The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, C.1860-1920

The Writing Culture of Ordinary People in Europe, C.1860-1920


By (author) Martyn Lyons

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Paperback $29.29
  • Format: Hardback | 292 pages
  • Dimensions: 160mm x 232mm x 22mm | 599g
  • Publication date: 31 December 2012
  • Publication City/Country: Cambridge
  • ISBN 10: 1107018897
  • ISBN 13: 9781107018891
  • Edition statement: New.
  • Illustrations note: 20 b/w illus. 3 maps
  • Sales rank: 1,379,632

Product description

As war and mass emigration across oceans increased the distances between ordinary people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of them, previously barely literate and unaccustomed to writing, began to communicate on paper. This fascinating account explores this surge of ordinary writing, how people met the new challenges of literacy and the importance of scribal culture to the history of individual experience in modern Europe. Focusing on correspondence and other writing genres produced by French and Italian soldiers in the trenches in the First World War, as well as Spanish emigrants to the Americas, the book reveals how these writings were influenced by dialect and oral speech and were oblivious to the rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. Through their sometimes moving stories, we gain an insight into the importance to ordinary peasants of family, village and nation at a time of rapid social and cultural change.

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Author information

Martyn Lyons is Professor of History and European Studies at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. His previous publications include A History of Reading and Writing in the Western World (2010) and Reading Culture and Writing Practices in Nineteenth-Century France (2008).

Review quote

'All historians, regardless of their specialization, will find enthralling material in this pioneering study of the 'common writer'. For here we find people at the bottom of the social pyramid writing their own history, as they experienced it and described it.' Jonathan Rose, William R. Kenan Professor of History, Drew University 'Martyn Lyons' new book is a rigorous, wide-ranging and deeply moving account of how ordinary people used correspondence to deal with the extraordinary events of emigration and war. It combines an authoritative grasp of comparative popular culture with a keen eye for the difficulties of expressing the most profound experiences of separation, loss and suffering.' D. M. Vincent, The Open University '[Lyons] has a humane and sensitive approach to his subject matter.' The Times Literary Supplement 'Lyons' work participates in a new 'history from below': a history that takes seriously such documents as survive from the lives of the (mainly) rural poor, and, rather than subjecting them to an alien agenda, or deploring them as banal, values them as painstaking contributions to a complex 'family strategy' through which the priorities of home (household, farm, extended family, village, region and only rarely nation) compete with the pressures of self-individuation, self-invention, adaptation ... a richly nuanced map of changing patterns of literacy.' Archives 'Lyons' take on history from below succeeds first and foremost in restoring individuality to the writers and texts he studies. His careful readings of specific passages show that even the weakest and least educated of these writers wrote with purpose and care ... a work that does future researchers a tremendous service in calling attention to these underexplored archives and that lays the groundwork for reading alternative sources alongside and in opposition to official narratives.' Nineteenth-Century French Studies 'Throughout the book, Lyons successfully challenges two persistent notions: first, that few people were able to write about complex matters; and second, that there is little evidence of ordinary writing to be found. This immediately opens up a remarkable field of enquiry - a history from below - which is well worth investigating.' Arnold Lubbers, SHARP News

Table of contents

1. Ordinary writings, extraordinary authors; 2. Archives for an alternative history; 3. 'Excuse my bad writing'; 4. Literary temptations; 5. France: transparency and disguise in the poilus' letters, 1914-18; 6. France: national identity from below and the discovery of the 'lost provinces', 1914-19; 7. Family, village and motherland in Italian soldiers' writing, 1915-18; 8. Italian identities 'from below' and ordinary writings from the Trentino; 9. Love, death, and writing on the Italian Front, 1915-18; 10. Spain: emergency literacy and the nostalgia of exile, 1820s-1920s; 11. Family strategy and individual identities in Spanish emigrants' letters; 12. Order and disorder in the 'memory books'; 13. Conclusions; Bibliography.