OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters

Hello life-writers! My name is Matthew Sellers, and I’m one-third of the new OCLW publicity team.  Over the course of the term, Nanette O’Brien, Lucinda Fenny, and I will be blogging about the events OCLW hosts.  To kick off, here’s a summary of our first event, the OCLW Workshop on Literary Letters, convened by Professor Pamela Clemit on Tuesday, 28 January 2014.  The speakers included Professor John Barnard, Professor Pamela Clemit, Grace Egan, Daniel Hitchens, Priyasha Mukhopadhyay, Dr Mark Pottle, Dr Henriette van der Blom, and Maria Rita Drumond Viana.

The first half of the session focused on eighteenth century and early-nineteenth century letter-writers who, while adhering to epistolary etiquette, wrote letters as a form of self-representation and reciprocal social exchange with their contemporaries.  The second half of the workshop gave speakers working in different eras and in different disciplines the opportunity to note continuities and changes in conceptions of letter-writing across periods, social milieus, and material forms.

The workshop concluded with a wide-ranging discussion of the issues raised by the panelists, from which emerged some common themes.  Across all disciplines and periods, for example, the speakers and workshop participants foregrounded the notion of self-representation in letters.  This shared concern sparked lively discussions, from how to read letters (whether as individual, standalone texts or as “narratives” revealed in long correspondences) to censorship/self-censorship and the importance of social and political context.

In the first half, Daniel Hitchens and Grace Egan both drew on examples from the eighteenth century to show how letter-writing form and convention suggest that letters constitute a unique genre, influenced by factors such as epistolary etiquette, social protocol, and personal relationships.  They stressed the particularity of the letter, intended for a specific addressee and discussing shared interests or experiences, or even asking for particular advice.  Professor Clemit’s presentation further explored the social bonds engendered by letter-writing.  Her paper posited a notion of reciprocity, arguing that letters construct and sustain social networks and intimate personal bonds.  Professor Barnard concluded the session with an insightful discussion of how John Keats crafted his letters to represent himself to his contemporaries.

Dr Henriette van der Blom began the second half by contrasting Cicero’s and Pliny’s letters with the eighteenth-century examples, noting that letters in the ancient world were frequently made public and often deployed the art of rhetoric to persuade readers.  Priyasha Mukhopadhyay presented on the material life of the letter, arguing that features like handwriting versus type-writing can say as much about social relationships and new technologies can say as much as form or content.  Maria Rita Drumond Viana shared her thesis research on W.B. Yeats.  Demonstrating continuity between self-presentation in eighteenth-century and modernist letter-writing, she called letters a “laboratory of the self.”  Finally, Dr. Mark Pottle came at letters from a historical perspective, raising the point that letters can serve as historical evidence as well as objects of textual or material analysis.


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