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Jan 1 2000

In attempting to analyze the form and function of personal letters for genre classification in literature, three fundamental questions need to be addressed: Can personal letters be considered imaginative? Can the writer of personal letters (the signer) be considered an author? What are the historical precedents for an affirmative response?

It can be argued that personal letter writing is not literature because it is not imaginative; however, in the eighteenth century, letter writing represented both experience and imagination. Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, in Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters (1996), outlines a contradiction in the connotations of the letter in the Enlightenment period, and the complexity persists today. Cook notes the paradox that the letter is the "most direct, sincere, and transparent form of written communication" while, on the other hand, it is "simultaneously recognized as the most playful and potentially deceptive of forms, as a stage for rhetorical trickery" (16). Robert Halsband also notes this contradiction in Samuel Johnson's practice of letter writing. Johnson indulges in both poles of "the great epistolick art" and acknowledges that "there is, indeed, no transaction which offers stronger temptations to fallacy and sophistication than epistolary intercourse." Halsband concludes that the personal letter is "the most liberal of all literary forms" (Dr. Johnson 18, 19). In the reference, "liberal" implies a sense of freedom, extravagance, art and invention, which suggests that the letter is imaginative and, therefore, that it is literature.

Cook outlines the development of letter writing as a genre of literature. She opens her study with a quotation from Michel Foucault's essay, "What is an Author?" in which he makes a distinction between the letter writer and the author:

In a civilization like our own there are a certain number of discourses that are endowed with the 'author function,' while others are deprived of it. A private letter may well have a signer--it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor--it does not have an author. . . . The author function is therefore characteristic of the mode of existence, circulation, and functioning of certain discourses within a society. (5)

Cook's response to this definition is the basis of her scholarly and well-argued book, which I will discuss in a moment.

My response to Foucault's assertion focuses on the two terms "private letter" and "circulation." Logically, if either or both of these factors change, then the assertion no longer holds. If the "private letter" becomes public and enters into "circulation," then it is axiomatic that the "signer" also becomes "endowed with the 'author function.'" This, precisely, has occurred with the McQuesten private letters which have now entered the public domain of the archive at Whitehern Museum, the Archives of Ontario, the Hamilton Public Library, McMaster Library and the Presbyterian Archives. The letters have also been researched for the writing of two biographies of Thomas B. McQuesten, for biographical sketches in the Dictionary of Hamilton Biography, and for several public lectures and articles and, therefore, are now "characteristic" of the "functioning of certain discourses within a society" (5). The purpose of my research is to broaden the circulation, and to present the letters for literary, interdisciplinary and cultural studies. Therefore, the McQuesten "signer[s]" have become transformed into "author[s]" and their letters have become literature.

Furthermore, we can argue that the McQuesten "authors" were aware of the "circulation" possibilities in their collection. The unique circumstance of the conscious accumulation and preservation of the letters by three generations of the McQuesten family suggests an awareness of posterity, and of value and readership beyond the mere addressee of each letter. Indeed, they initiated the process in their bequest agreement which stipulated that their home and all contents were to be made available to a wide public audience. In some cases, family members carefully collected and returned the letters, and the careful retrieval of letters to provide both sides of the correspondence is a striking example of an awareness of posterity and of conscious archive building. It is significant to note that the McQuesten letters were gradually passed on from one relative to another, as was often the custom among families in the past. The person-to-person transmission, or the reading out loud to friends or family, suggests circulation. The literary, dramatic and artistic value are apparent in the text's ability to evoke pleasure or pain even long after the news is current. Letters were a substitute for a personal visit and, as such, they conveyed the personality or subjectivity of the writer, however faintly and imperfectly. Signatures and dates argue for a sense of agency in history, and for attempts to create and to project the self.

The literary value of the McQuesten writings is also apparent in the quality and the art of the writing. They were written by an educated and upper-middle-class family who demonstrate an awareness of epistolary form and an elegance of language that are beyond the need for mere transmission of information. The McQuestens received a classical education and were aware of their "author function" as they recorded and transmitted life events in a formal, creative and often imaginative way. Although letter writing was a family duty, a particularly good letter was always applauded by the family and friends. They considered letter writing an art form, and often consciously projected their aesthetic capabilities in the use of colourful and descriptive language and humour.

Julia Kristeva in Revolution also explores a changing postmodern attitude toward the concept of the "author" and the need to investigate the forces that brought the writing into being, such as the writing subject: "Such forces are channeled through what shall be called a 'writing subject' rather than an 'author,' for the term emphasizes the conscious intent of a writer who has author-ity over the meaning of his work" (7). In Kristeva's focus on the subject-in-the-act-of-writing, she avoids any historical bias that we encountered in Foucault's distinction between the "signer" and the "author function."

To return now to Cook's response to Foucault, she deals with the historical bias evident in his assertion. She argues that Foucault does not take into account the historical evolution of the private letter in relation to the print medium. Foucault makes a definite separation between the orders of private and public, an idea that has become conventional in the twentieth century. However, this division was not present in the early days of the print medium "which was in important ways not a 'civilization like our own'" (Cook 7). The separation became consolidated and naturalized only gradually during the later eighteenth century:

In the first two-thirds of the eighteenth century . . . a 'discursive set' existed that coordinated the concept of authorship with both of the written forms that Foucault claims exclude it [the letter and the contract] in a civilization like our own. . . . Against the swarm of public print forms that proliferated . . . the letter became an emblem of the private; while keeping its actual function as an agent of the public exchange of knowledge, it took on the general connotations it still holds for us today, intimately identified with the body . . . and the somatic terrains of the emotions, as well as the thematic material of love, marriage, and the family. (6)

Just as the letter became the "emblem of the private," the contract became the emblem of "private enterprise" and private property. Under the capitalist economic system the nuclear family emerged and was affirmed by the culture as a separate economic unit. As a result, both the letter and the contract became identified with the "domain of the private [the individual] acknowledged by the Enlightenment." However, the private letter continued to function in print as well, and was the agent of public knowledge about private matters and manners, physical, emotional, and economic (gossip about sex and money). Therefore, by Cook's reasoning, the "letter" and the "contract" in their dual role in "circulation" between private and public are not the "authorless" discourses Foucault describes, and bear exploration into their cultural history and function in relationship to subjectivity and the literary sphere (5-8).

Cook surveys the literary, historical, social and philosophical origins of the epistolary tradition and notes a blurring between fact and fiction. However, she finds the basis of the tradition in "real letters" and real bodies, the physical presences of both writer and reader (19, 26). She seeks to "reanimate . . . an earlier scene of writing," that is, "the writing body that haunts the epistolary novel" and creates the illusion of immediacy: "Writing a letter can be understood as the attempt to construct a phantasmatic body that in some measure compensates for the writer's absence. In this sense, the body is always central to the letter-narrative" (26). So even in the private or "real" letter, the literary skills of art and imagination are necessary to bridge the distance between writer and reader and both must be evoked in the act of writing itself. Indeed, the "attempt to construct the body" was so "central" that it became sexual and if a woman consented to write a letter to a man, it actually signaled her willingness and was a prelude to her sexual capitulation. In drama, the "writing cabinet" became the symbol for either guarding the chastity (body) or creating the self (mind), and letters became the expressions of individuality and consciousness (132-35). This is apparent in Richardson's Clarissa (1747-48) where he makes much of the fact that Clarissa grants Lovelace a private correspondence.

Cook argues further that in the eighteenth century, the developing print culture, the burgeoning publishing industry, and the demands of a rapidly expanding literate public all contributed to a hunger for any literature that explored the boundaries between the public and private (12). The public's intense curiosity about the private habits of others encouraged a kind of cultural voyeurism which was exploited by the publication of personal letters, whether they were discovered by chance, stolen from private homes, or deliberately written and misrepresented as "real" letters. At that time the very form attested to their legitimacy.

Cook notes that the content of the letters was often of an erotic nature, depending on the publisher's view of the market or the public taste. The publishers often placed advertisements requesting personal letters which might be used for publication, and the story of the discovery of a particular cache of letters, as proof of their authenticity, often formed the introduction of the book. The compilation of many of these books was indiscriminate, including both moral and immoral material, as well as letters that might serve as models for personal letter writing or as guides for personal conduct in compromising situations, the more suggestive and titillating, the better.

The published collections of letters and the letter writing manual in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries gradually developed into the epistolary novel, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa, or History of a Young Lady. These have achieved canonical status as the first English novels dealing with character portrayal and consciousness (Cook 19, Holman 351-52).

The epistolary content of eighteenth-century publishing was both seminal and vast and was part of the evolutionary process in the Enlightenment toward literacy and literature that was facilitated by the print culture. Cook states that

the epistolary narratives do not merely depict or give readers access to individuals 'private lives'; they are also part of the construction of a new kind of subjectivity, a new way of being a self that appears along with and as a product of the techniques and media of representation made available by the print culture. (178)

The new subjectivity gradually emerged and finally became dissociated from the specific literary forms and a restructuring of society occurred in which the public and private became blurred. As a result a division of knowledge also took place and various disciplines of learning emerged, "such as the newly specialized divisions of scientific knowledge or the 'social sciences' of political economy and sociology" (178). It was also during this time that history and literature became split into separate disciplines. It is these separations that the interdisciplinary nature of cultural studies seeks to bridge in the late twentieth century.

Ruth Perry, in Women, Letters, and the Novel (1980), also notes that there is a long tradition of letter writing as literature. The new literacy of the eighteenth century encouraged letter writing, and letters of all types were being marketed and published in "collections of letters with no common theme, save their form" (66):

Billed as letters between friends, between lovers, collected from long journeys, and so on, these collections were often explained as turning up in deserted houses, in anonymous deliveries, or as being deliberately published by their owner to publicly heal a reputation, correct misinformation, or to give a wayward, heedless public the benefit of another person's experience. (72)

The important point is that some of the letters were legitimate correspondence and others were inventions, and it was difficult or impossible to know the difference. The titles of some of these books are descriptive of their content, and they promise "uninvited access to another's inner life" (131). A Lady's Packet of Letters Broke Open (1707) by Mary Delarivire Manley promises access to private revelations. Nicholas Breton's A Poste with a Packet of Madde Letters (1603) claims that a postman happened "with a lack of heed, to let fall a packet of idle papers" (72). Charles Gildon's A Post-Boy Rob'd of His Mail (1692) contains a preface by Dunton, the publisher, in which he begs that he "undergo no censure for printing them as they came into my Hands." Dunton also "asks his readers to send in any scandalous letters they might have lying around" (72). Also, G. Marana's Letters Writ by a Turkish Spy (1694) were claimed to be "discovered, by meer chance ... a great heap of papers; which seem'd more spoiled by Dust than Time" (73).

These historical precedents demonstrate that the canon has always been in a state of flux; in fact, the canon of the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would have welcomed the McQuesten letters for publication by the new (and hungry) print medium. Indeed, it is paradoxical that I am now in the position of defending letter writing as literature; whereas, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, letter writing was an accepted, and preferred, form of literary publication.

The epistolary technique has been revived in the twentieth century with novels such as Nabokov's Lolita (1955), Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), and many more. Postmodern literature is experimenting with various combinations of personal writings including memoirs, diaries, journals, photography, and even court testimony. This proliferation in literature and in literary criticism suggests that there is something inherently compelling about the letter form that invites exploration, experimentation and analysis. Linda Hutcheon notes that the experimentation in literary forms is "a self-conscious slipping between the forms of life and art" (Hutcheon 22). This is also an apt description of life writing.

Janet Gurkin Altman, in Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form (1982), notes a rebirth of interest in the epistolary form, as a kind of reinvention of the wheel:

Indeed, the writers who have recently taken up the letter form have done so with the enthusiasm of a new discovery (10). There is ample evidence that the epistolary form is experiencing a renaissance in the postmodernist era when so much fiction is questioning the representational status of writing, when discursive self-consciousness is overtly challenging the novel's traditional narrativity. (211)

Altman is referring to the contemporary use of experimental and fragmented forms of writing, such as "elliptical narration, subjectivity and multiplicity of points of view . . . [and] interior monologue" (195).

Cook analyzes the same period from the point of view of subjectivity and social change. She notes that "at different historical moments of cultural transformation and political pressure, when existing categories of public and private are being redefined along with the bodies that inhabit these spaces, the letter-form returns to the foreground of the cultural imagination" (179). The late twentieth century is such an "historical moment" and the letter form becomes useful in analyzing subjectivity and authority. There is an intense curiosity in the academy and elsewhere about what constitutes a private self and a public self, and the life writings of earlier generations who were also living on the cusp of change, or were caught up in the prevailing ideas of "progress" and "freedom," are very useful as cultural documents.

Although my work does not deal specifically with the philosophy connected with the post-Enlightenment "cultural transformation," it does help to explain how and why letter writing from this period has become of interest in the late twentieth century. The McQuesten archive contains three generations of personal letters from1819-1968. They are the private letters of individuals who reflect the ideologies and influences of the post-Enlightenment, and specifically of the Scottish Enlightenment, and the letters can be mined, or "re-collected" by many disciplines for their content.

In postmodernism, literature is being analyzed from the point of view of its seminal processes of textuality and subjectivity. Therefore, it is logical that the form of personal letter writing should come under scrutiny. Implicit in the letter form is the acknowledgment of a fundamental limitation and separation in the transmission of meaning between the signifier and the signified. In spite of this, the letter form represents a fundamental human desire, the attempt and the intention to communicate with another human being, in spite of the distressing limitations of space and time. It is solely because the two parties are separated that the letter is being written, and it represents the speaking voice and body converted into text. Many letters express this regret openly and often poignantly, but then proceed into communication with the expectation of dialogue.

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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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