Empire of Letters

I just came across this (old) reference in my mailbox (with thanks to Richard Dury for telling me about the book a long time ago):

EVE TAVOR BANNET, Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1688-1820. Pp.xxiii + 347. Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh:

Cambridge University Press, 2005. ?50.00 (ISBN 0 521 85618 8).
Melanie Bigold

St Anne’s College, Oxford

EVE TAVOR BANNET’s new work is one of the most important recent contributions to our knowledge of writing, publishing, and reading practices in the eighteenth-century world of letters. In its fascinating exploration of the compositional genetics and practical functioning of British, Scottish, and American letter manuals, as well as their continental forebears, Empire of Letters: Letter Manuals and Transatlantic Correspondence, 1660-1820 provides readers with the interpretive tools and critical guidance necessary to recover ‘what people knew then about letters that we have forgotten’. No less remarkable for its impressive mining and cogent analysis of an untapped resource, Bannet’s study is also highly readable. Rigorously contextual, theoretically nuanced, and written with style and verve, Empire of Letters will reinform and reinvigorate our approach to letters, whether fictional, familiar, or polemical, in manuscript or print.

Divided into three sections, Part I introduces the reader to the codes, conventions, target audiences, and publishing ‘architectonics’ of letter manuals at the beginning of the period. In doing so it reminds us of some of the many paradoxes of epistolary script. ‘Eighteenth-century letters inhabited an episteme of re-presentation and surrogation where presence was married to absence, where the hand, the eye, the ear and the voice rotated into one another’s places, and where speech, manuscript and print were inexorably linked'(48-9). In other words, letters were a script to be read in private but also vocalized and performed like traditional orations.
Similarly, learning to read and imitate politeness and proper conduct from letter manuals was tied up in the paradoxical premiss that, whilst letters (and conduct) should be as natural and as easy as speech/conversation, manuals were required to instruct and improve one in the ‘art’ of ‘written conversation’. In Bannet’s expert hands this sophisticated cultural construct is made to reveal how contemporary purchasers were expected to deduce subtle codes of deference, hostility, indifference, and affection when they compared or contrasted the various addresses and replies in any given manual. The implications of this reading are manifold. It suggests the skills readers brought to bear on all types of manuscript and print letters (including epistolary novels, periodical letter-essays, published correspondences), and also illustrates how a single manual could appeal to a large cross-section of society: from those who merely imitated to those who played with conventions in order to write what we generally recognize as ‘literary’ familiar letters. Particularly illuminating are Bannet’s comparisons of manual exemplars with historical specimens of the same class of letter. She thoroughly substantiates her claim that ‘one of the pleasures of reading a letter, as well as an important way of interpreting meaning, involved recognition of the implicit model and of the changes that had been introduced’ (xii).

Part II seeks to establish not just how ‘letters made the empire work'(x), but how British and American compilers made letter manuals work for them. A significant contribution to ‘history of the book’ studies, this section highlights how, through the use of compilatio, ‘eighteenth-century British and American letter manuals behaved more like medieval and early modern manuscript and print miscellanies than like “organic” modern books'(107).
Each edition, each reprint, whether or not it was from the same publisher, made numerous changes in the text’s organization and content. In order to show just how London manuals ‘were transformed and translated into different cultural registers'(xix) Bannet follows the changing fortunes of a series of British Secretaries and Complete Letter-Writers. What she finds is that, on issues as varied as homosocial relationships, apprenticeship and domestic service, trade and commerce, marriage, education, and travel, American and Scottish printers routinely revised the ideological and stylistic parameters of the British texts. For instance, whilst British manuals advertised the importance of pursuing dangerous travel for the potential advantages that would accrue to individuals and the empire, American manuals propounded a far less adventurous outlook, often focused on regional trade issues. Style too was frequently revised to reflect the social status and class aspirations of potential consumers.

The final section addresses the ‘culture of secrecy’ which constituted such an important part of transatlantic trade, as well as personal and political relations. For Bannet, ‘”power” resided in the exchanges occurring privately off stage, thus in what escaped surveillance [i.e. undeciphered manuscripts] … Where power lay in concealment of what transpired off stage, detecting, deciphering, sharing with others and/or publishing to the world the hidden transcripts of others became, for government and governed alike, quintessentially disempowering acts’ (227). Examples are provided of the ways in which secrets were disguised through printing techniques and also why ‘personation’ became an important guise for periodical letter-writers because, as Steele noted, ‘it is much more difficult to converse with the World in a real than a personated Character'(248). Apropos Steele, Bannet concludes her study with readings of three well-known epistolary texts, Crevecoeur’s first Letter from an American Farmer, The Spectator, and Franklin’s Autobiography. From cover to cover this study delivers an enriching series of new perspectives on the protean world of eighteenth-century letters. Do not go to the archive without it.

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