(To see Parts 1, 2 and 3 in this series, click on the links)

The letter transcribed in the last post offers a useful starting-point for my analysis, not only because it’s the first in the sequence, but also because it’s relatively brief and compact, while at the same time displaying many of the features that can be found in the later letters.

At this point, I should note that what follows will be relatively ‘raw’ and free of academic references. This isn’t because I’m advocating some kind of naïve, untheorised analysis, but because these are very much first thoughts. I would certainly foresee any published version of this data analysis, in a refereed journal for example, relating its findings to theoretical and methodological sources.

Having said that, I should be clear that I’m approaching this text with certain assumptions. The first is that the focus of my interest is the ways in which the letter shows an individual producing his identity as a father, at the same time as ‘performing’ his faith as a Christian, and the relationship between the two.

This focus itself presupposes a particular theoretical perspective. It assumes that identities do not exist already formed within the individual, waiting to find their  expression in social contexts, but are produced within and in relation to those contexts. Also implicit is the notion that identities are actively negotiated or constructed, and that much of this active construction is performed via the medium of language.

In other words, my research question already assumes a broadly social constructionist approach to social identities, with a particular emphasis on the role of discourse. That’s a very simplistic formulation, of course, and one I want to elaborate and interrogate in future posts. For now, though, it’s useful to set it out as a starting-point for my analysis.

Given these assumptions, how should we approach this letter? Perhaps the first question we need to ask ourselves is: what kind of text is it? And following on from this: what is it setting out to accomplish or achieve? Even if we had no external information about this piece of writing, we would be able to tell from internal evidence that it’s a personal letter, from a father to his son. It’s explicitly written in response to a letter from the addressee, so it’s part of a sequence of letters between these two people.

As for its purpose – or purposes – perhaps the best way to approach this question is to look at the structure of the letter. If we examine it carefully, we can see that the letter divides into a number of sections, as follows:

(1) A short opening paragraph which conveys some ‘scene-setting’ information

(2) A second paragraph which starts with some formulaic ‘well-wishing’ but quickly moves into offering advice and moral instruction, in one long unpunctuated sentence, and ending in a series of short, staccato exhortations: ‘Be active Be prompt’ etc.

(3) The first part of the third paragraph, which returns to ‘business’ (a matter of money) but maintains the exhortatory tone of the previous pragraph, with perhaps a hint of reproach (‘Where is it? I have not received anything…’).

(4) An instruction to ‘be careful’ about money provides a bridge into the second part of this paragraph, which returns to the exhortatory theme of the second paragraph, though it begins with the endearment ‘Dear Arthur’ and at the same time adopts a more explicitly religious register.

(5) A final ‘blessing’ which maintains the religious theme, but explicitly ‘blends’ Arthur’s vocation as a Christian with his current calling as a soldier for ‘King and Country’.

6) The letter closes with an affectionate and ‘prayerful’ signing off, which combines paternal informality with the formality of the sender’s full name.

This crude structural analysis begins to uncover the the multiple purposes of the letter, demonstrating that it sets out to accomplish a number of different things. At one level, the letter’s aim is procedural, its ‘business’ being to exchange information, for example about what has happened to a certain sum of money. But this takes up a relatively small amount of space in the letter. Much more space – and we might add, emotional energy – is invested in moral advice or exhortation. Although some of this advice is about money, most of it is more generic. At the outset, the advice has a rather general ‘moral’ theme, but later on it becomes explicitly Christian, and at the end this religious theme is interwoven with a patriotic or nationalistic message in the letter’s ‘finale’.

In the next post I’ll say more about this interweaving of moral messages, and about the language used to convey them.

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