A letter is a letter is…

A letter is a letter is…

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2017) ‘A letter is a letter is…’ Whites Writing Whiteness www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/curiosities/a-letter-is-a-letter-is/ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

A letter is a letter is...1. Is the photograph shown here one of a letter, albeit one which doesn’t begin by invoking the name of a single addressee? is it instead a deposition or (quasi)legal certification by virtue of its impressive seal and formal signature by a functionary? Is it perhaps something different in kind from both of these? Or is it maybe a composite in having elements of both? Or…?

2. This document – and what kind of document it is remains a moot point – comes from the very large Forbes Family collection, located in the Transvaal Archives Repository, now a sub-section within the National Archives of South Africa, Pretoria. Many of the contents of this collection are straightforwardly letters, or bills, or lists, or share certificates, diaries and so on. But others of them, like this particular example, defy easy classification.

3. The document certifies a set of information to a reader, who is addressed although not named and therefore indicates a generalised or perhaps legalistic reader. In particular, it certifies certain ‘clear and unencumbered’ minutely specified rights belonging to David Forbes Esq which have been recorded into Registry Books of the Swazi Nation. But the seal and signature – presumptively on behalf of that nation – raise further complexities, for Wm. Penfold signs ‘for Theo. Shepstone’, who is described a ‘Resident Advisor & Agent Swazi Nation’, and thefore neither Penfold nor Shepstone are signing in their own right, but rather on behalf of this greater collective body.

4. At the same time, the document has a location it was written from; it has a specified date indicating when it was written; it has direct address to a presumptive albeit generalised reader; it conveys a communication to that reader, implicitly removed in time and space; and it has a formal sign off. It has, then, various of the formal attributes that are usually seen to be what is ‘a letter’ in a definitional sense. It isn’t, however, a private communication. Its public characteristics are very upfront, in its mode of address, the absence of a specific but a defnitely implied general reader, its rhtorical aspects, its subject-matter, its formalised ‘on behalf of’ signatories and its seal confirming its formal status and purpose.

5. Perhaps the conclusion to draw is that this document is best seen as a letter in one of its many variant forms, in which its ‘letterness’ aspects are clear although veering between public and private versions, but that it has other characteristics which mean it also and at the same time veers towards other things.

6. And of course – another fly in the definitional ointment – it is in a literal sense none of the above, for the thing it actually is, is a photograph!

Last updated: 23 December 2017