Print Letters in Seventeenth-Century England

Politics, Religion, and News Culture

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Gary Schneider
Material Readings in Early Modern Culture
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , February
     2018.
     296 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138309579.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In an era of texts and emails, the vast majority of which are not only dashed off quickly but also will (deservedly) be lost to posterity, Gary Schneider’s Print Letters in Seventeenth-Century England: Politics, Religion, and News Culture reminds us of the many uses of a letter. They not only serve as a medium of information but also as an effective rhetorical vehicle for storytelling, political schemes, and religious argumentation. Though their publication was sometimes motivated by profit or insistence on “the public’s right to know,” Schneider demonstrates how letters became a means of ideological persuasion and propaganda. He summarizes the context of his study as a place where “epistolarity and ideology converge” (xiii).

Schneider’s study concerns four main categories of printed letter: fictional (those published without names, pseudonyms, or taking the names of (in)famous individuals); satirical (fictional or ventriloquizing well-known individuals); authentic; and those printed en masse. Schneider demonstrates the advantages that letters held relative to other kinds of communications. Letters not only possess an intimate quality—forging or demonstrating a bond or making a personal confession, for example—but also enjoy an evidentiary or documentary quality (with dating of the letter, for example). These qualities made an intercepted, captured, or discovered letter even more valuable. Letters also emphasize geographical distance. One wonders if emails, let alone text messages, share these same qualities.

An important element of Schneider’s study is the concept of the “cultural narrative,” stories purveyed at a specific time prompted by current events. The specialty of letters, as a cultural narrative, is gossip, information, and news. They may rely on their reader possessing prior knowledge of current events, but they may even be more powerful if the reader is ignorant. Actual circumstances became the catalyst for letters that were fiction but inspired by real persons and events. “Epistolary fiction,” whether straightforward or satirical, was engineered to persuasively cast adversaries or victims in unfavorable light. When actual (nonfiction) letters were collected and published, even without the writer’s permission (because the letter was intercepted, captured, or discovered), the vehicle for persuasion might be the accompanying preface, annotation, commentary, or conclusion.

Schneider situates his study in the 17th century because it was only after 1640 that letters were printed frequently enough to allow identification of patterns, affinities, reconfigurations, and anomalies. This is an important point known to scholars who have tried to study any popular print medium—printed sermons, for example. Sampling matters if one is to generalize and draw conclusions. That said, letters necessarily reflect day-to-day reactions to shifting circumstances, so one must engage with these circumstances and still draw out identifiable or generalizable patterns. The hindsight necessary to do this becomes easier with the passage of time, of course. Themes are one evident pattern, and those familiar with 17th-century religious political controversies in Britain will recognize some “greatest hits”: Jesuit treachery, Catholic plots against Britain, Papal Antichrists, or the impious or effeminate vices of Stuart monarchs.

Schneider has set out a difficult task for himself. Like his subjects, he must presume a certain amount of background knowledge from his reader. His own scholarship is impressive, and he frequently engages with secondary sources while approaching his primary ones. Anyone who has worked with extensive primary sources (even archival material—though Schneider isn’t working with manuscripts), particularly with the intention of addressing their subjects as a genre or category, will appreciate the challenge.

For better or worse, though perhaps appropriately, Schneider’s monograph can read like a finding aid, cataloging a host of materials (all of them with typically long 17th-century titles) and providing brief insights or summaries. This will come as a disappointment to some. What’s more, Schneider is focused on theoretical or rhetorical categories and not the historical cases or arguments themselves. His intention in presenting a particular letter is often to parse a word or phrase.

To his credit, Schneider is doing his job as a scholar of literature and culture. The author is considering the letter as a cultural artifact and an example of the broader rhetorical or literary culture itself. He is conversing almost entirely with scholars in his field. Despite the promise to consider ideology, this is not in any way a window into the ideologies themselves. Historians or scholars in other fields, for example, who work in this period might gain from some of Schneider’s insights into the use of language or genre. Or they may see this monograph as a potential bibliography of sorts. But they should not confuse it with a historical study of the period.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Glenn A. Moots is a Professor at Northwood University.

Date of Review: 
August 11, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gary Schneider is Associate Professor in the Literature and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley.

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