The writer, reader, recipient, addressee

The writer, reader, recipient, addressee

Olive Schreiner‘s letters continue to be much in mind, in the aftermath of completing a book manuscript about her work in relation to sociology (this will go off to the publisher, Routledge, probably at some point next week). In particular, some letters to politicians John Merriman and Jan Smuts have sparked off a train of thought on the topic of the relationship between the writer, the recipient, addressee, and the intended reader. A very long (3000 words) letter to John Merriman in 1912 raises this in spades. Although he was certainly its addressee and the intended recipient, the length of the letter and more specifically its many amendments, insertions, deletions, suggest something in addition to this. The letter was clearly written at full pelt, as it were, and it has that fascinating ‘bird in flight’ aspect that letters often have, that they are hot off the press, hot from the mind and the pen of the writer. In this case, they signal Olive Schreiner thinking things through in a very visible way – “yes, this; no, that; and I’d better add something else earlier; but what about…” But who was she thinking them through for?

What comes across is that, although Merriman is kept in sight and at various points is directly appealed to, nonetheless she is following her own train of thought, and that in a sense the recipient and the reader is at one with the writer and is Olive Schreiner herself in a thinking and reading mode. She is working something out in her own mind, its traces are inscribed in all the bird in flight aspects of her letter, she is reflexively engaging with what she has written and making changes to it, she is attentively thinking and reading as well as attentively writing.

The letter is Olive Schreiner to John X Merriman, 11 August 1912; it will be found in all its fascinating detail on the Olive Schreiner Letters Online website. And its content is at least as interesting as the features commented on here, for in it she explains how she understands the processes of social change in societies.

Last updated:  25 March 2022