Lyons, “New Directions in the History of Written Culture”

Lyons, Martyn. “New Directions in the History of Written Culture.” Culture and History Digital Journal1.2 (2012): 2-9. Print. (7 pages)

Lyons considers the study of letters—specifically, a genre of writing of ordinary people—in the history of writing practices which has often privileged the history of the book as a source of knowledge; as such, these histories have focused primarily on reading publics rather than looking at the ways the writing and reading are necessarily intertwined. As he writes, writing is a “’technology of the intellect,’ practice which shapes our thought processes into rational linear patterns, orders the memory and makes rapid information retrieval possible” (2). But more specifically, he considers écritures ordinaire which is the writing of ordinary people.

Summarized succinctly: “Personal correspondence has often been exploited by historins to give evidence to daily life or to support a biography. But until quite recently, letter-writing has rarely been considered in its own right, as a social and cultural phenomenon with its own codes, rituals, grammar, and rhetoric” (4)

Until recently, only the writings of educated people attracted the serious attention of cultural historians. However, in looking at écritures ordinaire , we’re able to note that even for those without much functional literacy, letter writing became essential to carry out one’s life in the late 19th century. As such, letter-writing appears to have democratized literate participation and civility. Particularly in the 19th century, writing—particularly handwritten letters—was used “for personal communication at a distance, for business transactions and for maintaining family networks” (3). In fact, Lyons points to two major events in the late 19th century that propelled and compelled those who were barely literate to take up the pen: emigration across the ocean (from Europe) and the first world word. “The prolonged and painful separation of loved ones and family members caused by the extraordinary circumstances of war and emigration made writing essential” (3). Lyons refers to this corpus of writing as a writing of absence and desire: the desire to remain connected in the absence of a loved one. And for soldiers, writing became a means of staying alive, of existence itself.

It is easy, thus, to see personal correspondence as an intimate genre, but it was more often the case that letters were often pretty public: “letters between a courting couple were customarily overseen by the girl’s mother and they had to pass through her hands” (4). But not simply used for surveillance, it was often the case that letters had multiple authors and/or meant to be read aloud to the family. “The concept of individual privacy was hardly recognized; family networks ensured that written communications were collectively owned” (4).

These kinds of codes of conduct is what is referred to as the epistolary pact: “a contract to which letter-writers tacitly subscribe. Assumptions or negotiations are made about the length of letter expected, the appropriate forms of address and farewell, the subjects to be broached and those which are taboo” (4) as well as the materiality of letters: “all these material aspects indicate something about the relationship between correspondence” (5). The navigation of these codes is what Lyons refers to as epistolary literacy.

            Lyons articulates a potential connection between the emergence of cheap postage and the internet, both of which appear to have garnered anxiety about how it would change communication and thus our relationship with publics. This new epistolary culture allowed individuals to identify themselves and communicate with new and wider communities. A whole other life could be lived through the epistolary space. Furthermore, looking to migration and the family’s dispersing internationally, he notes how “Emigrants’ letters and their editors constructed a social memory of emigration, in which the emigrant triumphed over suffering and successfully entered a new civic community” (7).

 

 

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