The common writer in modern history

Martyn Lyons
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This book demonstrates the scope and achievements of the history of written culture, with particular reference to the writings of ordinary people. It underlines the importance of writing for the subordinate classes and the variety of uses to which it was put, and suggests that ordinary writers can be seen as active agents in their own histories, rather than as passive receptacles for official ideologies. Their writing provides the material for a ‘new history from below’. Twelve chapters touch on the continuing interrelationship between the written, the oral and print, as when speech and dialectal forms are incorporated into peasant letters and autobiographies, and when handwritten manuscript supersedes print as the favoured medium of transmission. The book illustrates the continuing importance of manuscript culture, and it incorporates a focus on life writing in various contexts, from the British tradition to a single case study of the autobiography of a Sicilian peasant. It analyses correspondence in different contexts, including paupers’ letters, soldiers’ letters, letters born of long-distance emigration, and ‘writing upwards’, in which the weak wrote to the powerful. All demonstrate the crucial importance of writing for people of modest social status and imperfect literacy competence. Overall, the contributions show the value of a multidisciplinary approach, and they have a broad geographical scope and a broad time span, stretching from the sixteenth century to the present. The collection has a dominant focus on western Europe, but it also embraces early modern Mexico, late nineteenth-century South Africa and mid-twentieth-century Australia.

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