- In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America
Networks of communication forged by middle-class letter-writing habits proved a distinct advantage to patriots in the War for American Independence. More broadly, modes of letter-writing contributed an "ideology of agency" in eighteenth-century America. In this important book at the intersection of ideologies of modernity, material culture, and middle class practice, Konstantin Dierks argues that when men, women, and eventually children achieved prowess with the writing of a letter, they gained access to social networks which could help them achieve a more secure, comfortable life. Further, properly manufactured and composed letters became central to a new business culture that prized routinization, procedure, and reliability. Examining not just the content of letters but their visual and material culture, letter-writing manuals, the use of letters in newspapers, postal history, and the cultural, economic, and military work being done by correspondence, Dierks offers a significant re-evaluation of what it meant to be middle-class in the eighteenth century. [End Page 94]
When the bourgeoisie wrote letters, which they did with frequency after 1750, they were most interested in self-improvement and self-articulation. Astutely identifying the common phrase "In my power", Dierks argues that men and (some) women wrote in order to express both their agency and their limitations: for an individual letter writer, what was "in my power" and not "in my power". Above all, letter writing involved a commitment to investment in skills and materials, self-discipline, the internalization of social norms for efficiency and courtesy, a duty to keep up relationships, and politeness (or, later, sentimentalism). Aware when they were stretching the conventions in manuals, correspondents strove to tighten familial and economic bonds and to define their position in the world. This "myopic" and self-serving epistolary culture, however, omitted consideration of "dispossession and slavery" in what amounted to the "severing of agency from ethics" central to middle class modernity (182, 114, 8).
Whereas in the seventeenth century letters served to affirm the authority of social elites, by the late-eighteenth century letter-writing was perceived as a "universal" medium of communication. This very assumption of "universality", however, elided inequalities in access to education, technologies, and supplies. The abilities, affinities, and networks achieved by letter-writers ultimately led to an "epistolary divide" between middle-class whites and those lower on the social strata. Though briefly noting the participation of enslaved blacks and native Americans in documentary cultures through, for example, the forgery of travel passes, Dierks finds non-whites notably, and culpably, absent from middle class epistolary worlds.
While Dierks's main argument is based on this omission of social ethics in epistolary culture, his most fruitful field of positive evidence centers on the history of the post. A fascinating story emerges of the "intrepid experimentation and unfortunate struggle" of men such as Andrew Hamilton and Edward Dummer, who, a half century before Benjamin Franklin, pioneered the colonial postal service (51). Staffed mostly by middle-class men (with the notable exception of the remarkable Baltimore Postmistress Mary Katherine Goddard) the postal service grew into a monumental communications infrastructure. First controlled locally, when it became lucrative the post was subsumed into the British imperial system. Then a full year before independence was declared, the colonial post rebelled. Ousting British postmasters from their positions, sometimes by force, the Parliamentary Post Office became the Constitutional Post Office. Speed of communications became supremely important in maneuvering troops and supplies during the war, with British commanders at a disadvantage when [End Page 95] they had to send letters by boat. A political ideology of freedom of communication existed uneasily with ubiquitous surveillance of the mail for military intelligence or signs of treason. Dierks makes a compelling case for the crucial role played by letters in military strategy and family survival during wartime.
Assuming that theology gives way to bureaucracy in English culture, Dierks spends little time on religion and or epistolary networks among religious groups. One wonders, for...