"E-mail, I suspect, will be a great boon to biographers, and perhaps people will finally stop whining about the end of the era of letter writing."A boon, perhaps, but only if writers save their e-mail.
"Unfortunately, I think that once writers become self-conscious about preserving archival material, the game is over," the author Jonathan Franzen said.
"I try to save substantive correspondence about issues concerning books we're working on, or about our relations with authors, but I'm sure I don't always keep the good stuff -- particularly the personal interchanges, which is probably what biographers would relish," Jonathan Galassi, the president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, said (via e-mail, of course, like most of the editors and writers interviewed for this story).
"I don't think we've addressed in any systematic way what the long-term future of these communications is, but I think we ought to."Nor has Random House Inc., whose imprints include Alfred A.
Yet writers have always been hyper-aware their correspondence might have enduring literary merit. Thompson, for one, made carbon copies of many of his letters.
Other writers destroyed their letters, to preserve their privacy or keep attention focused on their books, not their lives.
But the confusion at publishing houses over what and whether to save bodes ill for cultural historians.
"Memory is consummately, wackily unreliable, so that interviews can only serve up to a point; as per Rashomon, if I interview five different people about the same episode, I fully expect to hear five very different versions," Bailey said.
In Robert Lowell's letters, for instance, the mundane quickly opens up into whole worlds of feeling.
"I think our letters on the agency tax-money must have crossed," Lowell wrote Elizabeth Hardwick, his soon-to-be ex-wife, in 1971.