Letters, Emails, and the Future of the Biography

by evanmcmurry

I was the only lucky soul who got to ask a question at last night’s fascinating talk at the Strand between Cheever/Yates/Charles Jackson (and future Philip Roth) biographer Blake Bailey and David Foster Wallace biographer D. T. Max. Bailey had spoken about the boon of finding Charles Jackson’s letters hiding in the Dartmouth library, which reminded me of a question I’ve been wondering for years: now that we’re not writing letters, let alone keeping them, what will become of biography?

Bailey essentially thinks the genre is doomed. He estimated that letters were 90% more accurate than oral testimony, and that without them we’ll be stuck with memory and retroactive dissembling rather than real-time material. That was exactly the answer I was expecting.

But Max jumped in (he was the interviewer, not interviewee) with a more interesting and counterintuitive point. Max argued that the worst was already behind us—the worst being the age when the telephone replaced the letter. He pointed to the rise of oral biographies and histories in the 70s as a necessary compromise with the fact that more and more communication by subjects was spoken rather than written. You see where this is going: now that email has replaced the telephone—go ahead, try leaving me a voicemail—communication has reverted to written form, to the benefit of future biographers.

Bailey called this a “completely spurious point” (Bailey was a tad dismissive of Max the whole evening). His main worry was how such records would be saved. After all, anything saved on a floppy disk is, for all intents and purposes, gone to us now, and the current generation of extra hard drives and such will one day be obsolete. Bailey mimed a biographer trying to a put a floppy into his future iPad dealie. It didn’t work. Max got in a word about “the cloud,” which Bailey waved off, and thus concluded the talk.

I think Max has the better point here. It may be due to his choice of subjects: Max wrote about Wallace, a contemporary writer preternaturally attuned to the advances of technology and their effects on our lives; I’d wager DFW was one of the earlier emailers (update: nope. See Max’s comment below). Wallace also strikes me as more aware of the author as Author than a figure like Jackson or Yates. Bailey, on the other hand, writes primarily on mid-century writers, writers who in some cases turned an intentional shoulder to the rapidity of the postwar world, and in the case of Jackson, one who vanished down a memory hole. These subjects present different arguments for the longevity of our communications; how many emails would Charles Jackson leave behind?

One counterpoint I’d make to Max’s argument in favor of the email: yes, we’ve returned to written communication, but not in the comprehensive way we used letters. I don’t know about you, but my emails are short and getting shorter; if I can keep it to two sentences, I do. This is part of the utility of the medium—it allows rapid, specific communication ideally suited to planning an event or executing a task. You would rarely use letters like this. Likewise, there’s very little inducement to write two-page emails full of digressions and apostrophes to the recipient, as in the letters of, say, Saul Bellow. Perhaps some use email like this. Most I know don’t. Which means that for all emails now save our interactions, they may still be of limited use to the biographer of the future: if anything, they may bury her under a virtual pile of ephemera.