- Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century
This engaging, smart book lies at the intersection of the history of communications and family life. Together with two other recent books, Eve Tavor Bannet's Empire of Letters and Konstantin Dierks, In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America,1 it makes the case for the centrality of letter writing to eighteenth century culture. Pearsall focuses on how educated Anglo-American elites living throughout the British Atlantic world used their correspondence to reinforce bonds among family members separated by migration, long-distance trade, and war. At its most ambitious, the book argues that the celebration of family feeling in the late eighteenth century first arose as a "powerfully compensatory ideology" (243) among families experiencing the "dislocations of an Atlantic world" (8-9). It did so with the help of what she calls the values of familiarity, sensibility, and creditworthiness, each of which gets a separate chapter in the first part of the book.
Pearsall makes several important subsidiary claims. Like other scholars, she argues that these values operated across the relatively undifferentiated realms of domestic, economic, and political life. They were also widely shared throughout the Atlantic world at least among the highly educated upper class families she examines. She vindicates these claims especially well in the second half of the book, which focuses on three families in crisis. Two are loyalist families in which some members have left America for England and elsewhere, while others stayed or returned after the Revolution to run family affairs in the new United States. She shows convincingly that the rhetoric of political and familial attachment was similar among both Patriots and Loyalists and that they shared the same orientations toward family intimacy and obligation. Through her deft close readings, Pearsall also makes the case that correspondence should be understood as "dialogic" instruments of persuasion (15); she elegantly shows how family correspondents used the conventions of the familiar letter, the idiom of family feeling, and the figure of the man of credit to make claims upon one another. Among the book's other dividends are its analysis of the artful metaphors and naturalized vocabularies of economic exchange and indebtedness used by letter writers to conceptualize norms of reciprocity (I am in "arrears"; you "owe" me a letter). A graceful epilogue on class-related and other disparities in the preservation of family archives is also very well done.
The author is on the whole very sensitive to the genre conventions governing the articulation of feeling: as she observes, the "languages that seem most heartfelt and casual may be those most strongly influenced by conventions of sensibility and familiarity" (240). Amen. Yet Pearsall on occasion retreats from this insight. [End Page 239] When she argues that the mid-eighteenth century "portrayal" of family life was new, but that "...the basic affections, and significant inequalities, underpinning family life remained largely unchanged" (8), she is reverting to an older, largely artificial divide between feelings and their cultural expression. As her best insights suggest, however, the "conventions" that put a premium on feelings were formative: they shaped people's subjective experience of emotion and nowhere more so than when they involved the cultural practices of daily life, such as letter writing. To say so is not necessarily to suggest that the emotional life of families was more muted in the past, but only to insist that there is no such thing as "basic" feeling states underlying or dissociated from their historically specific modalities context. A similar hesitation appears in Pearsall's historiographic argument that what other scholars call the "transition" from patriarchy to paternalism marked not a "genuine shift" in family hierarchies, but "novel ways of speaking and writing about family relations" (15). This radical dissociation between social practices and ways of describing them is at odds with Pearsall's overall emphasis.
The author also makes large claims for the causal agency of the family, perhaps too large in some places. For example, she states that...