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Jan 1 2000

And I understand that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life. (Marcel Proust, Time Regained)

In this section I review some of the literary theory on "life writing" as it is defined by the Publications of the Modern Language Association of America: Directory (112.4 [September 1997]: 559). The PMLA definition appears under "Genre Studies" as: "Autobiography, and Biography, and Life Writing" (559). In the PMLA call for papers for the 1997 conference, life writing is described as "The 'New' Biography: Life Writing in the Modern and Postmodern Age" and includes "memoirs, diaries, and journals. . . . mixed media . . . hybrid forms. . . print, film, photography. . . notions of self, genre, life story, and . . . new development" (MLA Newsletter 29.1 [Spring 1997]:11). The PMLA Program for the convention in 1999 offered three division meetings involving papers on life writing which appear to be a cross between life writing and cultural studies. Several titles and themes are: "Life Writing and the Visual" dealing with the diary, family album, multimedia, and women's life writing; "Life Writing and Nature" dealing with representations of the self in the desert or the garden; and "Life Writing and Addiction" dealing with sex, anorexia nervosa, and alcoholism (114.6 [November 1999]:1196). A PMLA search reveals several items under the exclusive listing of "Life Writing." I will note the significant texts as they become relevant to my study.

Proust's perception is obviously broad and inviting. I argue here that personal letters, documents, journals, diaries, photographs, and oral histories are all life writings about "past life" experiences and, therefore, constitute literary "materials." In fact, through their very writing and ordering in language they are, in themselves, literary documents. Therefore, the McQuesten life writings, which record "simply" their "past life," that is, their personal experiences, are the "materials for [and of] a work of literature." As a collection, the style in which they are presented merely involves considerations of genre.

Furthermore, that these writings are produced by so-called "ordinary" people rather than by celebrated writers does not diminish their intrinsic value as writings from life. A published author's personal letters and other writings are readily accepted as literature because they are often complementary to publications which have already achieved genre or canonical status. However, the personal letters of previously unpublished persons play an important role in history and are necessary to a fuller understanding of our cultural heritage. The McQuesten life writings are of particular value to Canadian literary and cultural studies because of their social, political and historical significance.

It is not my intention to embark on an extended discussion of cultural studies; however, I will note a few texts which are important to my study. In A Cultural Studies Reader (1995) Stuart Hall argues for a broad view of cultural studies and views it as "mediating between experience as a lived process and as a textualized critique" (7). Life writing can be included in this model since it describes the actual words and experiences of the participants in a particular era. In Hall's description of the two paradigms of cultural studies, a textual wing and a sociological wing (194), my work is primarily on the textual side as a work of recovery for cultural study. However, my combined background in English and Religious Studies provides a basis in the Social Sciences as well. Cultural studies lends itself to an interdisciplinary analysis because it strives to be free from the specialized vocabulary that is evident in many of the "isms" of critical theory. Linda Hutcheon notes the dangers of a specialized discourse in which the "in-groups" deliberately create a "problematic of meaning" between those who "get it" and "those who do not." She suggests that cultural and post-colonial representation and analysis require a direct and simple prose capable of being understood by all (Irony's Edge 17, 43, 176, 203-04).

The McQuesten life writings are particularly useful for cultural studies since they represent the textual material that embodies Victorian life and ideals as outlined and criticized by Matthew Arnold (1822-88) in Culture and Anarchy (1869) (Cultural 19-32). Arnold's work represents the Victorian age with its moral ideal of "a love of perfection" and a "social and moral passion for doing good." He also posits the "social idea [that] men of culture are the true apostles of equality" (21, 32). Arnold's theory has been criticized because it is "high culture" and "utopian"; however, he also rejects the idea of "indoctrinat[ing] the masses . . . with ready-made judgements" as the "religious and political organizations" of the day were doing. The McQuesten library contains two texts by Matthew Arnold: Essays in Criticism (1869), and Literature and Dogma: An Essay Towards a Better Apprehension of the Bible (1874). The element of cultural critique is present in both works. It is precisely the "indoctrination of the masses" with the "moral ideal" of the Victorians that is demonstrated by Mary McQuesten's Presbyterian missionary "moral passion."

In the introduction to A Cultural Studies Reader, Jessica Munns and Gita Rajan also acknowledge the importance of critique. They state that cultural studies "is not so much a new and terrifying subject, as it is a re-examination, a re-negotiation, and a re-interpretation of major Enlightenment and humanist ideals, especially with a contemporary temper of sustained critique" (3). The value of cultural studies goes far beyond the mere analysis of texts, since it also provides a broader context for ethical considerations in political decision and policy making. As Roger Bromley notes, it is primarily a "substantial critique of a society which . . . acknowledged itself to be in crisis" (Cultural 152, 673, 3). The analysis of any crisis requires a reassessment of its canonical texts which may be perceived to have a causal relationship with the crisis.

Raymond Williams work, in A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader (1994), is also central to a cultural studies critique because he takes a broad and inclusive view of culture. He looks at "historical changes" in culture and language in terms of class and meaning, and reveals a "complexity of meanings and values" which confound any easy definitions. Williams was able to "breach the prevailing opposition between literature and popular culture" which made cultural analysis possible, and his work has resulted in a spin off of other texts (224, 257-58). Williams avoids both the "idealist" or high culture stance and the "vulgar materialism" or "economic determinism" of "certain kinds of Marxism," and he argues for a "radical interactionism" (Cultural 197).

Roger Bromley notes that "the growth of cultural studies" has been shaped by the "work of rescue and recovery" (Cultural, 175). Therefore, a reevaluation of all available textual material in any historical period is necessary to glean the range of variable meanings as a necessary process of challenge and renewal. If alternative texts are not recognized they, and their cultural origin and vitality, are not perceived to have value. Similarly, in our technological age, letter writing is a disappearing art, and if the epistolary tokens of a previous culture are devalued, their voices will disappear forever.

In this theory section, I investigate four areas of literary theory which will support my argument that letter writing should be classified as literature and as life writing within cultural studies. First, I present some of the current criticism in canon and genre theory to demonstrate the possibility of a receptive attitude to alternative forms. Second, I present some of the historical precedents in epistolary theory which support the inclusion of letter writing within the genre or sub-genre of life writing. Third, I provide some published examples of epistolary literature which serve as models for the inclusion of the McQuesten letters as life writing. Fourth, I deal with autobiography in archival and literary analysis. In each section, I apply the theory as it is relevant to the McQuesten life writings and to cultural studies.

I am aware that my research involves a different undertaking than the analysis of established canonical authors and their writings which are usually compared and/or contrasted within the various conventional genres of literature; it is different but also a diffrance. In undertaking the study of the McQuesten family archive, I am also aware of some of the risks involved in doing original research on primary material. I must first justify the McQuesten life writings as valuable to literary and cultural studies; and I must also create a text based on a selection of the personal letters and documents in the Whitehern archive. Therefore, my work is both theoretical and editorial.

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Copyright 2002 Whitehern Historic House and Garden
The development of this website was directed by Mary Anderson, Ph.D. and Janelle Baldwin, M.A.
Please direct questions and comments to Mary Anderson, Ph.D.

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