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?




One thought on “Investigating the Letter, Part Two

  1. Candid and intimate, characteristics of letter writing indeed. I’m reminded of when the Library of Congress announced they were going to archive Twitter posts. My boss at the time rejected the idea and called it a waste of tax dollars, which I mostly agree with. As I recall, one of the tweet examples the LoC used in this announcement was a 2008 tweet from Barack Obama thanking everyone for his election victory. My boss rightly pointed out the insufficiency of this tweet as an example of what the LoC was calling a historically significant record as justification for the Twitter archive program. When considering the wealth of announcements, statements, and especially the election victory speech, a 140 character “thank you” is quite inferior to glean any historical perspective. He then compared it to Civil War letters written by soldiers around the campfire in the aftermath of a battle, where the writers put significant thought into what they were recording for their families at home. Much digital communication, like Twitter and texting, is little more than an electronic post-it note. And we all know where post it notes end up when they’re no longer needed.


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