Letter-writing and the actual course of things: Doing the business, helping the world go round

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Abstract

This handbook contribution discusses ordinary letter-writing within an auto/biographical framework, around analytical concerns I have been much concerned with in relation to diaries, biography and autobiography as well as letters and other ‘documents of life’. The focus is on letters by people who were not famous or important and who wrote them as part of doing the business of facilitating their dealings with other people, thereby helping make the quotidian aspects of everyday life happen. The assumption is often that letters are private exchanges, are concerned with personal and sometimes intimate matters, are literary productions requiring a good deal of skill and so on. However, casting an eye around the contents of archive collections in different parts of the world indicates something rather different. This is that most letter-writing has been produced by ordinary people often with few formal literacy skills, is concerned with the more mundane and quotidian aspects of social life, or else the in extremis ones of cataclysmic social or personal events, little of it has literary merit as this is generally seen, and it is typically part of wider shared exchanges that occurred in and joined together the face-to-face rather than concerned with intimacies. The ‘actual course of things’ involves the everyday and routine production of different forms of autobiography and biography with, for instance, gossip and conversation being as fruitful a source for auto/biography scholars as biographies of the famous. This idea is in harmony with the programmatic aspects of auto/biography, which has refused over-simple genre separations and instead attended to the complexities of the practices of everyday usages. In particular, doing ‘the business’ emphasises the importance of looking at the practices which produce auto/biographical forms of writing or visual/oral representation, and not just the products. These ideas are explored by reference to ongoing research on ordinary letter collections in South Africa. Letter-writing practices by particular letter-writers are discussed and compared, thereby pinning down what ‘the business’ in this sense of ordinary letter-writing practices consists of. These are selected from a range of collections, and each of them is ‘ordinary’ in the sense of being concerned with quotidian matters rather than literary, political or other meta-concerns. They are the letters of a missionary wife living in South Africa’s northern frontier (Moffat), a civil service and academic family of Afrikaner nationalists in Pretoria (Voss), and an Eastern Cape small town printer and newspaper owner (White). They are also compared with letters by members of a Transvaal farming family of Scottish extraction (Forbes). My earlier analytical work on ‘the eventful I’ and recent investigation of letter-writing as a kind of ‘writing laboratory’ are drawn on in analysing the ‘I’, ‘We’ and ‘You’ relationships inscribed in these letters.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Palgrave Handbook of Auto/Biography
EditorsJulie M. Parsons, Anne Chappell
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Chapter8
Pages165-183
Number of pages19
Edition1
ISBN (Electronic)9783030319748
ISBN (Print)9783030319731
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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