“There’s been a recent boom in letter books,” Carol DeBoer-Langworthy tells me over a stack of writers’ correspondences she’s fished from her bookshelf for me. DeBoer-Langworthy, or CDBL as she refers to herself in her email sign-offs, is a Professor of English at Brown University, where she teaches a course that takes advantage of this boom: “Special Delivery: Letters and Diaries.”
In the literary tradition, the term ‘letter book’ describes a bound collection of mail sent by a particular writer. It’s common practice for publishers, at the end of a writer’s career, to cull their most eloquent and scandalous missives into a retrospective volume. A quick Google search (“selected letters review”) yields five New York Times reviews of such books within the last three years: Langston Hughes, Willa Cather, Norman Mailer, William Styron, and Elia Kazan—and that’s just from the first page of results. Many of these letters can also be accessed in libraries with literary collections. Archivists organize a writer’s letters, manuscripts, unfinished drafts, and other ephemera and make them available to researchers.
Letter books and collections almost exclusively showcase the letters of long-deceased authors. This is somewhat unsurprising—more time elapsed means more time to garner prestige and academic intrigue. Furthermore, dead writers and their correspondents can’t veto the publication of their personal documents. But prestige and discretion are not the only reasons publishers and archivists shy away from collecting more contemporary correspondences—there are plenty of recently deceased authors whose correspondences would be enormously popular. A crucial difference in the treatment of contemporary correspondences stems from the fact that most of them transpired via digital media. Paper letters can be presented more easily in books and archives than the digital cloud left behind in emails, texts, tweets, and Facebook messages.
If correspondences are to remain an important resource in literary scholarship, publishing houses and libraries must adapt to digital communication. There is a finite amount of culturally significant paper mail left to publish, but huge swaths of correspondence await in the digital realm. The question is, what changes when the paper trail goes digital?
The digitization of correspondence raises a number of practical questions about how libraries and publishing houses will organize new types of files. Most institutions with literary collections have established methodologies for organizing physical letters. However, most libraries also lack precedents on how to acquire and present correspondences that never made it onto paper.
At a recent meeting with a writer whose name they would not disclose, Brown University’s John Hay Library acquired a writer’s hard drive for the first time. The files on the hard drive were of academic interest, but archivists at the Hay couldn’t immediately add them to the collection because the digital files didn’t fit into their existing framework of organizing writerly ephemera. The files needed a call number. There needed to be a way to look up them up in Josiah, Brown University’s online library catalog. Listing the hard drive under one title might have obscured the valuable contents inside of it from would-be researchers, so the archivists simply printed out every file on the hard drive and cataloged them like normal manuscripts.
Jennifer Betts, an archivist at the Hay, is quick to admit that this is not a sustainable strategy. The Hay has yet to devise a new system for archiving and providing access to digital files. Finding a way to collect and present email correspondences is a part of this task, though the Hay has not yet attempted to add a writer’s email inbox to their collection.
Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses the papers of hundreds of legendary writers (Goethe, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, to name a few), is also devising new systems to integrate digital files into their collection. Gabby Redwine, a Digital Archivist at the Beinecke, says that the library recently acquired the laptop of Tony Geiss, a screenwriter and songwriter for Sesame Street who died in 2011. To make the files accessible in a format that’s true to the environment they were created in, the Beinecke built a virtual desktop that allows researchers to click through files exactly as they were saved and organized on Geiss’ laptop. His emails, however, remain inaccessible to the public.
A few leading libraries have added email inboxes to their digital collections. The University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center offers access to David Foster Wallace’s email account, and the UCLA Library has made Susan Sontag’s emails accessible via laptop in their Special Collections room. Given the two writers’ gargantuan status in contemporary literature, the treatment of their emails seems more a testament to their renown than a harbinger of the future of literary correspondence. Email collections are still a long way away for most libraries.
On the publishing side, creating the modern analog of a letter book gets complicated when communication is fractured across different media. Even gaining access to a writer’s email account wouldn’t provide the comprehensive source of correspondence that a writer’s letters once provided. A publisher might also have to sift through text messages and various social media inboxes. Then, after the correspondence is collected, the publisher must find a way to coherently organize various media.
In addition to organizational logistics, collecting digital correspondence arouses new ethical dilemmas. In the paper mode, a writer’s letters can be acquired in one of two ways: arranging an exchange of that writer’s letters before they die, or purchasing the letters from their recipients and the executor of the writer’s estate posthumously.
Imagine the case of a famous writer who corresponds mostly through digital media. Their correspondence might be inaccessible if the writer did not bequeath a series of passwords. In such a case, the only way to access their correspondence would be to hack into their accounts. This may seem alarming, but, assuming permission by the executor of the writer’s estate, it’s on similar moral ground to the established practice of busting into a writer’s letter chest posthumously. The only difference would be that, in the digital case, the sent and received messages reside in one inbox. With a paper trail, a publisher or archivist must track down the writer’s side of the correspondence from the names and addresses on the letters he or she received.
Digital or not, publishing a writer’s personal files without direct permission has always been morally dubious. In the past, publishers and archivists circumvented this dilemma by receiving approval from the owners of the physical letters. Digital correspondences, on the other hand, have far more owners and access points than their paper analogs. Every digital correspondence is owned in its entirety by both communicators. Furthermore, some social media companies own all the content sent through their website. If two famous writers shared a lengthy Facebook correspondence, would Facebook be able to sell the rights to it?
If a digital correspondence lingers unpublished for any of the mentioned reasons, there may be greater incentives for those outside the academy-publisher complex to enter the market. Hackers have frequently released the private emails of celebrities and politicians, and an illegal leak of a famous writer’s correspondence would likely garner widespread public attention. While this may quench the public’s thirst for literary correspondence, academics may abstain from citing illegally published correspondences in books and papers.
In 2015, the publishing house Semiotext(e) broke ground in compiling a book of emails sent between writers Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark. The emails were written entirely between 1995 and 1996, after Acker left Wark’s native Australia, where they shared a brief romantic fling. The emails are passionate and hastily written, full of swears, ellipses, and creative uses of keyboard symbols. There are morning-after apologies for passionate tirades. The period of reflection afforded to writers who stamped and mailed their letters is noticeably absent from Acker and Wark’s correspondence.
In the book’s introduction, the artist-critic Matias Viegener writes, “If paper letters were best suited for love, perhaps email does best with crushes.” Viegner accurately captures the fleeting and youthful elements of Wark and Acker’s email correspondence. But he also belittles their feelings and the medium in general. Viegener’s quote denies email users the depth and seriousness of older generations of letter writers. And if letter correspondences play an integral part in the canonization of older writers, how will email correspondences affect the way readers and academics perceive younger writers?
Viegener is not off the mark in pointing out that letters and emails have inherent differences. Emails can be sent in rapid succession, allowing for faster conversation and perhaps encouraging less care and reflection from the writer. Perhaps it will be harder to take contemporary writers as seriously if their correspondence is more tossed-off. However, emails will inevitably contain the personal details that readers and academics search for in letter books. Perhaps these details will be less guarded than they are in carefully worded letters, enabling deeper and more accurate scholarship. This is certainly the case in Acker and Wark’s correspondence. CDBL, the English Professor who kindly lent me a selection of her letter books, told me that she thinks many published correspondences are contrived. CDBL is currently writing a biography of Neith Boyce, a writer whom she suspects cultivated a deliberately publishable correspondence with her writer husband. CDBL also told me that this is not exceptionally egotistical behavior for a pair of famous writers.
For collectors and readers of literary correspondence, the advent of digital communication has instigated a swell of practical, ethical, and scholarly dilemmas. A fabulous wealth of digital correspondences remains largely untouched, and while libraries are devising new systems to organize digital manuscripts and communication, the publishing industry has yet to capitalize. Recent and highly public breaches of email data have demonstrated that a writer’s digital correspondence is accessible from many angles. The question remains, how and when will it be utilized?
BEN BERKE B’16 eagerly awaits The Selected Emails of Susan Sontag.