Ordinary correspondence

Ordinary correspondence

A large proportion of the tens of thousands of letters considered as part of the Whites Writing Whiteness project can be placed under the heading of ‘ordinary correspondence’. Whether living far from, or more ordinarily close to, each other, these letters are concerned with doing the business in the ‘doing stuff’ sense of the word business; and they are part of the variety of long-term ongoing connections between the people concerned, involving both face-to-face meetings and also letter-writing kinds of things.

Yes, in the WWW letters concerned, there are signs of one-off letters being written to all manner of people; and yes, also among the traces there are a lot of one-off incoming letters in most of the collections dealt with. But mainly the contents of collections are composed by letters in flows over time between people who have long-term connections with each other and with their letters being one part of this.

These letters are not ‘storm and strang’ letters or stylistically ‘good’ examples of letter-writing, but concerned with more humdrum and in the long term more important things, such as commenting on past and future meetings, goods being sent and received, and everyday ‘business of life’ being done. They rarely deal with affect in the sense we now understand this, and are measured and contained in statements of personal feeling when these are expressed in writing, as was appropriate in the conventions of the day. Indeed, overwhelmingly they do not express such things at all and the business they have in hand is resolutely humdrum and ordinary and concerned with facilitating quotidian stuff, like despatching corrugated iron, arranging to borrow a plough ox, providing information about acquaintances, sending assays of soil samples, gossiping about political events and similar ‘ordinary life’ things.

When ‘letters’ are invoked or written about in most scholarly contexts, these are letters by politicians, political activists, literary figures and so on. They usually have different kinds of characteristics from those which exist regarding the ‘ordinary letter-writing’ of white South Africans over the 200 year period WWW is concerned with. Something of the differences can be conveyed by comparing the letters of feminist writer and social theorist Olive Schreiner, for these are both a large number (5000+) of letters by an important writer and literary figure, and also one of the white South Africans whose letters are included in the WWW collections.

Schreiner’s letters are in a stylistic sense not ‘great’ or even ‘good’ letters. They have varied contents, they were written quickly in batches to meet the times at which posts the left places she was living in and have strong ‘bird in flight’ aspects as a consequence, they have a high level of political and literary content, but they also have an equally high level of content concerned with ordinary life matters, like past visits and planned future ones, information about activities, comments on acquaintances and public events and so on. Not much like the letters of Lord Chesterfield or Virginia Woolf or Georgia O’Keefe or .. In fact, they seem somewhere in the middle, being in part concerned with meta-level matters of ideas and public events, and also in part being written to facilitate the ordinary life stuff of  maintaining relationships over time and filling in the recipient on such matters as breadmaking, the weather and planning meetings.


Last updated: 24 August 2017


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