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.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Return to Sender

We are discovering an increased awareness of the potential scholarly research in understanding letter writing. Carol Poster and Linda C. Mitchell, eds., Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present: Historical and Bibliographic Studies (Columbia: University of south Carolina, 2007) brings together a collection of essays from rhetoric and communications studies scholars. Carol Poster argues that letter writing lacks a disciplinary definition, existing where a number of disciplines touch; Poster states, “letter-writing theory is a body of materials in search of a discipline” (p. 3), an assertion archivists might question (although the amount of study this discipline has devoted to the topic is thin).

The essays in this volume cover letter-writing in the ancient world, medieval and Renaissance letter-writing, all the way down to the present and the emergence of etiquette manuals for e-mail. While some of the essays are encumbered with a heavy stack of rhetoric and communications theory, each of the essays provide a different perspective on the history of letter-writing and the social, economic, and political factors influencing it. Malcolm Richardson, considering letter-writing in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, terms this the “golden age of European letter-writing manuals, a period in which epistolary manuals became in some prestigious universities not only central textbooks in the formal study of rhetoric, but, because rhetoric was a cornerstone of medieval learning, central textbooks in medieval learning itself” (p. 52). Linda Mitchell, considering one 1712 letter-writing manual, indicates that this manual suggests that the “ability to write letters brought some degree of power to anyone who had to conduct legal or commercial business” (p. 183). Mitchell believes these manuals “reflect social, economic, and educational changes that are taking place” in the era of their publication (p. 196). And, for this reason and others, the rules enumerated in these earlier manuals “appear today in business English books, software programs, and e-mail etiquette guides” (p. 196). Joyce Walker’s examination of e-mail etiquette manuals provides a more detailed view about the connection of e-mail to oral communication, a relationship that has been present in letter-writing manuals from the ancient world to the present. Walker hints at a specific turning point, one more closely connecting what we do with letters with what we do with e-mail: “During the eighteenth century the familiar letter achieved dominance over the formal, public letter in letter-writing manuals, perhaps through the continual attempts of writers to achieve a style that cam as close as possible to a conversation” (p. 237).

This is an interesting book with lots of potential value for anyone interested in the nature of letter writing. It ends with a set of bibliographies on letter-writing manuals and scholarship on letter-writing in general which provide a good starting point for additional research.