Barton & Hall, Letter Writing as Social Practice

Barton & Hall. Letter Writing as Social Practice (270 pages)

Chapter 1: Introduction, David Baron and Nigel Hall

While letters have been used in a variety of disciplines for research, seldom have letters been considered as a particular social and literate practice-instead, they have often been used as supporting evidence to discuss various figures or offer historical context. As the authors write, “the chapter then argues that the most revealing way of investigating letter writing is to view it as a social practice, examining the texts, the participants, the activities and the artifacts in their social contexts”  (1). Before going into this research framework, they look at a number of social contexts in which such a framework would be helpful to uncover the role of letters:

  • Everyday letter writing: one of the distinct qualities of letter writing, as oppose to other forms of everyday writing, were their widespread, maintained, and sustained use: “While letter writing existed alongside other forms of sustained writing, such as diaries, poetry, and life history, personal letter writing was probably the most widespread for of sustained writing encountered” (2). Letters often were used to organize everyday life.
  • Official genres: often functioning to maintain centralized bureaucracy in a dispersed and mobile society. “Letter writing has been a crucial form of communication within organizations” (3).
  • Across Cultures:
  • Historical Development:


In order to study these social contexts, Barton and Hall offer a framework to study the social practice: it is useful to distinguish the texts, the participants, the activities and the artifacts:

  • Texts: here, we can observe the addresivity of the texts as embodied in genre conventions, its stylistic choices, and how the writer constructs the social context of writer, reader, time, space, and purpose. But beyond simply the verbal text, “Letters have particular illocutionary force: the existence of the letter itself has meaning in addition to the content and, in a reflexive way, reference is often made within the letter to the existence of the letter itself” (6).
  • Participants: what are the social, cultural, and political contexts involved in the dynamics of individuals who are writing and receiving letters? For instance, we can look toward difference in education and social practices of gender and how they play out in letter writing.
  • Activity: this may involve the surroundings of the particular letter writing activity, the procedures and places/spaces involved in its delivery (post office, desk, etc).
  • Artifacts: there are a variety of literacy artifacts and materials involved in the act of writing itself: pens, paper, furniture (bureau or desks). “Letters are touched, held, smelled; they are stored away, hidden and destroyed” (8).

Chapter 2: Letters and the Social Grounding of Differentiated Genres, Charles Bazerman

Bazerman takes a look at how letters play an interesting role in the emergence of other distinct genres. As Barton & Hall explain in their introduction, “letters are tied to particular social relationships between writer and reader. As these relationships change, people have developed new practices and distinctive forms of writing” (10).

As Bazerman points out, genre knowledge is important to navigate the complex world of communication and symbolic activity, “because in recognizing a text type we recognize many things about the institutional and social setting, the activities proposed, the roles available to writer and reader, the motives, ideas, ideology, and expected content of the document and where this might fit in our life” (16). The letter, as a particular genre, is interesting to observe because of the way the genre can often embody these social relationships directly: “the letter, in its directness of communication between two parties within a specific relationship in specific circumstances (all of which could be commented on directly), seemed to provide a flexible medium out of which many functions, relationships, and institutional practices might develop—making new uses socially intelligible at the same time as allowing the form of the communication to develop in new directions” (15). However, it is not simply the verbal text that is involved in the genres of letter, but it was often the delivery of the letter that was also involved in instantiating the genre.

Bazerman begins to point out the “social drama” involved in the delivery of letters. For instance, he discusses how, during the time of ancient Greece, letters were often sent by personal messenger on behalf of a person of authority “who was said to carry the very presence of the projection of the sender” (17-18). The message was read aloud and was often accompanied by a spoken message “which could not be entrusted to writing” (18). Bazerman, then, sees the act and procedure of delivery as a means of “enacting the social relationships that were carried out at a distance through the medium of the letter” (18). He notes that “even when letters were no longer recited by the messenger the goal of projecting one’s presence through the writing remained” (18). Bazerman positions the ambiguity involved in these delivery procedures as means in which genres evolve and create other distinct genres with distinct purposes and models of reception:

“As more subjects and transactions find their recognizable way into the letter, the genre itself expands and specializes, so that distinctive kinds of letters become recognizable and treated differently. People recognize increasing varieties of transactions can be accomplished at a distance through letters and will have models to follow for that kind of transactions. As the historical scholarship has revealed, these varieties of letters become strongly typified in organization and in formulaic phrasing” (19).

Bazerman points to a couple instances where the genre of the letter was initially important “in holding bureaucracy together and maintaining bonds of commonality” when the mobility and expansion of distance of communities (such as clerics from the Vatican). For instance, Bazerman points to the way the Church used a variety of letter genres to maintain the medieval church bureaucracy (grants from monasteries, contractual agreements, deeds of transfer, grants of immunities and privileges, gifts, mutual obligations, etc). In another example, Bazerman offers the use of letters by rebels during the American Revolution: “letters travelling between Committees of Correspondence provided the vehicle for increasing rebellious sentiment and organization. …Letters preceded the appearance of more overt public documents such as broadsides, manifestos, and seditious pamphlets” (21).

Another example: “one history of Venetian banking called the system of bill of exchanges a ‘network of regional and international debits and credits, held together with constant letter writing” (22). “The greatest experiment in paper money, or notes, developed in the North American Colonies due to lack of gold and silver coin. Massachusetts was the first to issue notes in 1690 and other colonies followed suit in following decades. The typical form of such notes has some trappings of the letter; for example the first notes issued by the Colony of New York in 1709 are dated at the top and are signed at the bottom by one or several government officials” (22). Even today, bank notes or paper money still functions as a “promise.”

Other examples include the emergence of scientific journals, newspapers, and academic journals. Looking at scientific journals—which began as personal correspondence between a group of scientists who updated each other on their work—Bazerman notes that as the network expanded to include other nodes with other purposes, the genres itself changed in form, content, and style: “In the process of reorientation, a tension developed between the assertiveness, didactiveness, and disputatiousness of public argument and the gentility, politeness, and good-will of personal correspondence among gentleman” (24).

Put simply Bazerman is observing how procedures of delivery and circulation, expansions of networks, and reorientations of purposes prompted changes in letters and created distinct genres for these new purposes. Letters, then, operate as a kind of ur-genre: it offers a framework that kept mobile people to remain within some kind of commonality, but through its circulation, it necessary changed to serve various purposes for different people and networks.

Chapter 6: The Materiality of Letter Writing: A nineteenth century perspective, Nigel Hall

Hall sheds some light on the materiality of letter writing: “the materials and objects people use to write (apart from those used by printers) have been studied much less than the meanings and products of the writing process. Hall attributes this lack of attention to the everydayness of these artifacts “and the fact that the mind of the user is mostly focused upon what is being created by their usage, that makes for them being so taken for granted they become virtually transparent to the user” (83). However, Hall is hesitant to accept the metaphor of transparency wholly or too strongly because the materiality of writing does become very visible in certain cases. He points to a few cases where this occurs:

  • Intrusion: “Materiality is at its most visible when the technology doesn’t work or does not work well” (85). He uses the example of Bill Clinton vetoing a bill when the ink wouldn’t work.
  • Acquisition or Selection: Hall notes that when users select particular writing-related objects for particular task, we also begin to see the materiality of writing. In moments of deliberate selection, the individual considers choices that also reflect, life styles, images of self, and comfort.
  • Craft Form: related to the earlier point, oftentimes the selection of a writing-related object is due to how it functions or aspires to an art form. “All kinds of social and identity messages are tied up with [fountain pens]. To write with a bic might practique, but not chic” (86).

Hall focuses much of his attention to letter writing in 19th century Britain to elucidate the role of materiality in letter writing. He draws particular attention to the ways that people make choices of writing material to represent “who one is, what one believes one is, where one belongs, and how one wants to be perceived by others. The choices has the potential to express something about the chooser” (87). It is not a coincidence, then, that the focus on the materiality of writing was tied to a consumer culture: “acquisition of these consumer goods was intimately tied in with establishing the nature of relationships between the classes” (90). Displaying these consumer goods was a way to perform and reflect one’s particular class and identity.

Hall then goes through the different points along the writing process that involve the interaction with writing materials.

  • A space to write the letter: Hall considers the furniture, such as desks or bureaus, that often reflected one’s class. But he also alludes to slopped boxes that “made them well-suited to being carried around and thus letter writing in comfort was possible where one was” (92).
  • Choosing a pen: the quill pen was a huge pain in the ass. SO much so that the typical school day often was spent as much “recuttng pupil’s quills as it was teaching. These problems may well have been a contributing factor in the dominance of reading over writing in the education of children” (93). However, Hall does also note that as we moved away from quills toward metal tipped pens and toward no-ink-blotted pens, desks did not change with these new technologies. He also points to decorative pens as souvenirs for places or memories.
  • Selecting the writing paper: you have to find the right kind of paper for the ink you’re using. There was a move toward paper standardization which helped this along.
  • Finding an envelope: envelopes were not always used, especially during periods where letters were charged by weight. But once we got cheap postage, people went a little crazy on pre-stamped envelopes. These elaborate and highly symbolic envelopes were greatly parodied and didn’t take off.
  • Posting: “so far, the process has developed under the relatively free choice of the letter writer. At the point of sticking on a stamp, the process changes and the letter writer becomes subject to bureaucracy and law…the formalization of the postal system throughout the 19th century continued to constrain the letter writer” (102).
  • The accessories: a variety of writing related objects that attempted to make the act of writing more mobile, more stylized, and more easily accessible.

Chapter 7: Letter-Writing Instruction in 19th Century Schools in the United States, Lucille M. Schultz

The central function of schooling was that it was the central pillar of the republic since “the schools hold, in embryo, the future communities of this land” (110). As such, children were taught both in knowledge and virtue in order to be the guardians of tradition. For Schultz, “’School’ was, and for the most part is still, organized to reproduce a culture’s dominant values and to sustain the divisions of power already in place” (110). Letter-writing instruction, then, enabled the teaching of “particular and circumscribed behaviors” (110). Letter-writing, during this period, was seen as a metonym for the writer’s character, so teaching students in letter-writing instruction was a moral endeavor as well as literate. Schultz, then, looks to textbooks and manuals for letter-writing instruction for some insight into what the teaching and learning of letter-writing was like—and what function it had—in the 19th century. “an even stronger link among these books is their representation of the dominant culture’s behavior codes for daily living. That is, the books are offering not just ‘knowledge’ in letter-writing, but also education in ‘virtue’, that is, in manners and morals. Thus learning to write a good letter was learning to become, by the 19th century codes, a well-mannered person” (118). In other words, Schultz points out that the writers of these textbooks recognized that defining how one addressed another person—whether it be a sister or friend—would define their relationship itself. So there were instructions about how to address friends and family in letters that likewise prescribed proper moral behaviors.

While many students did, indeed, participate in enacting these moral codes, the democratizing nature of letter-writing also saw the invitation for resistance against those dominant codes. For instance, Schultz points to an example of a young woman who wrote to her father about politics—seen as potentially taboo at the time. Schultz points to Raymond Williams who discusses the idea that in any culture, both residual and emergent practices inform the live of citizens: “by ‘residual’, he means not so much an exact match with current dominate values, but some form of residue of previous social formations. By ‘emergent’, he means the new practices and formations that are being created in a living culture” (124). Of course, in letter-writing instruction in the 19th century, there were the residual values that lingered; however, “at the same time, however, as the early republic began to instantiate democratic principles, emerging values and emerging practices evolved. And these included the possibilities for children of all classes to see their lives in school, for letter-writing instruction to reflect the material conditions of the lives of all children, and for letting writing to serve as a site for resistance” (124).


Chapter 10: ‘Absolute Truly Brill to See From You’: Visuality and Prisoners’ Letters, Anita Wilson

Wilson focuses her chapter on the visual and material aspects of letter-writing for prisoners in England. As she writes, she has until recently focused exclusively on the content of the written letters rather than the visual components of the letters or what she refers to as paralinguistic or paraliteracy features: the features of the letter that aligns with the five senses.

She begins with noting the tactility of the letter and the ways letters are often re-read to re-enact some associate or connection to human lives and experiences outside of the prison experience. “The physicality of touching an existing letter and the reassurance of its tactile materiality contributes significantly to the importance attached the activity of reading or re-reading personal correspondence” (182). She also notes that when released from prison, while items of clothing and other miscellaneous objects may be left behind, letters are never left behind because these objects are inhabited with social connections. In her correspondences with the prisoners, she also notes how they describe the role of smell: the letters, themselves, would be valuable post-prison for how they smelled like prison. But also, letters from the outside are valuable for their non-prison smell.

However, much of her attention is given to the visual and material. Beginning with letters between prisoners, she notes that prisoners often employ various means of ensuring a limited audience of readers: letters are written on small, light, easily passed along notes. But such notes also required the participation of other prisoners to sustain the letter’s invisibility. As Wilson writes, “the activity of circulation became a form of subversive social networking” (186).  When sending notes to outside entities, prisoners also employ different letter writing habits to account for the possible readers and edits that may occur during its circulation: section of letters may be cut out by prison clerks so prisoners often try to write on only one side of the letter; sheets were often list or placed out of order so they repeat the last sentence of the previous page on the new page or use numbering.

But there is also a very visual experience in receiving letters and storing them: the process of receiving a letter is both an aural experience (guards yelling out when letters have arrived) and visual (watching the board that will say whether a letter is available for pick-up). Prisoners also take great care in how they arrange their collection of letters. “Filing systems often reflect prisoner’s preferred identities of themselves as a defendant, or a father or son as letters are primarily dived into categories of sender such as solicitor, girlfriend or family before being sub-divided into date, size, or colour of envelope” (191).



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