Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America (Early American Studies)
In My Power: Letter Writing and Communications in Early America (Early American Studies)
Konstantin Dierks
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009
376 pp., 55.00

Buy Now
Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century
Atlantic Families: Lives and Letters in the Later Eighteenth Century
Sarah M. S. Pearsall
Oxford University Press, 2009
320 pp., 170.00

Buy Now

Lauren Winner

The Epistolary Revolution

Letter-writing in the 18th century.

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 and economic life, those who were not literate and thus could not robustly participate became epistolary "have-nots"—for example, they had limited access to commerce, much of which was conducted via post.

In pursuit of his larger argument about power and letter-writing, Dierks heads down many rewarding byways. His attention moves from the material culture of letter-writing (merchants' hawking desks, ink pots, and other letterly goods) to the importance of the postal service in the architecture of English empire (and conversely the role of postal infrastructure in the American Revolution). In the middle of a discussion of the consumer revolution, Dierks pauses to consider the ways that men used letters to navigate their relationships with their wives and paramours. While some men self-consciously departed from the style of business letters when writing to their wives—indeed, writing to their sweethearts offered an enjoyable escape from the pressures of commerce and politics—others took their letters as a chance to educate or mold the women in their lives. One correspondent chastised the woman he was courting: "I think you now deficient in no one thing except sp---l---g," wrote David Spear to Marcy Higgins. And again, "I see no other fault in yours but in the spelling, which by the way, I wish you would be a little more careful to correct." Spear worried, explains Dierks, that Higgins' spelling would put off his family, to whom she also regularly wrote "as a way of bringing herself within the family's embrace."

The relationship between family and letter-writing is just one of many themes Dierks touches on in his wide-ranging study of epistolary practice; it is the central focus of Sarah Pearsall's erudite Atlantic Families. As Pearsall shows, English imperial ambition threatened families. Sons departing for the colonies to make money, élite colonists shipping children back to England for schooling—families in the 18th-century Atlantic world were fractured by the increasingly global aspirations that sent sons and daughters, siblings and spouses, abroad. Letter-writing became a crucial tool in the project of maintaining families amid such disruption.

Pearsall begins by persuasively analyzing three themes that emerge in 18th-century letters: familiarity, sensibility, and credit. That is, letter-writing defined and connected families, and helped those who were not blood kin participate in family-like relations with one another; letter-writing made ubiquitous the language of affection; and letter-writing shaped the lines of credit upon which empire, and imperial families, depended. After laying out this framework for the interpretation of 18th-century letters, Pearsall devotes the second half of her book to case studies, narratives that show how letter-writing figured in three family dramas: a stiff-necked father who couldn't forgive his disobedient son, a cuckolded husband whose wife was discovered sleeping with his son-in-law, and a married couple separated by war. The book thus brings together heavy-hitting argumentation and delightfully entertaining soap opera.

Two of Pearsall's arguments stand out as especially significant. First is an argument about credit. Lest we be too quick to think of the 18th century as the era in which the atomized, self-seeking capitalist emerges, Pearsall shows that family identity and economic identity were tightly interwoven. Young men were raised to be, above all, "men of credit," and the "ideal of a man of credit was partly formed within the family." Furthermore, when young men sojourned out into the world to make their (family's) fortunes, their behavior, the extent to which they were literally and figuratively a credit to their family, was monitored by their fathers through letters. The development of capitalism, in other words, was decidedly a family affair—and an epistolary affair, too.

Second is Pearsall's important analysis of the tone of 18th-century correspondence. The letter-writer in the late 1700s strived for prose that was emotional ("sensible," in the idiom of the day), and when recipients opened letters that struck them as formal or unfeeling or cold, they complained. The desired intimate tone—though seemingly natural—was in fact carefully cultivated, through the reading of popular epistolary novels and through study of the many epistolary manuals that circulated in the 18th century (volumes like The Complete Letter Writer, which contained sample letters such as "From a Mother, in Town, to her Daughter at a Boarding School in the Country, recommending the practice of Virtue").

Pearsall argues that the language of feeling eventually supplanted the language of religion. In the 18th century, letter-writers did, to be sure, invoke Providence, God, and so forth. But whereas in 17th- and early-18th-century Atlantic letters the language of religion was "paramount," in the later 18th century it was overshadowed by the language of personal affection. (Indeed, affection did not merely displace religious speech but reshaped it—as seen, for example, in the language of Wesleyan piety.) The language of affection also began to transform how social inferiors wrote to their betters. In 1700, a wife or child would have written almost entirely in the language of deference; by the end of the century, dependents also began to use emotional claims in "call[ing] upon another family member to behave differently." The language of feeling, in other words, "could provide leverage to various people … including wives." Affective language even reshaped political discourse, as when John Dickson, in his revolutionary Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania, wrote to "My dear Countrymen" that, "Could you look into my heart, you would instantly perceive a zealous attachment to your interests and a lively resentment of every insult or injury offered to you, to be the motives that have engaged me to address you." Epistolary heart language was now the idiom for Revolutionary War.

I'm enough of an antiquarian to feel that subjects like the conventions of letter-writing in the 18th century are interesting in their own right, but these studies of 18th-century epistolary practice also have many, perhaps unexpected, connections to our own time and place. For example, as Dierks' playing with the idiom of "digital divide" suggests, access to communication technology still translates into social and economic power. Concerns about communication "have-nots" animate the federal government's dedicating stimulus dollars to ramping up high-speed internet access among the Navajo and the efforts of various entrepreneurs and NGOs to distribute cell phones in Africa.

The emotional idiom Pearsall traces in 18th-century letters features in 21st-century American speech as well. Heart language still shapes religious expression (as anyone who has ever sung a Jesus-is-my-boyfriend praise chorus knows). It is still a cultural commonplace that wives should use love language as a way to "gain leverage" in negotiations with husbands. (To wit, an article I read recently in The Asheville Citizen-Times: to get husbands to do what they want, wives should "reel men in with warmth, love and caring." Today, the alternative to loving manipulation is not abject deference but dreaded "nagging.") And affective idiom is with us still in politics. (It wasn't until I read Pearsall that I began to notice that Teapartiers in my neck of the woods have been describing themselves not only as angry but also as "heartsick.")

More foundationally, Pearsall's study points to questions about family that are still of moment. Crafting and sustaining familial identity in a society in which mobility and economic striving often erode family bonds did not get any easier after the 18th century. And text-messaging your distant relatives may not be quite adequate to the task.

Lauren Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. She is the author most recently of A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia, just published by Yale University Press.

Most ReadMost Shared