Objects of Value: The Afterlives of Letters

Chalk drawing of William Godwin by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1795 © Trustees of the British Museum
A podcast featuring Professor Pamela Clemit is now available to download via the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing; the podcast was recorded at the centre’s Lives of Objects conference, held at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, 20-22 September 2013. As part of a panel on “Archives,” Professor Clemit explores the material culture of letter-writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her focus is the correspondence of the English Enlightenment philosopher, novelist, and social thinker, William Godwin. She tracks his letters from their origins on his writing desk, to their afterlives in scholarly editions and iPad apps. Professor Clemit’s paper begins around 21:22.

Why do letters survive for centuries after they were written? The energy that created them keeps them alive. Letters constitute gifts of attention, embodied in paper. Before electronics, letters were the only means of interpersonal communication over distance. The initial value of the letter lies in the effort of the writer – which is in turn valued by the recipient. Both may seek to preserve the letter. Its afterlife begins.

After the writer’s demise, different interests contribute to the preservation of letters. For family members, letters have an enhanced value, especially if the writer is a celebrated author, such as William Godwin (1756-1836), whose letters are the focus here. Other agents of preservation are collectors, who invest heavily in assembling, trading, and sometimes publishing letters. Celebrity letters have value for autograph hunters.
fragment-pcLetters which have survived these travails may be gifted to public institutions, signalling their universal cultural value. In this way, letters become more widely accessible, first in the archive, and then by means of scholarly editions. Electronic technology may help to make letters generally available. If original letters survive to this stage, their flame can burn brighter than ever before.

The latest stage in the institutionalisation of Godwin’s letters is the six-volume edition being published by Oxford University Press and edited by Pamela Clemit. Volume I appeared in 2011 and Volume II is due out in September 2014. Godwin also features in her contribution to an iPad app that brings Godwin and the Shelley circle to life.

3 thoughts on “Objects of Value: The Afterlives of Letters

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  1. Reblogged this on What is a letter? and commented:
    At the symposium ‘What is a letter? An interdisciplinary approach’, Pamela Clemit presented a paper entitled ‘Godwin’s letters: transmissions of value’. This paper is a work in progress; an earlier version of it is available as a podcast (courtesy of the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing).


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