Permanence of Paper: Letters from Dickens, Burroughs, and Hawthorne


I recently came across the University Archives site, and then promptly got lost in its literary offerings. It’s a testament to the staying power of paper. We’ve all heard about how dastardly ebooks are compared with the paper variety. They aren’t bathtub proof. They don’t have concrete solidity. They don’t smell good.

But eBooks aside, what about e-mail? Has it not already threatened paper? And what about future collectors? Will they horde author e-mails? Aside from the facts that there can be infinite copies of any particular e-mail and that most e-mails don’t live much longer than a few milliseconds, there is something that doesn’t feel nearly as worthy of future attention.

Not like paper.

Check out this remnant from Charles Dickens, where he “begs to inform Mr. Scholl that he spoke to Mr. Scholl’s man” about getting some changes made to the lighting outside his house. I love that Dickens writes of himself in the third person. Though apparently Dickens never did get his new light. Not surprising for someone who scribbled all day, he has terrible handwriting. My suspicion is his letter may have gone unanswered because poor Mr. Scholl (or his man) couldn’t read this note.

Then there’s this letter from Edgar Rice Burroughs. It’s typewritten, and on stationary from Tarzana California. I think at one time I knew Tarzan was a comic strip back in its day, but interesting to see how much Burroughs promotes his work. My thinking is he would be doing a fine job on Twitter if he were still writing today.

Going even further back than both of these bits of paper, here’s this one from Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s more of a receipt, than a letter, but a super fancy one which Hawthorne signed while plugging away at his day job. He apparently worked as surveyor in the Salem Custom House, before he was ousted when the Whigs came to power. Even then, getting laid off could often be a boon to the writing life.

Each of these bits of paper undoubtedly survived way past the time their creators ever imagined they would. Will anyone be able to say the same about e-mail a century from now? Maybe. Perhaps none of it is ever really deleted, and historians two hundred years from now will wonder why all the fuss was made over free shipping and low-interest loans.

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