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Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 36.1 (2007) 13-32

Printed Epistolary Manuals and the Transatlantic Rescripting of Manuscript Culture
Eve Tavor Bannet

Eighteenth-century letter manuals taught proper social, professional, commercial and domestic conduct as well as the proper forms, styles and contents for letters of different kinds. They were among the most frequently reprinted books on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the long eighteenth century. The most popular went into twenty or more editions in London alone; even the least popular generally managed four or five. Priced at one shilling for most of the century, letter manuals were widely affordable. In America from the turn of the eighteenth century and in Scotland from the 1760s, regional printers not only imported and reprinted London "originals;" they also adapted them to serve specific local needs. These adaptations might also run to seven editions in Boston or Philadelphia before 1740, and to twelve in Edinburgh after 1760. Letter manuals were therefore readily available both from London and from provincial booksellers on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, they could also be borrowed from subscription libraries in most colonies or states. Indeed, surviving library catalogues indicate that subscription libraries expanded, rather than reduced or eliminated, their holdings in letter manuals every decade. Inscriptions in surviving books show that personal copies were handed down from generation to generation and that they were often still in use both in Britain and America well over a hundred years after their publication date. The influence of letter manuals on conduct, [End Page 13] on language, and on letter-writing practices, may thus be said to have rivaled even that of the period's best loved conduct books and epistolary novels.1

It is odd, therefore, that scholars have published little or nothing on eighteenth-century British or American manuals since three long New Critical and bibliographical essays of the 1930s and 1940s,2 despite Roger Chartier's important work on French letter-manuals, Jonathan Goldberg's brilliant study of letter writing (in both senses) during the English Renaissance, and growing interest in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century letter writing practices.3 One possible reason that they slipped through our disciplinary net even after it became permissible to study non-canonical materials, is that letter manuals did not draw the lines between print, manuscript, and voice where we do. Eighteenth-century letter manuals straddled those modernist divides between manuscript and print, print and voice which, until quite recently, parceled out the media among the disciplines and constituted "the History of the Book" as a more or less autonomous sphere of research.

Fortunately, print culture has been emerging from its segregation. Historians and cultural critics, such as John Brewer, Harold Love, David Shields and Margaret Ezell, have drawn attention to significant ways in which manuscript writing persisted into the age of print. They remind us, for instance, not only that "printing depended on writing," or that "the day-to-day record keeping of private businesses and public institutions was conducted in manuscript," but also that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the scribal publication and circulation of newsletters, of personal writings and of literary or poetic works continued side by side with print publication well into the eighteenth century.4 Meanwhile, new work on the history of reading and on performativity in general has reattached the voice to the printed text. We have become more aware of the prevalence of reading aloud in eighteenth-century cultures where illiterates and partial literates still abounded. We now recognize, too, that print was frequently used to supply the place of the mnemonic "pictorial script" that orators had once fixed in their memories, for instance in delivering sermons.5 The fact that Hugh Amory and David D. Hall's recent History of the Book in America makes a point of insisting that the history of the book "intersects" with orality and scribal publication is an important milestone here.6 However, as George H. Williams recognized by organizing two American Society for...


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