Category Archives: Work in progress

Regarding a child’s summer holiday postcard – A letter

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Dear Reader,

The postcard pictured above was sent on 12 April 1988 from Wadebridge in Cornwall to Oxford. It is one of those cards you yourself might recall having written to your own grandparents during a family summer holiday.

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Above is the reverse side. The note underneath the drawing and the address were in all likelihood added by an adult. They identify the card’s author as ‘Jessie’ and the addressee as ‘Granny’. Jessie, apparently, was too young to produce a complex drawing, let alone  write.

You may ask yourself – just as I do – : did child or parents initiate the ‘writing’ of the postcard? who chose it? did the child tell the parent to add the note?

This postcard is a wonderful example of what I would call a ‘composite object’: a letter, postcard, or text/drawing in a different format, that is the result of a collective effort of several authors – in this case: a child and an adult. Their relationship is marked by a complex mix of agency and dependency: the child’s agency seems both curtailed and extended: they depend, for instance, on the parent for a range of activities – such as buying the postcard and adding the correct address; but they are also enabled to participate in ‘grown-up’ correspondence and to express themselves freely – and, in this case, ‘colourfully’.

The parent’s position of power notwithstanding, the traces of their emotional investment, imagination, and enjoyment in taking part in this shared project are also obvious – not least from the little, incomplete smiley appended to the child’s name. By adding the note and addressing the card to ‘Granny’, the parent even assumes the child’s perspective – and with that their ‘voice’; they write not only on their child’s behalf but in their name.

Similar forms of collaborative writing and mutual investment can also be found in late eighteenth-century children’s letters. I am currently working on a case study of the letters written by the children of the German philosopher, theologian and cultural historian Johann Gottfried August Herder in the 1780s and 90s; the period I am particularly concerned with are the years 1788 / 89 during which Herder travelled to Italy.

The first results of my research on this material will be published in a collection of essays entitled Was ist ein Brief? – Aufsätze zu epistolarer Theorie und Kultur / What is a letter? Essays on epistolary theory and culture which Caroline Socha (Basel/Switzerland) and I are currently preparing for publication with Königshausen & Neumann. If you, dear Reader, would like to read more about children’s correspondence and maybe, also, about epistolary theory and cultures more generally, this book might be of interest to you.

Quite independently of that, I very much hope you enjoyed this short missive and that you will come back in time for more.

Sincerely yours,

Marie Isabel Matthews-Schlinzig

PS: I chanced upon the postcard pictured above in one of Oxford’s many Oxfam shops. I also found a few others there which I might share with you at a later stage. If you happen to be ‘Jessie’ or know (of) them, I would appreciate it very much if you could get in touch.

 

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The digital life of epistolary forms and letter research or: a pretext for creating (self-advertising) word clouds

Recently, I have had reason to reflect about my research interest in letters, letter writing, and letter cultures in light of developments in digital media but also, and in particular, in the ‘Digital Humanities’ (an umbrella term I would prefer to use cautiously, not least due to the variety of activities and projects it is used to designate). Among other things, I am intrigued by the range of discourses about, representations of, and uses of the epistolary form online. Some try to capitalize on the assumption that letter writing is a ‘dying’ art while other, electronic, means of communication are very much a dominant part of our everyday lives now. Others, both within and outside academia, engage in a multitude of ways and with the help of a range of digital tools with letters: as editors, readers, writers, artists, commentators, etc. The German proverb ‘Totgesagte leben länger’ (which very roughly – and certainly not in terms of register – translates into ‘There’s life in the old dog, yet.’) seems very much to apply to the ‘art of letter writing’ here.

Since I have barely begun to reflect properly about all this, I can’t really present any more advanced ideas on the topic here – yet. It is work in progress. In the context of thinking about letters, digital media, and my research, though, it occurred to me that I could try out a digital ‘toy’ (wordle) to produce a visual representation of an article on early-nineteenth-century suicide letter writing which I finished recently, and take this as an occasion to reflect, briefly, on the usefulness of such an exercise. The article, on which the world cloud displayed below is based, will be published in ‘Writing in extremis‘, (OGS 44.1), a themed issue of Oxford German Studies which explores key moments in the history of writing before death in German literature and culture from the late eighteenth century to the present day. (Some advance information about the volume can be found on the publisher’s website). The title of my contribution is “Writing Suicide in the Early Nineteenth Century: Carl von Hohenhausen’s ‘Nachlaß'”. As you can see, next to ‘suicide’ and ‘Carl’ (whose autobiographical writings figure prominently in the text), letters feature heavily in the article alongside other forms of ego-documents:

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Wordle is indeed a ‘toy’, not least because it is fun to play with. Nevertheless, the resulting cloud makes me more aware of how often I have used certain words. In this particular case, and ignoring the high frequency of topical expressions which I expected to emerge larger anyway, I seem particularly attached to the word ‘also’ (which, by the way, occupies ‘only’ rank 80 in the list of most common words in English). I am now tempted to go back to the text and investigate when I use it and why I use it so often, and whether its frequency is in any way related to the fact that I am writing about suicide. In view of this, there is a quite conspicuous and given the context also a mildly amusing ‘gap’ in the cloud: ‘I’ (number 10 on the list of most common words) is missing. This goes back both to the fact that wordle seems to ignore ‘I’ more generally and to a decision framed by conventions of academic writing. Thinking of such conventions in relation to letter writing, I wonder what I would see were I to produce word clouds of some of the suicide notes I have looked at in this article or that have figured in other publications, and how they would differ from more contemporary letters written before suicide (and/or other forms of death) – but this is, maybe, for another day. (Investigating word frequency in suicide notes and associated data, and word frequcency in correspondence in general is, of course, an established field of research in the sciences and the humanities respectively; see, for example, this publication on Michelangelo and the Art of Letter Writing, courtesy of Google Books).

Finally (at least for today) the word cloud makes me wonder how the words used most frequently will shape the reader’s impression of and response to the article. With that in mind, and given the rather ‘associative’ structure and fragmentary nature of this blog entry, I can’t resist the temptation to finish this off with another word cloud – of the text you have just read.

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