IT would be wrong to announce the decline and fall of the letter to the editor. As an art form, the letter to the editor never did flower in America. ``There seems to be something especially congenial to the English temperament about the act of writing a letter to the editor,'' the critic Dwight Macdonald argued, and he was right. Writing a letter to the editor is a traditional sport to an English correspondent, giving full play to the national reputation for whimsy, if not eccentricity. The gamesman takes the trivial seriously with just the slightest twitch at the corner of the mouth - like the series of letters in the Times of London passionately defending and attacking the walking stick.
Writing a letter to the editor turns every Englishman into a puckish Max Beerbohm - or alternatively, a latter-day G.B. Shaw, all harrumphing sarcasm and bullying fustian. A typical example: ``I am sorry that Lord So-and-So has introduced a personal and offensive note into a correspondence that has hitherto been conducted on the level of principle....'' Want to bet?
This second style is assiduously copied by Americans writing letters to the editors of magazines such as The New Republic or The Nation, and most literary or academic journals. A letter writer recently complaining of a critic in The New York Review of Books strikes a classic cadence: ``His understanding of the crucial passage under discussion remains woefully inadequate and raises doubts about his earlier scholarship, etc., etc.'' When a letter writer as well known as Joan Didion accuses one of her critics of relying on ``innuendo, distortion, misrepresentation, and the ad hominem'' argument, the NYRB has been known to advertise the showdown on its cover, giving a letter the status of a featured article.
But when an American does it, there is something derivative about this kind of outraged sniffing and snorting, and furthermore, the stereotype always seems a little off the mark, like William F. Buckley Jr. striving to sound like an Oxford debater.
Once you get past the Anglo-imitation letter to the editor, the best American correspondents tend to be brusque, aggrieved, belligerent, as if what they really wanted to do was not to write a letter but to punch someone in the nose. The indignation can turn very moral - in fact, moralistic. The Village Voice has a rough and hardy cadre of letter writers who, alas, have a tendency to sound like graduate students with a case of street smarts. Conspiracies are regularly suspected (``contagiously collusive'' conspiracies). The enemy's ``overviews'' are shot down for being banally ``reductive,'' which, as everybody knows, leads to ``petulant misconceptions.'' After all this, you have to sympathize with the letter writer who protested because other letter writers pile ``so many adjectives on top of so many ideas.''
It is in the correspondence columns of daily newspapers that a letter-reader feels not only a falling off in form but a distortion of purpose. The letter to the editor is rapidly becoming a weapon of the special-interest lobbyist. Of 38 letters printed in the New York Times during a recent week, 25 signatures were followed by a title certifying the writer as an authority on the subject - often with a public relations role to play. The 25 included three members of Congress, plus an ambassador and the comptroller of New York City - all finding a second platform to speak their piece from, for free.
An ordinary letter writer with a merely personal opinion to express might hesitate to place himself or herself in the high-powered cross fire of today's correspondence columns, where professors dispute with professors and the ghostwriters of political ideologues bash one another.
Whether the subject is AIDS, rent control, the public schools, or the use of salt on the roads, the reader has less of a sense of a letter than of a public communiqu'e.
One imagines a letter-writing factory where a suitable letter on any subject will be custom-designed, as they say - properly earnest in tone and absolutely stuffed with the pertinent statistics. Printout letters - carefully personalized like the junk-mail ads you get, mentioning your first name every two paragraphs - will be sent to all the significant editors in the country, who will send back their own form letters in acknowledgment.
In these days of the high-tech letter to the editor, who can remember when a writing reader felt like a member of the family, cheering the enterprise on, or asking it to shape up, as a close relative may presume to do?
Meanwhile, ex-letter writers phone in to radio or television talk shows and give the host (and millions of bystanders) a piece of their mind. Why get writer's cramp when, hey, you can just tell the whole world what you think, with only a couple of seconds' tape delay?
What with one thing or another, the letter to the editor has become a note in a bottle, an act of faith and imagination - like those letters to the editor of The New Yorker that Spy magazine invents and prints because The New Yorker has no correspondence column. If this doesn't tell you where the state of the art of the letter to the editor now stands, nothing will.
A Wednesday and Friday column