- Lives and Letters
. . . a Letter may be written upon any thing or Nothing, just as that any thing or Nothing happens to Occur. . . . A Letter is Written, as a Conversation is maintained, or a Journey perform’d, not by preconcerted, or premeditated Means, by a New Contrivance, or an Invention never heard of before, but merely by maintaining a Progress, and resolving as a Postillion does, having once Set out, never to Stop ‘till we reach the appointed end.1
Such critics as William Merrill Decker, Charles A. Porter, Keith Stewart, Susan Fitzmaurice, Janet Altman, and Jacques Derrida long have struggled with the definition and concept of the “letter” and epistolarity. For them, the complexity arises in a historical context in which the epistolary mode ranges from the familiar letter to the commercial letter, the petition requesting patronage or political support, the “public” letter in the fashion of d’Alembert and Rousseau, the “journal” letter, and finally, the epistolary novel that blurs the boundaries between fiction and epistolarity. The definition of correspondence as “written conversation” positioned female letter writing in particular within the reach of a broad readership, [End Page 309] and related letter writing to everyday conversation, social life, and epistolary fiction. More recently, Clair Brant has highlighted the contradictory commonplace of identifying women as the main writers of familiar letters, as naturally talented to write intimate letters (in opposition to the literary letter) and be consumers of epistolary novels. Further useful fine-tuning assertions about letters’ conventionality and literary status have been made by Eve Tavor Bannet’s Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1680–1820 (2005) and James How’s Epistolary Spaces: English Letter Writing from the Foundation of the Post Office to Richardson’s “Clarissa” (2003). Thus, as recent literature on eighteenth-century letters and epistolarity has shown, the letter is both an intricate literary artifact and an equally complex historical document that still needs careful research. Susan E. Whyman and Anni Sairio investigate the complexity of eighteenth-century letters from slightly different angles and, interestingly, complement each other very well.
Whyman’s carefully researched study on English letter writers of the middling and lower classes between 1660 and 1800 focuses particularly on the important contribution that letter writing and reading made to literacy and literature. Whyman coins a new concept of “epistolary literacy” that unites the materiality of writing, formal and informal literacy, letter-writing conventions, and proficiency in composition, grammar, penmanship, and interpretive reading.
Whyman’s impressively rich case studies derive from a mixture of laboring and middling-class writers, men and women, adults and children. She provides fifteen case studies drawn from sixty-three family archives cutting across regional, religious, class, and gender divisions. The qualitative differences in the case studies’ epistolary literacy help Whyman to develop further existing theories on cultural literacy in historicizing them. Her research seems to support David Olson’s theory that through the act of writing [letters], “expressions become permanent objects fixed in time and space and distanced conceptually from their speakers’/authors’ intentions”2; thus, letter writers can and will easily move from epistolary literacy to writing literature.
The book is divided into three overall sections that trace this path from epistolary literacy to literature. Chapter one is a beautifully evocative account of how epistolary literacy is acquired on the part of the letter writer and recipient/ reader. Interestingly, the fictitious person does not derive his skills and knowledge from letter-writing manuals but from “unofficial sites and methods of acquiring literacy” (24). What these are is not quite clear in this chapter, as Whyman does quote from manuals and copybooks but also highlights the social practice of writing that “parents passed on to their children” (30). Chapter two traces the development of the eighteenth-century postal system and its impact on the practice of letter writing. It complements chapter one...