Kelvin Everest neglects to mention…, What Tim Fulford overlooks…, What Mona Modiano fails to note…, and so on. These letter-writers are so remote from the scholarly process that they don’t even realize how much rigorous scrutiny an essay undergoes before it is published, or that these authors, all the authors in The Wordsworth Circle, are divinities. They may have occluded, repressed, sublimated, or in their wisdom discarded things as trivial or irrelevant, but they never forget, overlook, or fail at anything. To complain of their omissions would be like complaining about God’s forgetting to create French fries. I hate letters like this and destroy them immediately. In fact, all complaints get destroyed. They don’t help.
The good letters, anything that concluded ‘with warm best wishes,’ or better, ‘love’, went home, where I could overcome my personal ‘frost-at-midnight’ savouring the handwriting, the embossed stationery, the coats of arms, the colourful stamps, the civilities of colleagues and friends whose letters deserved more respect than being filed alphabetically. Now that I have become the mad-woman of e-mail, I miss these letters more and more. But e-mail has altered our community of Romanticists for the better, I am sure you will all admit, in the same way the development of the postal service improved the writes we study, for our contemporary transition in correspondence corresponds to the transition that took place during the period from private mail (not male) delivered by stage-coaches to the public system, based on
trains, and supplemented by telegraphs. The mail coach was obsolete by 1838, eleven years before De Quincey wrote about it. The major change, however, was not speed, but in developing a central post-office, a gathering and distribution center run by the government. While some historians see this centralization as happening on a particular day, like Creation or Romanticism, instead of evolving over several decades, and interpret it as centralization of power—which is always a bad thing—in fact, the post-office, like e-mail, contributed to the decentralization of power, multiplied the possibilities for transactions, created new means of connectedness—which has to be a good thing—created new writers, and diversified audiences into an inclusive, ranging, geographically dispersed writing community. Some people read Jane Fairfax’s commentary of the post-office in Austen’s Emma as ironic, but I don’t think it is:
‘The Post Office is a wonderful establishment . . . The Regularity and Dispatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing! It is certainly very well regulated. So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter . . . is even carried wrong—and not one in a million I suppose actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder.’
Nor do I believe, as one recent scholar has said, that the beaurocracy (sic, but too beautiful a slip to mend. Ed.) of centralized mail displaced human correspondence, that ‘women sent letters to the post-office not to friends and lovers’. Nor, speaking as a woman who both sends and receives letters, do I believe that letters are ‘feminine space’, a ‘repository of feminine desire,’ or the vivid ‘reading of a bodily residue,’ as another contemporary scholar has described them. At least I hope letters are none of that. It is true, more women wrote them, and wrote them for men, possible because they had better handwriting, more time, but it was a reasonable division of labour in busy households such as Southey’s for example. Women could never have totally appropriated the form, as an outlet for their desires or their residue, because they had to pay for the replies and unless they were independently wealthy, they required a wage-earner, a male, to support their correspondence—which was very expensive.
The recipient paid the postage: for someone like Wordsworth—living in the remote Lake District with distant friends and relatives, a mariner brother, a daughter in France, his wife’s ten siblings, Dorothy’s many friends—the expense was a great burden and Sara Hutchinson, who even more than Dorothy carried out the letter-writing for the Wordsworth household, commented often on his reluctance to pay a shilling for a ‘worthless’ letter. And everyone complained just as we do about junk mail: editors of journals spending their profits on boring or complaining letters and popular authors
such as Scott or Campbell spending between £150 and £200 a year for fan mail.
The mail altered the personal sense of time, of schedules, the way the concept of hourly labour did in the 18th century. Letters of the period conventionally open with a hectic appeal to time, writers either rushing to the post or impatiently waiting for replies, or finding excuses for not replying sooner. The government set a very high standard for speedy exchanges. Letters sent to government departments, for example, (and the Admiralty received about 4,000 a day from all over the world) had to be answered the same day. Wordsworth, on the other hand, according to Coleridge, writing on the 19th of December 1800, very slow in answering: ‘Wordsworth’, he declares, ‘has innovated very viley on the good old Common-law of Procrastination—instead of tomorrow, and tomorrow, it is today, today, and today . . . he is a hardened offender in these sins of omission.’ Keats, on September 1st, 1819 towards the end of a few rainy weeks in Winchester, complains constantly about correspondents who fail to answer him: ‘Brown and I,’ he writes, ‘have been employed for these three weeks past from time to time in writing to our different friends: a dead silence is our ownly answer: we wait morning after morning and nothing . . . Men should be in imitation of Spirits “responsive to each others’ note.” Instead of that I pipe and no one hath danced.’
If the sense of time changed—how long it took a letter to reach a destination and how long one is allowed to wait before answering—then so did the distance. The expanded range of the personal, the intrusion of the alien, challenged authors such as Keats or Hazlitt or Lamb who in ‘Distant Correspondents’ describes his experience of writing letters to his friend in New South Wales: ‘The weary world of waters between us oppresses the imagination. It is difficult to conceive of how a scrawl of mine should ever stretch across it. It is a sort of presumption to expect that one’s thoughts should live so long . . . what security can I have that what I now send you for truth shall not before you get it unaccountably turn into a lie.’ Distance was as disorientating as speed: to send a letter to America, as Keats did, was as intimidating as travelling twelve miles an hour, which many thought would lead to insanity.
Letter manuals and even epistolary fiction taught the skills required for correspondence, the handwriting, courtesies, and standard English—as well as dates and addresses. For it was during this period we call Romantic that postal addresses acquired legal significance. Addresses replaced baptismal records to document citizenship, to assess taxes, and as a form of identification: if you receive a letter at the address to which it is sent, then you must exist. Homelessness was having ‘no fixed address’, which is different from not having a home. And addresses acquired a romance of their own, illustrated elegantly in the following by Coleridge, to Wrangham, on December the 19th, 1809: ‘Wordsworth and I never resided together—he lives at Grasmere, a place
worthy of him, and of which he is worthy—and neither to Man nor Place can higher praise be given. His address is Grasmere, near Ambleside, Westmorland.’
Similarly, signatures of anyone who sent or received mail had legal status as contracts, provided evidence of ownership for purposes of copyright, and exposed individuals to all forms of liability—which is what De Quincey was so concerned with in the Confessions when he received a letter mistakenly addressed to him: ‘ . . . the odious responsibility thrust upon me . . . The letter would poison my very existence.’ These were not the ravings of a paranoid. At its best, the post, by validating addresses, standardizing them, helped create individual identity and thereby recreate the city, the nation, indeed the literate world, as a collection of identities. The Royal Mail, then, represented another demography; it gave identities to those who participated in this postal network as communicants, beyond the church, communicants in a world of literacy.
Given its legal power, the letter takes on a new life in 19th century culture. Although I have no reason to doubt it, Mary Favret in her insightful and original Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters claims that the 19th century novel is a ‘dead letter office’, that letters are ‘abandoned’ in the fiction of the period, ‘buried’, ‘silenced’, ‘no longer employed . . . to represent interpersonal communication.’ In fact the novel ‘deliberately staged the death of the letter.’
In the drama, however, which reflects social conventions and cultural life more faithfully than novels, letters become more prominent. In melodrama, gothic tragedies, translations of Schiller, adaptations of Scott, revivals of Shakespeare, letters appear, however anachronistic, to serve narrative functions, providing motivation, exposition, often resolution, the deus ex machina. They get characters past the impossible, the ‘How did he find out?’ or the ‘So that’s what happened’, or the ‘Aha, now I understand’, or the compelling ‘Aha, now I know who she is’, or alternatively ‘Now I know who I am’, or plaintively ‘Please forgive me’, or confidently ‘I am on my way’, or ruefully ‘I may be late’, or imploring ‘Don’t forget’, or, just as imploring, ‘Please forget’, or the guilt-provoking ‘How could you?’ and the self-exonerating ‘But I didn’t!’. In brief, in drama, until the telephone, that is, anything that could but shouldn’t happen to a character happens to a letter: they are lost, hidden, stolen, misdirected, burned, buried, received but mutilated beyond their usefulness or delayed by a minute or a decade. They are destroyed by fire, flood, or rage, or eaten by man or beast. They promise, betray, mislead, and create hope or despair.
Now here is the point: the fearful consequences depicted in the drama of allowing so much to depend on the fragile, on things that can be so easily and thoughtlessly destroyed, misdirected, forged or misunderstood reflect the fears, the helplessness, the sense of vulnerability of a population that, by the third decade of the 19th century, had over-invested in paper, in documents and documentation, in wills, deeds, contracts, paper money, promissary notes, insurance policies, and, yes, in the power of publication. Drama, essentially
oral, illustrates what novels and other forms of written expression cannot: paper is untrustworthy. In drama and in an oral poetry such as Wordsworth’s, when they are well-deployed, letters are not the residue of anyone’s body, neither male nor female. Wordsworth, who truly knew what it meant to wait for letters, reminds us of their potency in Michael (and of the literacy of Cumbrian shepherds as well) for it was the ‘expected letter’ that sent Luke, the beloved son, on his way; and it was Luke’s letters, ‘loving letters full of wondrous news’, the ‘prettiest that were ever seen’, that made his parents rejoice; and the absence of them, the weight of their loss, was as heavy as the stone Michael could not lift.
While letters may have disappeared from the novel and while they may been replaced by telegraphs, telephones, television, newspapers, radios, magazines as sources of news, political opinion, even as instruments for creating community, nothing can replace them as repositories of the ‘little, nameless, unremembered acts’—even of love sometimes—which have always constituted not only ‘the best portion of a good man’s life’, but by far the largest part of everyone’s life. Wordsworth himself objected to collecting and publishing letters because what survived seldom represented that life. Rather, what an editor decided to publish, were ‘trivial effusions’. And he was right. Wordsworth was much more interesting, colourful, flawed, than the sum of his letters—his surviving letters. How many people know him by the letter in which, preparing a new terrace at Rydal Mount he claims if the ground is to be depastured, ‘I must take to grazing myself for I dare not trust the cows and horses to eat the right grass’? Or his letter, recently revealed by Paul Betz, that if he were to write any criticism, it would be an appreciation of ‘the poetical goddesses of England’?
If Wordsworth’s self-deprecating humour, his generosity, his helpless concern for his son, are dismissed because they don’t fit a particular biographical thesis (and, of course, that is the strength of Ken Johnston’s biography, The Hidden Wordsworth: Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy, that it is inclusive and even untidy, but genuine, representative) so the cruelty, pettiness, the mean-spirited gossip that permeates the letters of Blake, Keats, Jane Austen, or Byron, are similarly overlooked, dismissed, although their ‘dishing’ offers as much insight into their personalities as Wordsworth’s letter describing his drinking brandy on top of Helvellyn with Scott and Davy. Coleridge, for example, having briefly set aside his own physical ailments, his needs, and his thoughts, tells Tom Poole that he had seen his sister, that she looks remarkably well except for an ‘odious white dandruff’. If Cassandra burned the worst of Jane Austen’s letters, what are we to make of what survived, her insensitive dismissal of other people’s sorrow, her obsession—whether she is going to a ball or a funeral, her own father’s funeral, or her sister-in-law’s—with what she will wear. Given the great letters of non-literary people such as Clare Clairmont and Benjamin Robert Haydon, I can’t imagine why we waste our time on the ‘trivial effusions’, as Wordsworth called them, of such literary
In an engaging essay on letters that everyone loves to quote but very few people actually read, Derrida says that they are ‘marginal to the discourse of knowledge.’ But, as Loren Eisely said in Darwin’s Century, the whole history of science is to be found in letters, and they often are the only sources of reliable information. Unfortunately, they are also often inaccessible or used for the wrong purposes. I am thinking of letters by philosophers and natural historians in the latter decades of the 18th century before science was professionalized, especially the multi-lingual Scottish intellectuals who wrote in several languages to overcome their isolation: James Hutton, Adam Smith, David Hume, Robert Adam, William Robertson, Thomas Reid, Playfair, and in England, Priestley, Herschel, Malthus, Davy, and so on. Natural science, largely observational, was recorded in letters as the geologists, cartographers, botanists, astronomers, wandered the countryside or explored distant places communicating their insights in ordinary language to one another or to the various societies that were later founded largely to share their letters, the journals and magazines that published them without review or editing. And all the discoveries about the stars, the age of the earth, the distribution of plants, animals, minerals, the weather, electricity, magnetism, heat, energy, metabolism, photosynthesis, all the ideas and information that became modern science, that allowed the Romanticists to understand their world and the powers that energized it began in letters. The letter accounted for the effusive style of these scientists, a style edited out, a terrible loss to our understanding of historical science which is more interesting and illuminating when it includes an understanding of the scientists as well as their discoveries. The editing out of their style, voice, attitude, their social and personal context in an incalculable loss, like trying to substitute a paraphrase of The Prelude for the struggle and joy of the poem and then claim that an objective version is more truthful. Faraday, Davy’s disciple, who worked in the forbidding field of electromagnetic fields, for example, concluded after an arduous and labyrinthine proof: ‘Nothing is too wonderful to be true.’
In another mood, Darwin’s letters provide the same dimension as literary letters, illuminating the man behind them. Darwin, you will recall, concludes The Origin of Species on a high note, claiming that the war of nature, famine and death, leads to the production of higher animals: ‘There is a grandeur in this view of life.’ Words such as grandeur, wonderful, beautiful, joyous suffuse his writing. Earthworms, barnacles, ivy, and fruitflies are all wonderful, ingenious, adapted not only to survive but to flourish. The parasites, savages, courtship rituals and vestigial limbs delight him. In 1862, having completed his grand optimistic scheme of nature, he writes in a letter, on file in the American Philosophical Society, that would—if it were studied as carefully as we study Coleridge’s letters for the insight into his poetry—totally alter our view of evolution and evolutionists down to the present day. For, having celebrated the inevitable master of life over environment, he describes the fevers that afflict his wife and children and concludes: ‘We are a wretched family, and
ought to be exterminated.’
I would like to conclude by considering a problem Kelvin Everest proposed early in this Conference concerning the difficulty of relating Literature and History, which, in English Romanticism, I referred to as text and context: literature, the text, is the imaginative and aesthetic expression of experience; History, the context, is the literal. The best Romanticists, meaning everyone in this room, (Hear, hear. Ed.) are what e.e.cummings called ‘literalists of the imagination’, bringing the discipline, the resources, the range, the discursive skills of historians to literary interpretation. I have chosen to discuss letters, which are usually context or history, are usually used as evidence to illuminate the life and writings of poets or novelist. Customarily, they are the literal against which the literary is seen and judged. I want to consider letters, not as contexts, not as instruments for interpreting something else, but as texts, aesthetic and imaginative expressions, as literary. Indeed I would like to consider Romantic literature, and maybe I always have, as the context for illuminating the historical—which I believe represents the way writers, mostly Romantic writers, actually interacted with their world.
Daunton, M.J. The Royal Mail (1985)
Derrida, Jacques The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud (1987)
Favret, Mary Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics and Fiction of Letters (1993)
Goldsmith, Elizabeth Writing the Female Voice (1989)
Kauffman, Linda Discourses of Desire (1986)
Redford, Bruce The Converse of the Pen (1986)
Robinson, Howard The British Post Office: A History (1948)