Investigating the Letter, Part Two

Scholarly Investigations

Not too many years ago, I wrote an essay reviewing how scholars, social pundits, and others were writing about the nature of the traditional letter, its digital surrogates, and the future of personal, business, and government correspondence (“Yours ever (well, maybe): studies and signposts in letter writing,” Archival Science 10 [December 2010]: 373-368).My purpose in that essay was to note the potential by archivists to study and understand this particular form of documentation by tracking what a wide array of people and fields were saying about it. I argued that archivists had an opportunity to contribute to an engaging sphere of both academic and public scholarship, one tackling essential aspects of our era’s transition from an analog to a digital society. I also contended that reading about archival topics by other disciplines, constituting “reflection,” ought to be considered an essential aspect in the formation of archival knowledge.

In my review essay I examined a variety of types of publications concerning the letter: popular discourses on the challenges of managing information overload generated by the growth of and reliance on electronic mail; the proliferation of etiquette manuals concerning how to manage e-mail; the growing literature on the popularity of letters and letterwriting; and increasing scholarly research on the history of letterwriting. All of these publications reflect the continuing unease with the transition to digital communication and documentary forms and, in some cases, reflect a backlash or counter-revolution to the use of digital systems (write a handwritten letter as personal protest).

The scholarly books I then examined considered Early American women writing letters and the tools and social traditions they followed in this activity, the collecting and survivability of letters penned by common folk in Early America, and the influence of the establishment and growth of the postal system on letterwriting. All of these studies are efforts to understand how people in the past two centuries or more built and sustained communication systems and how these systems are familiar in certain ways to early twenty-first century digital systems (in intent at least). These studies are rich in their reliance on manuals, the material culture of letterwriting, and, of course, the letters themselves.


The letter continues to fascinate, even as we move deeper into the digital era. Scholarly research on this documentary form has deepened, especially as they have examined precursors to modern digital networks (a matter I mentioned as well in my original review). It is also true that historian have learned how to work on early periods where documentary sources are lacking. A prime example of this is Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), a project of recreating the life of Benjamin Franklin’s sister, whose sources consist of a small volume of notes and the small batch of letters she wrote to her brother. Lepore examines the rules and conventions of writing letters and the manuals describing them. She observes, “Franklin kept very careful track of his correspondence, not only to remind himself of who owed him letters and what letters he owed but to keep track of the postal service” (p. 112). Lepore relates the challenges she faced in this project: “In writing this book I have had to stare down a truism: the lives of the obscure make good fiction but bad history. For an eighteenth-century woman of her rank and station, Jane Franklin Mecom’s life is exceptionally well-documented, but, by any other measure, her paper trail is miserably scant. She was bon in 1712. No letter written by her before 1758 survives; the earliest piece of her prose that survives is not a letter but an addendum to a letter, a sentence, a scrap — a postscript she wrote when she was thirty-nine, on a letter written by her mother” (p. 269).

Early American and European historians have focused on letterwriting as a means of understanding earlier communication networks that can be seen as far more sophisticated than has been imagined. Katherine Grandjean, American Passage: The Communications Frontier in Early New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015) argues, “Early New England was not simply a patchwork of walled-off pastures and plots. It had an alternate, human geography as well — a geography of letters, travelers, rumors, and movement” (p. 6). Her study gives a new view of early America “as a living, moving landscape. It poses this question: Does the walking trail, perhaps, tell as much as the fence?” (p. 13). Grandjean examines how letters circulated, using the extensive Winthrop family papers (building a database of nearly 3000 letters). This historian uncovers how Indians often served as carriers of letters; carefully describes the elements of letters — ink, paper, and seals; chronicles the development of roads, the postal system, printing, and booksellers. Grandjean concludes that “Letter-writing was a way of making New England whole, of conquering space” (p. 49) and “New England was built on letters” (p. 51).

Another recent example of new scholarship is Lindsay O’Neill, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), investigating the creation of essential and elaborate networks for the elite, building an early network society. O’Neill states early in the book the “analysis of letter writing practices has experienced a renaissance recently” (p. 7), perhaps an understatement if there ever was one. O’Neill investigates many different aspects of letter writing, including the development of the post office and, in an interesting different approach, mapping the epistolary world. O’Neill states, “Letters were the connective tissue that held together widespread networks. However, while scholars note the networking possibilities of letters, they rarely inspect how letters functioned within networks” (p. 78). O’Neill fills in that gap, examining family ties, friends, and the breadth of and different kinds of networks. This researcher uses letterwriting advice books and studies the management of letters and their conveyance of news via letters, and the growing interest in preserving personal and business letters in letter books. In her view, letters held the world together (much as today we would say that the Internet stitches the world together).

The popularity of letters can be easily discerned from the continuing appearance of popular books on the subject. John O’Connell, For the love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication (New York: Marble Arch Press, 2012), is a good example offering observations about why we remained interested in letters – the “reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative” (p. 22) – and how we produce them often in very traditional ways –”Because it is unique to a person, handwriting is a physical token of identity and authenticity. This is why signatures on legal documents and works of art have historically been so important: they represent the presence of a particular person in a particular place at a particular moment” (p. 173). In another popular account, Nina Sankovitvh’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Celebrating the Joys of Letter Writing (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), the author interweaves personal memories and impressions of letters with historical and newsworthy examples to give us far more than just the joys of letterwriting (many of her examples are not very joyful at all). As she recounts, “Letters are the history of our lives made solid, and they place us firmly within our history. Letters we save — the letters we choose to save — show us who we have embraced or surrounded ourselves with. They also show us who we have turned away from” (p. 25). Is it any wonder that scholars studying the past and archivists seeking documents to feed their needs crave personal and institutional correspondence because of the intimate details and candid evidence they provide?



Investigating the Letter, Part One

Write a Letter

My wife occasionally receives a handwritten letter delivered by the postal service. It is a rare event; I never receive such a letter. I get plenty of emails, but few seem carefully written or constructed like letters used to be; rather, they are expedient means by which to communicate or to connect. Letter writing is becoming a lost art, along with slow reading and careful composition. These are additional losses in the digital era, and we ought to be concerned. When I was growing up, we were taught how to write a letter, and most of us had a pen pal or two. We were also taught cursive, something that is not encouraged today, and that is also being lost. Rather, get those children in front of a keyboard and screen. We need to master these latter skills, to be digitally literate — or so the argument goes.

But as we become digitally literate are we also becoming illiterate in other ways? Some have argued (Nicholas Carr, for example) that our basic cognitive abilities are deteriorating as we rely too much on computers. But it is a deeper concern than what even this suggests. The loss of our tactile senses negatively effect our sense of community and connecting with each other in practical ways. An email, tweet, or other digital expression falls far shorter in conveying emotion or other feelings. Even a typed letter with a signature is more expressive than email message, even if it is slower and less effective in conveying some particular content. This is why individuals collect letters, writing about letters continues to increase, and scholarship about letter writing seems robust.

Writing a letter seems to be one means of protesting against the sterility of the digital era we live in. Primers on letter writing date back to antiquity, and they have been particularly consistent in appearance in our modern age. Now we are seeing primers about letter writing as a means of producing something that is not virtual and to engage in process that is not artificial. The accompanying growth in the sales of nicely bound journals and fine stationary suggest quite a movement against writing everything in digital form. Some might continue to write checks rather than banking online for reasons of personal security, but others do this because they prefer the look, feel, and personal expressions of original checks. Some even learn calligraphic techniques in order to dress up their written documents. John O’Connell writes, for example, that the “reason we write letters is the main reason we write anything: to convert the chaos of our lives into solid, time-locked narrative”; John O’Connell, For the love of Letters: The Joy of Slow Communication (New York: Marble Arch Press, 2012), p. 22. He even suggests that the physical act of handwriting is a means to marking oneself in time and place: “Because it is unique to a person, handwriting is a physical token of identity and authenticity. This is why signatures on legal documents and works of art have historically been so important: they represent the presence of a particular person in a particular place at a particular moment” (p. 173).

The public’s fascination with letters is quite intense. A visit to any bookstore will uncover books of edited letters, typified by Andrew Carroll’s War Letters and subsequent volumes, as well as guides on how to write letters for every social and business occasion. Documentary editions of letters of famous and infamous individuals also populate the shelves; my favorite example of this genre is Lester Cappon’s edition of the correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, a work that has been in print for more than five decades. Deeper digging into scholarly studies by historians, literature professors, anthropologists, and others often reveal a heavy reliance on archival letters. Figures from every period, from the ancient world to the modern era, have opened their souls in letters to friends, spouses, relatives, and colleagues — and many of these have survived, often protected because of their historical, symbolic, and sentimental values.

The tradition of letter writing brings with it a kind of revolutionary fervor, both in tone and intent. We often use letters to declare our position because they are so expressive and, as well, can be so personal. This explains why there has been a return to personal letter writing, meaning using pen and paper, as a kind of protest against the prevalent forms of digital communications. Think about it. Turn off the computer. Leave it off. Go to a stationary store and select some fine paper. Pick up a new fountain pen (or reactivate an old one) and some specialty ink; I advocate a fountain pen of the sense of the smooth flow you can achieve with it. Practice a bit with your cursive writing (it may take a while, since you have spent years writing on a keyboard) to get the feel of such writing again. Now you are ready to try composing a letter, one in which pen, paper, and ink all blend together to enable you to express yourself without having to resort to tricks (such as emoticons) needed when you write an email or send a tweet.

Now pick an addressee and a topic for your first letter. If you are having difficulty trying to come up with an idea, reflect on the various occasions you buy greeting cards. Greeting cards have become a shorthand approach to writing letters. In the past you would write letters of sympathy, condolence, congratulations, holiday greetings, and so forth, but now you go shop for these cards. Some people even stockpile quantities of cards for these life inevitabilities, as my mother-in-law used to do (lingering for hours to read the sentiments expressed by the cards). Indeed, if you read the messages in greeting cards you should be inspired to write letters, confident about how much better you can do in communicating in difficult times and about difficult issues.

Writing letters is also an excellent means by which to mark your place in time. They are more likely, given their rarity, to be saved by a family member or the recipient. E-mail messages are generally seen as transient communications and, even in corporations and governments, when they are saved they are likely to be the subject of legal procedures (and, given the frequency of cases where someone has deliberately destroyed messages that should be preserved, this is an uphill struggle). Writing a letter in the traditional fashion is not only an enjoyable experience, where you get to enjoy the touch of paper and the smoothness of writing with paper and ink, it is a bold statement about who you are and why you are here. So, write a letter; you can always go back to the convenience and expediency of e-mail and other digital means of communication whenever you need to get stuff done.

Reading Archives and the Academy: Purpose

Some years ago I created and ran the “Reading Archives” blog. You can find this older blog at Its purpose was stated as follows: “With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I am not planning to comment on basic practice manuals, technical guides, or best practice reports; these I will continue to describe in my monthly column published in the Records & Information Management Report, a technical report I edit and that is published by M.E. Sharpe. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society. I hope readers will comment on the postings, suggesting different perspectives or reflecting on other publications related to the specific topic or the broader importance of archives in society. I plan on making postings, from time to time, reflecting my own research and writing or recommending areas and topics that seem ripe for new research. As part of this, I intend to comment occasionally on the work that my own doctoral students are engaged in.”

My earlier blog lasted about two and a half years, before I ended it and turned my attention to other projects and responsibilities; my reasons for terminating this blog were complicated and I may comment on them in future postings. A lot has changed for me since I worked on that blog. I no longer edit the Records & Information Management Report or any other serial publication. With this new blog I am expanding its focus to concentrate on two of my primary research and teaching areas, 1) archives, in all of its facets from theory and knowledge to the history of archives and recordkeeping and 2) the university in society and the place of professional education in the university. Both of these broad areas are showing interesting new research and publications with implications for the archival profession and faculty at all levels. Hopefully this blog will be of use to many of my colleagues and students. It will be of use to me as I continue reading and reflecting on my life and career as an archival scholar and faculty member.

About the Blogger

Richard J. Cox is Professor, Archival Studies, in Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences. He has written extensively on archival, records management and historical topics. Dr. Cox was elected a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists in 1989 and has won the Waldo G. Leland Award for the best book on an archival topic in a given year three times.