The Writing of the Lower and Poor

Sheets, paper, or graffiti show the opinion of people with little academic education regarding the reality they had to live. In Germany, from 1914 to 1918, more than 30 billion postal items were registered.

The Writing of the Lower and Poor
Texts by people from modest backgrounds tell an alternative story. Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

The idea that the lower or poorly literate classes have left little trace of their existence because they never mastered the pen or pencil, should be reconsidered, as it is time to include their writing in letters, graffiti, and other messages that show their influence on culture and history, considered Martyn Lyons, of the University of New South Wales, Australia.

The professor emeritus of History and European Studies gave the talk "The common writer" while participating in the second cycle of conferences "A date with the National Library of Mexico: History of reading and books in the post-pandemic. Reflections on an uncertain future", organized by UNAM's Institute of Bibliographic Research.

There are multiple pieces of evidence of common people about the wars or migrations with writings on paper, and even embroideries on sheets, which show the need to communicate their history with diverse ups and downs. Documents that do not always follow the conventions of written language, with spelling mistakes or letters that show poor penmanship, illustrate very well the importance of language teaching.

In this case, he detailed, Spanish migration is a great example since many young people left their country as adolescents and with incomplete knowledge of reading and writing, but those who were more successful invested in the schools in their places of origin in the hope that the following generations would be better prepared.

"The study of historical literacy is no longer found as it once was in statistical studies based on who could sign a marriage register, or not. Instead, it investigates access to reading, writing, and the uses to which literate people put their skills. In considering the uses and functions of writing in different historical contexts from now on we must include writers who lacked formal education and who did not enjoy the full mastery of literate skills," he considered.

Another example of this type of legacy is the work of Lorina Bulwer, an inmate of the Great Yarmouth asylum for women in Norfolk, eastern England, who in 1900 wrote a long letter embroidered on different types of cloth measuring five meters long and in which she exposes her anger at being confined, specifically with her female lunatic companions, her name constantly repeated and, above all, she declared herself free.

"Lorina Bulwer's example reminds us of the importance of writing at all levels of society, both for private and public purposes, as well as in the process of identity formation. It also demonstrates that writing is ubiquitous and often uses unexpected materials and unorthodox technologies," she commented.

Lyons emphasized that people from modest social backgrounds have always left strict traces of their otherwise obscure existence. These texts were named by French anthropologist Daniel Fabre, as "ordinary writings", which make it possible to rescue lives forgotten in anonymity and give them form and substance.

Considering the past from the point of view of non-elites opens up the possibility of an alternative history that contrasts with conventional top-down political narratives. This shifts the perspective, focusing on the assumptions and concerns of the so-called silent masses and discovering that they have not been so silent after all.

Another example of these texts, he commented, are the letters of soldiers in World War I, a time when there was what might be called a literary "diarrhea," for in France, in 1915, four million were sent daily; in Italy, from 1915 to 1918, four billion mailings were recorded; while in Germany, from 1914 to 1918, there are more than 30 billion mailings.

An unprepared reader may be surprised at the laconic tone, because of the banalities they contained. However, the main purpose was a consolation, to reassure parents and loved ones that all was well, no matter how horrible the reality of the soldiers' lives had been.

Transoceanic migrations are another reason why thousands of people wrote missives, in which one can visualize what the experience itself was like, the process of living in a new country, whereby several acquired dual identities offering an alternative version of history that revalues emigrants as anonymous entities and agents determining their future.

Studying letter writing from below has the effect of giving voice to people who would otherwise be included in a global mass of labor market statistics.

However, like those of the soldiers at the front, migrant texts can tell us more if we stop our data mining for a moment and consider them per se. They are precious documents about the practice of writing itself, about the unspoken rules and conventions governing epistolary exchanges, about the history of language use, and the importance of literacy.

Regarding the possibility of carrying out this exercise in modern times by using records from social networks such as Twitter, the researcher considered that some problems must be overcome, such as the life span of these resources, since the memory of these archives is ephemeral and preserving them can be a problem; also, the structure of the text must be considered, because it is not the same to write a letter as an e-mail message.