The book I’m writing is about the uses of speech, manuscript, and print in the eighteenth century, specifically within the Methodist movement, which began in this period before turning into what we now know as the Methodist Church. I’m still wrestling with geographical limits: England? Britain? Britain and America? I’m wrestling with a lot of things.
I find myself seduced by the simple claims of “history” as against “theory” and then reminded that you can’t have one without the other. Almost all that we know about the past comes through written documents that are subject to many of the same complicated conditions of interpretation as the self-consciously literary texts that we know refuse to submit to easy readings.
My initial focus was on sermons because in this period they are spoken (by preachers, by readers reading them out loud), they are written (by their orators, but also by note-taking auditors), and they are printed (with and without the permission of the purported author). I am turning, however, to other genres: letter writing, diary keeping, marginalia, hymns. All of these linked to the (imagined, on my part? or on their part?) rich, interior life of those who said they stridently wanted something more spiritually satisfying than what was being offered to them. How to get at that interior life? What believers chose to reveal in the evidence that is left behind is no less self-consciously constructed (I think) than the entries we are all posting on our blogs. Even as you write a diary for no one but yourself you perhaps imagine a changed later self reading and you adjust the posture of your current, unchanged self accordingly.
Maybe the interior is forever untouchable by outsiders. Maybe there is no interior, only an imagined one, constructed through the correct outside expressions of faith and doubt.