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.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Ancient Letters

Studies about the genre of letter writing continue to appear. Ruth Morello and A.D. Morrison, eds., Ancient Letters: Classical and Late Antique Epistolography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) considers the reasons letters were written in the ancient world: “What purpose is served by casting any text in epistolary form and what epistolary features make the letter form especially attractive wherever another form might be available to the writer?” (p. vi). The accumulated essays remind us how old the letterform is and how many similarities there are between the ancient and modern forms.

The various essays in the volume consider the topics generating letters, their didactic purposes, what constitutes a letter, the process of writing letters, the various influences on a letter, and letters serving such purposes as references and philosophical argument. The essays are the products of a 2004 conference. A couple of examples of the contributions will provide a sense of what we can learn about ancient letter writing. Jason König mentions that letters were “vehicles for bringing connection and control across geographic space . . . .” He also mentions how “often acutely aware of the difficulties of communicating across space” these ancient letter-writers were they prepared their epistles (p. 261). This sounds very much like issues letter-writers in the digital era consider. Jennifer Ebbeler describes how “letter-exchanges are textualized social performances, carried out in accordance with a scripted set of conventions and coded rhetoric. Correspondents constructed ‘faces’ for themselves and each other, whose particulars varied over the course of a correspondence.” As long as the letter-writers operated within this set of parameters, there would be no problems with their discourse (pp. 322-323). This suggests all those advice manuals on the etiquette of the use of electronic mail.

Archivists will want to examine this volume as a window into the history and changing forms of letters.