Much like the shoeboxes of letters in my parents’ house, archival collections result from strange combinations of the momentous and the mundane.
Nonetheless, letter writing involves a set of shared practices and conventions that are gradually passing away at this moment.
It is perhaps for this reason that scholars have turned their attention with such enthusiasm and insight to the familiar letter of the past.
The implied dyad of the letter writer and recipient that we take for granted today is more or less a fiction: the letter writer may not have been a single individual since a letter might include messages to and from others, especially family members.
For those whose literacy was not firmly established, the letter writer might more properly be considered its composer, with a scribe (either paid or acting out of kindness) writing down the actual words.
As the clearer and easier form of cursive known as the “round hand” replaced the far more complex and formal handwriting of earlier generations, writing became more accessible in the eighteenth century, as did the proliferation of copybooks through which novice writers developed and perfected their skills.
Whyman’s work reinforces what I and others have found in New England archives: the papers of writers who nobody thought could write.Each includes a high-quality digital image of the original document, a transcription of the documents, and useful annotations that help situate these works and the people involved.“The Reverend Samson Occom,” lithograph based on an engraving made in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century (ca. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.Having recently spent some time at my parents’ house helping them downsize, my sister and I came upon several shoeboxes crammed with letters—from my parents to their parents, from my sister and I to our parents, and from various friends and relatives to all of us at different moments in our lives.Some of those letters mark momentous events in the history of my family.Through careful analysis of letter collections in British and American archives, scholars remind us that eighteenth-century correspondents were part of a rising generation for whom letters were an increasingly essential part of their lives.Rather suddenly, through vastly expanded literacy as well as increased access to the material conditions necessary for letter writing, better and more efficient transportation of letters, and the dispersal of families that characterized so much of the colonial American experience, ordinary people put pen to paper and marked out their everyday lives and experiences. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.Most, however, are quite mundane, marking the ordinary passage of time before e-mail and phone calls once and for all replaced our exchange of letters.The pleasure of revisiting dear and familiar handwriting, some of which I hadn’t seen in decades, came back in a flash, evoking vivid memories of people once central to my life.There was rarely any expectation of privacy in epistolary exchange, and letters served to consolidate relations that at times crossed from personal to political or financial exchange.The materiality of letters was of course strikingly different as well, as scholars from Konstantin Dierks to E.