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Letter writing: A Media Revolution with Chloe Summers Edmondson

Dr. Chloe Summers Edmondson is a Lecturer in the Civic, Liberal, and Global Education program at Stanford. She received her PhD from Stanford in the French & Italian Department in 2020, and MA in Communication in 2014. Her research is situated at the crossroads of literary criticism, cultural history, and media studies, with a focus […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison and we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
In title opinions, [Music]
No Oki-Siribhi New World variety here.
Only old world vintage flowing freely into the chalices of all
unites of our frenic order.
Con crew all the way, baby.
Alka hull content.
130% hangover quotient.
Zero percent.
On tap today, a show about letter writing in 17th and 18th century France.
But before we go that far back,
it allowed me to recall in passing the 1980s when I was a graduate student at Cornell
in the wilds of Upper State New York.
Back then there were basically two types of days.
The days when you found a letter in your mailbox and those when you didn't.
Graduate students in Ithaca were almost always depressed, especially in the winter months.
And receiving a personal letter meant a burst of sunshine breaking through the gloom.
Whether it came from a friend or a family member, a letter contained what Elizabeth Hardwick called
"the distant and fantastic apparition of an abstract self addressing you."
And then there were the associated rituals, putting the letter aside until the moment was right.
Then carefully opening it with a letter knife, reading it, pondering it,
and eventually reaching for your fountain pen and composing the first draft of a reply.
A reply you might revise once or twice, maybe even three times before penning the final draft in your best handwriting.
Those were not the good old days by any means, yet the folded sheets of those handwritten letters,
as well as the envelopes they came in, possessed an aura of originality that was not mechanically reproducible.
Whenever I get to feel this way, I define you words to say, a thing about the battle days.
We used to know, not some winter, terry cold, and fear's a dying, getting old.
I'm joined today by Chloe Edbinson, a cultural historian and scholar of media and literature,
who specializes in 17th and 18th century France.
Dr. Edbinson received her Ph.D. from Stanford in the year 2020.
She's now a lecturer in the Civic, Liberal and Global Education program at Stanford.
That's a mouthful.
And she is taught and will continue to teach literature courses in our Department of French and Italian,
here at Stanford.
Her dissertation dealt with letter writing in France in the early modern period, and that's the topic she's here to discuss with us today.
Chloe, welcome to the program.
Thank you, Robert, for having me.
So you recently gave a lecture to your students, so the Stanford freshman with the title, letter writing as a media revolution.
Why do you call letter writing in 17th and 18th century France a media revolution?
So in my work, what I am interested in is the intersection between media and identity from a historical perspective.
I want to understand how social norms and practices of self-presentation evolve in response to
revolutions in media with an eye-to-own contemporary moment of mediated social expression.
So when I say a media revolution, I don't necessarily mean a brand new medium, but rather I mean to describe a moment when a medium drastically changes how people interact, how people communicate and how people experience their lives every day.
So my project begins in 17th century France, not because letter writing was new, of course people had been writing letters for centuries, but rather because this marks the moment recognized by scholars to be the start of a modern age of communication in France, largely due to massive improvements in the postal system.
So just as we live our lives today over saturated by media and our everyday lives, the advances to the postal system had a similar effect with regards to letters by increasing exponentially the volume and frequency of letter writing in everyday life.
And this really marks the moment when the letter became the medium of everyday communication.
But this expansion and development of the postal system took place obviously not only in France but throughout Europe, otherwise you wouldn't have had this sort of global network of correspondence that we do know took place at least in the 18th century.
So I guess all the nations had to improve their roads, the safety of the, you know, those pathways and protect the mailmen and the carriages and so forth.
No, it became, well, I think postal service was a heroic career in those days.
Yes, absolutely. So these changes were all happening around this time in Europe, but at varying time. So in Italy and Germany, it was all happening around the same time a little bit before a little after.
But this takes place in France in the early 17th century during the reign of Louis the 13th.
And this is the time when notably the post becomes publicly accessible to all in France and a lot of these improvements to the roads to expand the postal system really made the postal system fast, reliable and efficient, which were really critical for creating this modern communication system.
So you said it made accessible to all and of course we mean by all a very small minority of the population given that letter writing required a certain degree of literacy and of course the literate population was pretty tiny minority in those days, right?
Yes, exactly. So when it's accessible to all in theory, but naturally one would have to be literate and able to both write the letters read them and then also pay to receive the letter.
So unlike our kind of custom of paying for a stamp to send the letter in France at this time you had to pay to receive the letter.
Oh, I didn't know that fascinating. Yeah. So there's actually this funny story. I would have paid a lot of money in Africa when I was a graduate student to get a letter on a Sunday.
Sundays were depressing days because there was no postal service and that the mailman just wasn't going to drop anything by and big anyway. I don't want to go back to that.
So funny story in the 18th century because Rousseau starts to receive so much fan mail for his very popular book, La Nouvele Luis that he actually puts out a public advertisement in the newspaper to beg people to stop sending him letters because it was becoming too costly to receive them all.
And we should do something like that with the email and that will put a stop to some of the excesses anyway. Yeah, so we have a new media.
I would say the media begins if I understand correctly with the infrastructure, you know, roads and and and carriages and mail service and the whole bureaucracy of a postal system and that that is what provides the foundation for the explosion of the letter writing activity.
Yes, I think that's a great way to put it and I think what's really interesting here is that people were already writing letters but with this new improvement to infrastructure, the accessibility, the efficiency and also the reliability, it very quickly becomes this everyday practice.
So just as you put it, you would never receive letters on a Sunday at Cornell. Similarly, there were specific days of the week, you would only receive letters perhaps two days a week, but you would see this in people's letters, they would actually keep writing them even on the days that they knew that they would not be able to send the letters because they would keep writing, keep adding to the letter until the point when they would be able to send it.
So you actually see that rhythm of daily life in the letter. Very interesting. The 19th century for me is the truly heroic age of letter writing because I cannot believe when I read, for example, Nietzsche's letters correspondence.
He was getting letters sometimes the same day back from another country and it was so much more efficient than it became later in our own day and age where the postman just showed up two or three times a day at your doorstep. Anyway, but so going back to the 17th and 18th century, what was the purpose of a letter because clearly, I'm not sure it was as intimate and personal as it became for people of my generation.
It was a one-to-one correspondence, but letters had more of a public life, didn't they?
Yes, so there were many, many different purposes of a letter, from a letter of introduction, a letter to congratulate someone on a new post and perhaps a new kind of royal patronage, letters to four condolences, love letters, really the whole spectrum of letters, but what's really fascinating and what I find in the past,
and what I find in my research of this period is that as we've already discussed, when you think about people writing letters in this period, they were mostly elite members of the aristocracy. So they were literate, they were rather elite and aristocrats.
And so what you see in this period with this proliferation of letter writing is that very quickly the existing social norms of behavior and interaction that already governed life at court kind of get transposed to letter writing.
You have all of these how-to guides that are published in the early 17th century and throughout the century with all of these rules and guidelines for how to write different types of letters, including model letters to imitate of letters of condolence of letters of introduction, even how to write a love letter.
And you see these guides for how to project your identity because at this time of course, if you think about the court society of Louis XIV, everything in this society was about maintaining appearances and projecting your social identity.
So very quickly the letter becomes a vehicle not for that personal one-to-one private communication that we think of with snail mail letter writing, if you will.
But it becomes a vehicle for projecting and signaling your social identity to not only your personal friends but perhaps to broader networks because as you mentioned letter writing was fundamentally a social activity.
So at this time people would write personal letters and that certainly was a genre that existed but very often people would read the letters they received out loud to a group of friends, perhaps family members, sometimes these letters would circulate and sometimes they would even get copied out and circulated more broadly.
And so the culture surrounding letter writing was profoundly social and there was an awareness that emerges in the 17th century that what you write in a letter can really have a bearing not only on your interpersonal relationships but also on your reputation more broadly in society.
Well I know in the middle ages the intimate they seemed intimate letters being abelard in Eloise and we tend to forget that those letters once a letter came from abelard it would be read to the whole convent and then it would be circulated and so it was yes indeed it was had it implied a social world of circulation.
Yes and what's fascinating is in the letter writing manuals in this period there are so many warnings about what you put in letters so on the one hand there's obviously the custom of writing love letters of writing personal letters but you have all of these warnings such as you know whatever you put in writing you know be careful because every day we are betrayed by our friends of 30 years right so there's this awareness that even with somebody you trust you have to be careful about what you put in letters because this person might betray you.
It will either fall into the wrong hands maybe this person will circulate it.
Well sure and there's all a great number of great stories about stolen letters in romance.
Yes, black mail.
Black mail and so forth.
Yeah so when we talk about this media revolution I assume you also mean that there was a kind of quantitative explosion of letters actually being written and sent and then
it's really astonishing when I was reading some of your notes for your lecture how many letters some of these characters actually wrote that have survived and let alone those have not survived.
So you give two case studies in your lecture to the students and maybe we could talk about the receipt to begin with because he's an interesting sort of illustration of what role letter writing played in his attempt to manage his image in the social public sphere as well as at the court.
Yes. Yes. So can you tell us who was this character that's nobleman?
Yes. So Hojida Habitano, quote, Debussy.
He was a noble man born in 1618 in Burgundy in France and he was well known as a literary author in his lifetime.
He also was a military man and of course well known at court and he was a prolific letter writer but mostly because he ends up getting
exiled due to some scandalous behavior. So he had been trying to entertain his sick mistress and so he wrote down all of these scandalous affairs of the women of the court and who they were having
and this book ends up leeching and getting circulated and he ends up getting thrown in prison for a year because of this and he only gets released on account of his indefinite exile to his Chateau in Burgundy.
Well, hold on now. They're being instructed on how to write letters and what to you know what to avoid and all the risk and he writes a whole book in discreetly revealing all the love affairs of the women at court and he
thinks that it's not going to fall in the wrong hands. I mean, did he really not want that book circulating?
Well, that's an interesting question but I think this speaks to kind of a broader human instinct to even when you know that you shouldn't put something in writing or perhaps take a photo of something or text something.
We all know that everybody does it which leads to all of these scandals in the media today even.
But I think what's interesting here is that because he is exiled, this really starts his extensive letter writing activity because now his only option to maintain his relationships with people in Paris, his friends, his acquaintances is through letter writing.
So, as you mentioned, there was a huge volume of letter writing at this time. We have preserved today about 2700 of letters of his correspondence both his letters to people as well as the responses to a network of about 150 correspondence.
But naturally, this is only what has survived the ravages of time, right? And so he starts, you know obviously some of these letters are just to maintain his personal relationships.
But he starts to engage in this very intentional letter writing campaign to restore his public image in the hopes of hopefully gaining a royal pardon and an end to his exile.
And so what's interesting here is he starts this one-to-one communication with Louis XIV.
So he starts to actually write to the king and he presents himself in this highly curated way as this penitent, devoted royal subject who has learned the errors of his ways and who is the most dedicated ever, the most dedicated servant to the king.
And the king actually does not respond to these, but he does receive them which is already an honor at this time to have the king.
He pays for them. But he doesn't ignore them. He actually does kind of have someone read them to him or he reason himself.
And so, Bucey does not stop there with his image management campaign because he sends copies of these letters to the king to his network in Paris.
And so very quickly there's this buzz that he generates about his letters to the king.
So everybody in Paris wants to see his latest letter to the king. They are commenting them, reading them aloud in the salons, discussing them.
And this should sound familiar to our own participatory media culture of commenting, liking and posting all over social media.
And so he creates this buzz where he is circulating this image of himself in what we would call today multi-platform production because he's has, on the one hand, the letters to the king, which is a one-to-one communication.
But then he has this one-to-many communication where he searchulates copies of these letters throughout his network. And then he also kind of reiterates the way he presents himself in his letters to the king in his actual letters to his friends and to his broader network.
So he reiterates the same tropes, the same way of presenting himself.
And then lastly, these letters get so much attention that one of his friends also in author, the Paobua, ends up publishing excerpts of these letters in a book.
So you have these ten three-part multiplication of his desired persona through the letters.
He certainly had a lot of friends, I mean, at least he had a lot of acquaintances because you mentioned the scandalous behavior very discreetly, but one of the episodes was an orgy with 65 people involved, no.
But a number of those people got those letters as well.
Yes, certainly. And a really interesting part of his epistolary activity is he also ends up kind of having portraits of all of his correspondence hung in the middle of the book.
He also had this kind of visual component of his networks surrounding him.
You know, it's interesting, you said that his excerpts were published and collected and I've always felt very uneasy and somewhat queasy about the fact that modern authors correspondents gets published after their death without their consent.
That this, you know, continue to think that this is a violation of the private sphere and the counter-arrentian sense that there, you know, the clear separation between the, you know, the private and the public sphere.
Yes, absolutely. And this even happens during authors' lifetimes as well in 17th and 18th century friends.
Yes, but they were, I understand you correctly, they were assuming that their letters were not just merely private correspondence that they had a public dimension.
So that they should not be surprised if something gets published.
So maybe it was a different, slightly different set of assumptions that govern letter writing in this period than in the 20th century post-especially the post-war era.
Yes, I think that's definitely true.
But I think even at this time there was definitely a desire for privacy.
So it was not so much, even if people were aware that they might circulate, it was definitely not necessarily desired.
So I think there's definitely a distinction between when people write with an eye to influence the public opinion like BC, versus when letters get published without their consent.
So when these letters get published by his friend, the Faupeau, this was an agreement between them.
So BC was very eager for this to happen.
But that was not always the case.
And I think one of the examples that you, you know, that comes to mind when you talk about this kind of violation is, for instance, some of the most famous letters that get published in the 18th century,
are the letters published of Madame de Siviniers to her daughter post-humously.
Never intended for publication.
Definitely not.
And I think these are definitely a very clear example of something that's very private, right?
These very personal letters between a mother and her daughter.
I wanted to ask you, in fact, about the gender proportions.
I think that women were writing as many letters as men in this period, or do we know, or do we don't know?
So women were prolific letter writers.
And interestingly, actually, there was even this idea in the 17th century that women were actually, naturally, better letter writers because they were naturally more sensitive and less likely to think about what they're writing.
And so they would write these spontaneous, authentic letters that kind of spring from their natural beings.
And so this was actually promoted as a model to imitate.
And women were seen as model letter writers.
And this continues into the 18th century.
This was an idea from the 17th century.
But it especially continues with the publication of Madame de Siviniers' letters, because very quickly, these become widely promoted in the 18th century as the model to imitate.
Well, that makes a lot of sense. It also -- this is speculation now, but it serves as a proper duty to learning how to write a novel, a really great novel.
And you have these great women novelists that start cropping up in the early modern period, more in the 19th century.
But the 18th century and even 17th century, as you know, there's some really excellent women's literature.
Yes, there were many -- many literary authors of this period who, you know, unfortunately were forgotten in the literary canon, right? Very intentionally.
But there certainly does not speak to how many there were.
So believe it or not, the most famous person in the 18th century happened to be an intellectual.
Can you believe that given the kind of world that we live in where you either have to be an assassin or, you know, a movie star to have that kind of celebrity.
But Voltaire was probably the most famous person in Europe during his lifetime, right?
He was, yes.
He was a very, very famous person in the 18th century.
He was a very famous person in the 18th century.
And he was very famous.
And he was a very famous person in the 18th century.
And he was a very famous person in the 18th century.
The most famous person at this time throughout all of Europe, not only due to his philosophical writings, but also due to his extensive letter writing, his plays, his novels, and even his social activism, right?
And so he was widely seen as this media figure, and there were even caricatures done of him.
So he really occupied that space of being a media celebrity.
And his letter writing was absolutely extensive, as you said.
There were about 15,000 surviving letters.
So we can't even imagine how many did not survive.
And he had a network of about 2,000 known correspondence.
Were these letters also very diverse in function and register purpose?
So I think so often we focus on the letters that perhaps are interesting to read, right?
So letters with an intellectual intent, love letters, but really at this time, every communication had to be through a letter.
So this might be to arrange a very banal business affair, perhaps to arrange the publication of something.
Just everyday letters, right?
And so there's a huge array of letters, but of course as Voltaire, we have so many to individuals of the Republic of Letters.
So lots of interesting letters intellectually.
Now what's interesting with Voltaire is that at this time as a celebrity, he really suffers many of the issues that played us today, or to not play us specifically, but that played celebrities today of having one's public image distorted by the media.
But what I find is that the letter ends up being his ways to kind of reclaim that agency and to really shape and control the public narrative of his persona and his public identity.
And so you see there's many, many, many examples of this in his letters, but a really interesting one is that he is so good at mobilizing a public and really convincing the recipients of his letters of the public.
The very often his contemporaries and his contemporary biographers repeat things he said, whether or not they were based in fact.
So he really likes to cultivate this image of him as this old wise man.
And so he actually succeeded in convincing the public that his birthday was earlier than it actually was.
Another way in which he kind of controls the narrative is that he ends up both publicizing some of his recent words, but he also actively denies authorship of his more controversial words to try to avoid censorship or avoid being thrown in prison.
And oftentimes this is successful.
For sure. Yeah, I mean, it sounds a lot like the kind of self-fashioning that we have on social media today where we have a kind of projective avatar self out there on Facebook or other social media platforms.
I don't have any, so I mean, image management is not my forte, but I can understand how someone like Voltaire would use letter writing, the way celebrities today, for example, use television when they decide that they're going to accept an invitation to go on CNN or in the old days like Larry King every time someone fell into disgrace yet to give it like six months or eight months, and then he went on to Larry King live and you ask forgiveness.
And then you said I was actually a very good person and so forth. So the image management takes place in a different medium here, as you say with Voltaire and others.
They were taking charge of their own public persona in this medium.
Yes, and you really see that activity that desire to either correct rumors or to dismantle rumors and you see that especially in letters that he writes to individuals where he knows there's a very strong probability that these letters will circulate.
So for instance, his letters to the famous salon hostess, Madame de Defal, on the one hand, yes, he had a friendly relationship with her, but he also knew that any letter he sent to Madame de Defal would be read aloud in her salon to a network of people in Parisian society.
And so you would see this interesting combination of on the one hand kind of a hyper personalized expression saying like I'm going to open my heart to you, but then the rest of the letter reveals that in fact he's seeking to dismantle rumors that are spreading currently about his family.
Right. Right.
Right. It really takes extraordinary talent and competency to manage your image that way and an enormous amount of energy to, you can imagine, you mentioned the famous painting of you bed where he
Voltaire is not even half out of bed and he's already dictating a letter to his secretary.
Yes, so that is a really interesting caricature and as you say, so Voltaire is jumping out of bed half dressed and already dictating letters allowed.
And I think that while of course this was a caricature and actually Voltaire was not a fan of this depiction of himself.
I think that what this really captures is what happens when you have this proliferation of communication media in everyday life.
And so, and it's what happens when you have kind of this main vector to present yourself to society is colliding with these kind of mass networks of communication.
So Voltaire had this kind of compulsive need to respond to letters to send letters to shape his public socially oriented persona, but it was also kind of a burden in the sense because of the sheer volume of it.
And I think that this really kind of speaks to our contemporary moment, if we think about how we might roll over in bed in the morning and we automatically check social media, check text messages, check emails and already start to respond to these and it's this kind of burden of all of these communication media in everyday life on a daily basis and this need to keep up with them.
And of course, you know Voltaire was a celebrity, but I think what this shows is that even if others did not face this sort of image management on such a vast scale, this was still something that was pervasive in the society of the time, whether you were a huge celebrity like Voltaire or whether you were a more normal individual.
Well, that's great, Chloe. I mean, I think that you're on to a really interesting project here with the concept of a media revolution and going back to what letter writing actually represented for a number of people public as well as private in the 17th century France and it's just remarkable to think of what they would have done with email. It's kind of crazy.
I happen to believe that with all the kind of digital technology that where you can't do anything without it being somehow recorded on in some sort of form that it's all going to disappear very quickly where at least, you know, those hard pages of handwritten letters do have archives where they can be preserved. I wonder how much of the digital modes and media that we're involved in will have such an afterlife.
You know, centuries from now, I don't think much of one, but we'll see. Anyway, we're looking forward to reading that book of yours when you finish it. Thank you.
We remind our listeners we've been speaking with Chloe Edmondson, one of our own PhDs in my department of French and Italian and now a lecturer here at Stanford. Thanks again for coming on, Chloe. Thank you for having me. I'm Robert Harrison for entitled opinions. Bye-bye.
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