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In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America (Early American Studies)
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009
376 pp., $55.00
Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century
Sarah M. S. Pearsall
Oxford University Press, 2009
320 pp., $140.00
The Epistolary Revolution
One of the first things I learned in my college U.S. history classes was that I would be reading a lot of letters. Letters between far-flung sisters, parents, lovers might contain clues about people's religious practices, their political views, the ways they worked and the ways they socialized; they would contain notations of the weather and thoughts about slavery and prayers for safe travel; sometimes they would record, in passing, the words of people who did not know how to write. I understood early on that I would be devoting hundreds of hours to other people's letters.
I was less quick to understand that letters were not just a source for learning about religion and slavery; rather, letter-writing itself is a practice with a history. Who writes letters, and why? How have the generic conventions of the letter changed over time? What is the history of the paper, ink, and stamps used in correspondence? How does the history of letter-writing intersect with other histories, such as the history of technology, and the history of imperialism? In the last fifteen years, numerous scholars have turned their attention to these questions, producing fascinating work on, inter alia, the history of desks in early modern France (Dena Goodman) and the relatively recent advent of love letters in Nepal (Laura Ahearn). Now, two terrific monographs explore the crucial role that letter-writing played in early America and the 18th-century Atlantic world more broadly.
As a starting point: more people than ever before were doing just that, writing letters. As Konstantin Dierks puts it, letters were written by "people other than a male elite, and … letter writing came to serve many kinds of social and cultural functions besides politics." But not everyone had access to correspondence. In My Power proposes that an "epistolary divide" came to characterize the 18th century. More and more people were writing letters, yes, but precisely because letter-writing became more constitutive of social ...