Reading Archives

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 hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

War and Letter-Writing

Samuel Hynes, in his study of literature and modern war – The Soldiers Tale: Bearing Witness to Modern War (New York: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 1997) – argues that most tales of the world wars came from the middle class, since “the middle class is the great self-recording class, the class that keeps diaries and journals and considers the preservation of one’s daily life as an appropriate and interesting activity for an individual” (p. 32). A more recent study suggests that there are some exceptions to this.

Historian Martha Hanna went to France thinking she would work on a study of letter-writing in the First World War, and then she discovered the letters of Paul and Marie Pireaud, two peasants who left behind a stash of correspondence about their experiences during that war, he in the military and she at home trying to maintain a domestic life. In Hanna’s resulting book, Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), ISBN-13: 978-0-674-02318-5, Hanna writes, “Scribbled in pencil from an artillery battery at Verdun, written, in a shaky hand, from childbed, decorated with a toddler’s scrawl, adorned with a pressed flower, composed in tiny script to make the maximum use of scarce paper or in a large, round hand, indifferent to spelling and punctuation – the war-time correspondence of Paul and Marie Pireaud tells a story of both combatant and civilian life in wartime France that is exceptionally detailed, unabashedly romantic, and extraordinarily revealing” (pp. 2-3). What results is an engaging analysis of the peasant experience in the war and, for the archivist, a richly detailed study of early twentieth century letter-writing.

Hanna reviews various aspects of soldiers writing letters during this war, such as the obstacles of censorship, the difficulties of soldiers maintaining letters sent to them, and, at times, the challenges of finding paper to write their epistles. At spots the historian comments on unique aspects of the letters. At one point, Hanna reflects that, “In a series of letters written in the last week of May, Paul put pen to paper to bear witness to the apocalyptic misery of Verdun. The frequency and intensity of the letters suggest that he was convinced he would not survive the battle; every letter, written under the grimmest circumstances imaginable, tried to convey something of the unutterable horror of life under constant artillery fire” (p. 103). She also comments about why soldiers sometimes would write more than one letter in a day: “This practice, common to soldiers under especially heavy fire, suggests that when from hour to hour there was little likelihood of survival, each letter would signify that at the moment it was written, at least, the soldier was still alive” (p. 104).

Your Death Would Be Mine provides a revealing portrait of the impact of war on domestic life, while suggesting that letters are not just valuable for documenting the war but that letter-writing in France in this period “became an intensely confessional enterprise that prompted self-reflection and self-revelation,” transforming life in rural France (p. 297). “Regular letter-writing thus changed the way residents of rural France perceived and mastered their world. Writing became the means by which they defined their identity, interacted with the world beyond their village boundaries, and made plans for the future” (p. 299). This is another example of how changes in communication networks, even those now seeming as primitive as what we now term “snail mail,” can contribute to major societal shifts.