Far-Flung Correspondence

As I was always fond of his writing in high school English class, I was happy to see H. L. Mencken's name come up in this NYTimes piece on handling a large volume of correspondence:

We all can learn from H. L. Mencken (1880-1956), the journalist and essayist, who was another member of the Hundred Thousand Letters Club, yet unlike Edison, corresponded without an amanuensis. His letters were exceptional not only in quantity, but in quality: witty gems that the recipients treasured.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, the author of "Mencken: The American Iconoclast” (Oxford, 2005), shared with me (via e-mail) details of her subject’s letter-writing habits. In his correspondence, Mencken adhered to the most basic of social principles: reciprocity. If someone wrote to him, he believed writing back was, in his words, "only decent politeness." He reasoned that if it were he who had initiated correspondence, he would expect the same courtesy. "If I write to a man on any proper business and he fails to answer me at once, I set him down as a boor and an ass."

Whether the post brought 10 or 80 letters, Mencken read and answered them all the same day. He said, "My mail is so large that if I let it accumulate for even a few days, it would swamp me."

Yet at the same time that Mencken teaches us the importance of avoiding overnight e-mail indebtedness, he also reminds us of the need to shield ourselves from incessant distractions during the day when individual messages arrive. The postal service used to pick up and deliver mail twice a day, which was frequent enough to permit Mencken to arrange to meet a friend on the same day that he extended the invitation. Yet it was not so frequent as to interrupt his work.

Today’s advice from time-management specialists, to keep our e-mail software off, except for twice-a-day checks, replicates the cadence of twice-a-day postal deliveries in Mencken's time.

Ms. Rodgers said that Mencken was acutely disturbed by interruptions that broke his concentration. The sound of a ringing telephone was associated in his mind, he once wrote, with "wishing heartily that Alexander Graham Bell had been run over by an ice wagon at the age of 4."

Mencken’s 100,000 letters serve as inspiration: we can handle more e-mail than we think we can, but should do so by attending to it only infrequently, at times of our own choosing.

Sage advice. And -- you know you're in trouble when Mencken thinks you're an ass. But, truthfully, the Times writer is focused on the volume of correspondence -- 100,000 letters -- but I don't think Mencken's or Edison's volume of correspondence is what's truly noteworthy.

Even if you only count emails of more than two sentences, you only need five or six emails a day, every day, to hit 2000 a year. I think I'm at about that level, and I don't even work in an office (though the vast majority of these emails, I'm sorry to say, are not as timely or well-written as a Mencken letter, but they seem to be about as long). Still, if I live another fifty years (and if we're still corresponding with written words in the 2050's) I should make it to the hundred-thousand club -- and I think many of my peers will, too.

But correspondence today is undeniably more result-driven ('how is this project coming along?' -- 'are you free this weekend?' -- 'will you host Grand Rounds?') and virtually necessitates a reply (I hope). I can't imagine carving out the time to reply to five or six unsolicited emails a day. And that's what makes Mencken's achievement all the more remarkable.