ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2013 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 59, No.4 - Winter 2013
Editor of this issue: Mikas Vaicekauskas

Documents or Literary Texts? Changing Attitudes Toward Publishing Writers’ Letters in Lithuania


AISTĖ KUČINSKIENĖ is a PhD student at the Lithuanian Institute of Literature and Folklore who is writing her dissertation on Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas’s letters. Her fields of interest are the study of epistolary discourse and the history of Lithuanian literature at the turn of the twentieth century.

This article describes the different types of publications of epistolary texts in Lithuania and discusses some of their specific aspects, including the selection and editing of the text. Since a letter falls somewhere between a document and a literary text, an attempt is made to answer the question: what concepts of perception do publishers of letters take in editing letters, thus determining the reception of the text? A brief survey of epistolary publications in Lithuania is given. Beyond textual procedures, there are always theoretical approaches that predetermine the direction of the reading and comprehension of these texts. The epistolary remains a problematic variety of text. A more precise definition of the concept of the letter would provide a clearer path to a determination of its publication type, the choice of its texts, and the editing of its language.

Autobiographical narratives – memoirs, diaries, letters – have a long tradition of publication. However, in the latter half of the twentieth century, they began to be investigated in greater detail and published more frequently. The current pace of reading and research of egodocuments could be labeled a boom in Lithuania as well. This article covers the publication and textual features of the letters of writers and other cultural figures in Lithuania from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present day. It is taken as a given that behind any practical publication and editing procedure lies a theoretical approach to the text,1 since it is not self-evident or natural,2 and that these noncontent elements influence the comprehension of a text. 

However, epistolary texts are exceptional in the context of publishing. The very term “epistolary scholarship”3 implies that certain problems associated with publishing letters are not relevant for other texts. In its initial stages, private correspondence is not intended for publication, and moving it from a private to a public audience increases the textual role in selecting and arranging the edition. According to John A. Walker, there is no “edition of any correspondence in which the editor was not driven to make some arbitrary decisions,”4 and these choices have a significant influence on subsequent strategies for the later reading and studying of the letters. It should be noted that there has not been a great deal of discussion about the principles of publishing letters in Lithuania, although differences and variations in publications support the assumption that different publishing principles are also associated with changes in approaches to literature. Therefore, this article addresses the question of whether letters are conceived of as documents or as literary texts, what determines the adoption of one or another conception, and how this conception expresses itself.

Thomas G. Tanselle states that the essential difference between published documentary and nondocumentary writing is the differing degree of privacy;5 therefore, defining the letter as a text is the decision that could be considered the most important. Once one has accepted this classification and the concept of a letter as a document, it is published in as documentary a form as possible, “closer” to the author, because its grammatical errors, erasures, and the placement of textual elements provide personal information, and versions closest to the original, or sometimes facsimiles, are presented. Nevertheless, epistolary texts, by their presentation, their function, and particularly in the reliability of their content, move away from the true concept of a document. They may be subject to various exceptions, such as the modernization of the language and general editing of the text.6 That letters and publications have an unusual relationship with editing practices is revealed in the publisher’s interpretation of the translation of Barbora Radvilaitė’s letters into the Lithuanian language: “Because these are letters, and not an opus or official documents, we were able to do this.” [to select a freer translation – A. K.]7 In other words, publishing egodocuments does not necessitate the precision required for documents or the imperative of preserving the author’s intention as applied to literary texts. On the other hand, we can consider the letter “literature” and choose to correct, edit, or cut. Donald H. Reiman does not describe fixing mistakes as “mangling” the text, arguing that when writing literary works, authors leave this task to others.8 Similarly, Janet Altman writes that, when a letter forms part of a publication, it “is readdressed to a new readership and often redressed (corrected, revised, truncated, contextualized).”9 The correction of the grammar and style of private letters, however, is complicated: unlike literature, where the final text belongs to the collaboration of the author and the editor (as well as other social institutions), the editor has to decide the type of letter being published. 

In Lithuania, the most widespread practice for many years was to publish a critical or semicritical edition: the epistolary texts of the writer were included in the writer’s collected works, almost always in one of the last volumes, but sometimes the letters were and still are published in separate volumes as well.10 Older principles of publishing letters (mainly those used in Soviet times11), when an author’s letters to various addressees are printed in chronological order, with standardized language and with the errors corrected, continue to be used sometimes. Epistolary texts are frequently aimed at as broad an audience as possible. For instance, only some of the more significant letters are selected, and the language is modernized. At the same time, an assumption is made, based on the cult of the author, that it is the author’s work that is of interest, so responses are not selected for printing, or sometimes even those letters without significant addressees. According to the requirements of the publication of collected works in Soviet times, published letters are viewed more as literary texts; seeking to make easier reading, the language is edited and uninteresting fragments are removed. On the other hand, in part they are documents: awkward passages that might reveal unwanted information are trimmed, and the context of the letter writing is given. 

Recent academic editions of collected works show attempts to coordinate the concept of the letter as document and the concept of the letter as literary text. This was the choice made, for example, in the new edition of the letters of Antanas Baranauskas (Raštai, 2010), where the language was not standardized, all the written text’s details, such as interjections or slurs, are included, and the letters are presented in accordance with their addressees, rather than chronologically. Judging from the nonmodernized language, the text is treated like a document, but the method of presenting the letters implies “easier” reading. We see in more recent publications that the interest in the text is focused not improving the language or editing for length, but by the way the letters are arranged. However, it would be incorrect to say that the newer editions of epistolary texts have fewer subjective changes and maintain the original language of the texts. Sofia Kymantaitė-Čiurlionienė’s letters, published in 2011, abandoned the requirement of complete authenticity and compromised the original punctuation, since, according to the editor, “only a facsimile edition could disclose the authenticity of the dashes of various functions.”12 However, there are popular publications that endeavor to maintain the authenticity of the text. For example, in the 2008 volume of the correspondence between Algirdas Julius Greimas and Aleksandra Kašubienė, the language is not standardized and details of the text are not edited for consistency (even the dates remain in their different, authentic formats). Documentary quality is established differently in the letters of Antanas Maceina to Msgr.  Pranciškus Juras, published in 1997: although the grammar is corrected, an image of the writer‘s signature is provided after each letter.

Once the concept of a documentary or literary epistolary text is selected, the problems of text selection change as well. The selection of texts usually depends on the nature of the intended publication, since in documentary and critical (rather than in popular) publications, the recommendation is “to publish all the letters, or at least all the mutual correspondence with some important correspondent.”13 First of all, in publishing it is appropriate to clearly distinguish the text from what is written (the source), since the concept of a letter is sometimes used when calling it text, while at other times the source itself is called a letter.14 So what is chosen for publication is just a portion of the letter (in the material sense), but not the whole of the text of the letter (in one letter-source there may be more than one letter-text). The above-mentioned case of Baranauskas is notable: the publisher chose to print the greetings and the poems Baranauskas sent along with his letters (the sources) together with the literary work instead, in this manner declaring a letter’s – a material object’s – difference from the letter as text. In the volume of the letters of Žemaitė and Šatrijos Ragana (1957), literary attempts sent to Povilas Višinskis, enclosed within the envelopes containing the letters, are not mentioned. However, in the epistolary texts published in the interwar period, such as the letters of Motiejus Gustaitis to Aleksandras Dambrauskas (prepared by Kazimieras Berulis in 1938), as well as the letters of Dambrauskas to Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas (prepared by Juozas Ambrazevičius the same year), the entire text found in the letter envelopes was printed: the text of the letter, poems, and hymns. Even when not publishing other texts sent at the same time or adhering to a strictly documentary publication of letters, it is best to indicate their presence for the sake of the text’s fluency and clarity, because often the text contains comments about the other contents.

Nevertheless, the most important step in the selection of texts is deciding how many epistolary texts are to be published. The separate publication of one or more letters can determine the strict documentary treatment of the letter when it is unexpectedly discovered or if it has historical value. The publication of excerpts of letters also occurs occasionally, when the correspondence is printed as evidence of historical or literary processes. These letters or their excerpts are most often printed in periodicals. Individual letters may also be published on the assumption that a letter is a separate prose narrative. In Lithuania, there are several such examples, such as Tumas-Vaižgantas’s Laiškas Eglutei (Letter to Eglutė, 2007) and Jerzy Illg’s Laiškas Czesławui Miłoszui (Letter to Czesław Miłosz, 2007). It is noteworthy that both of these publications make use of numerous illustrations: Laiškas Eglutei is an illustrated book for children, while the text of Laiškas Czesławui Miłoszui alternates with panoramic photographs. Thus attempts are made to treat the letter as literature. If epistolary texts as private documents in places need to be “accompanied by a great deal of circumstantial information”15 to contextualize the letter’s situation, they are made more literary when presented without comment or explanation and form the concept of the letter as a closed text.

Although we call letters a dialogue or a polylogue (a real or implied relationship is the condition for a letter), a more widespread practice is to publish one side of the correspondence. Most often, as much as possible of the surviving corpus of texts from one of the correspondents is published, assuming that the text of this correspondent is of more interest and literary value. This was frequently the case in the Soviet era. 

However, letters were published in Lithuania long before the Soviet period. That the importance of the letter as a significant document was appreciated at the beginning of the twentieth century can be seen from the letters favored in the press: many were published in the interwar literary journal Athenaeum, and Mūsų senovė published documents, memoirs, and often letters (this journal was specifically intended to collect Lithuanian historical materials). Both of these journals, edited by Juozas Eretas and Tumas-Vaižgantas, highlight the significance of the letter-as-document by narrating the history of the letters and the personal relationship of the correspondents, as well as by providing commentaries. Because of the scope of the periodicals and the perception of the letter writer as a witness to history, the letters of one person to a particular contact are included. But separate publications exist as well: in 1909, the letters of Baranauskas to Jan Boudoin de Courtenay appeared.16 In addition, at the beginning of the twentieth century, “public correspondence,” or letters documenting recent events, was frequently found in the press.

In recent years, if we exclude academic publications of collected works, letters are perhaps most commonly published alongside other autobiographical texts, based on the attitude that letters are egodocuments.17 Letters, memoirs, photos, and fiction are presented in one volume in the most popular publications. 18 This is not simply a publication of letters, but rather the biographical material of an individual.19 For example, in the 2009 collection of memoirs and essays Neužmirštamas Vaižgantas (The Unforgettable Vaižgantas), Tumas’s letters are published together with other people’s memoirs and articles; the author’s letters are printed alongside those addressed to him. The eclectic book compiled by Jonas Mekas, Trys draugai: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Jurgis Mačiūnas: pokalbiai, laiškai, užrašai (Three Friends: John Lennon, Yoko Ono, George Mačiūnas: Interviews, Letters, Notes, 2007) could be called Fluxist: all three author’s letters, conversations, creative work, text facsimiles, photographs, etc., are presented together. In this case, the implied audience of the epistolary publication determines its documentary or literary nature, and in the contemporary publishing tradition, letters are more often regarded as literary texts intended for nonspecialists; epistolary texts are edited as literature and sometimes not commented on at all. In addition, for popular publications, it is sometimes suggested that only the fragments of letters that would interest the readership be selected.20

Drawing the line between significant and insignificant, however, is an extremely complex task.21 Aleksandras Žirgulys explained it well: it’s often not worth the destruction of the text’s integrity, and “it’s better sometimes to cut the whole letter than to trim it.”22 In Wilmarth S. Lewis’s opinion, in the decision to print only “interesting” letters or their fragments, even in popular publications, there is a need to “weigh and balance each case, now admitting, now rejecting.” He concludes that this kind of selection is not suitable for academic editions.23 It is assumed that, in any case, the letter is a historical artifact, so in publishing a volume of letters, it is necessary to indicate that letters or parts of them have been omitted, so that the interested reader is aware of the situation.24

When publishing the letters of one individual as an authorial text, the unpublished side of the correspondence is often commented upon, so that the absolute autonomy of the letter as one author’s text is denied; at the same time, the editor is free to choose what is worth presenting to the reader. It is often suggested that an attempt be made to avoid losing the illusion of dialogue: “when publishing only one side of the conversation in letters, the comments should be written in such a way that, at least in part, one experiences a dialogue”; although if the addressee’s response has “a direct essential significance in the dialogue,” it should be published at the same time.25 The theoretical position that a letter is a part of a dialogue (a conversation) may determine the attempt not only to imitate correspondence with comments and explanations from the other side of the communication, but also a complete dialogical publication that includes all the letters from both correspondents. For the reader, inclusion of the dialogue provides an opportunity not only to get information, but also to enjoy an aesthetic experience. 26 These types of texts also move closer to the primary function of the letter, that is, to inform and to communicate. 

Epistolary dialogue publications are increasing in Lithuania. In 1998, the letters between Vladas Drėma and Stanisław Lorentz, as well as the correspondence between Julius Sasnauskas and Antanas Terleckas in 2001, appeared in bilingual editions. 27 An outstanding example of an epistolary dialogue is the letters of Simonas Daukantas to Teodoras Narbutas, published in 1996.28 Probably the publication receiving the most popular attention (not only read, but also studied) was Algirdo Juliaus Greimo ir Aleksandros Kašubienės laiškai 1988–1992 (The Letters of Algirdas Julius Greimas and Aleksandra Kašubienė 1988– 1992, published in 2008). Dialogic publications are considered commendable, because, as Giedrė Šmitienė has written about Janina Degutytė’s letters, “together they open up a rich and meaningful space for relationships.”29 It would be inaccurate, however, to assert that there is a clearer concept of the letter as a literary text in dialogic publications. Sometimes, the aim is to better document the situation, to clarify cause and effect and the context of questions and answers. However, the unifying plot, even in documentary publications of letter dialogues, allows us to consider them as coherent narratives, i.e., possessing literary qualities.

Another way to combine the conversational aspect of epistolary texts with individual authorship is to select texts not by author, but by the addressee or group addressed. An example of a publication of this type is Tumas-Vaižgantas’s Laiškai Klimams (Letters to the Klimas Family, 1998), which was called “a literary and historical innovation”;30 it is not incidental that this is not the only epistolary edition of a conversation where the texts are selected by their addressee.31 An interesting case is the collection of letters written to Ignatius Kraszewski: most of his own letters have not survived, but his epistolary relationships are of interest, so letters from different individuals addressed to him, along with several fragments of dialogues, were published. One person’s correspondence to another person can also turn into a publication if the writing has been extensive: for example, Henriko Radausko laiškai Ivarui Ivaskui (Henrikas Radauskas’s Letters to Ivar Ivask, 2009), or the above-mentioned epistolary texts of Maceina. The recent book Sugrįžęs iš gyvenimo (Returned from Life, 2013), coauthored by Viktorija Daujotytė and Marcelijus Martinaitis, can be considered a nontraditional publication of letters. It includes not only their epistolary dialogue, but also e-mails, which do not often see the light of day. Since the chronology was sometimes lost, the majority of the letters are presented without dates and instead arranged according to the question-answer principle, which creates the impression that this is an ongoing epistolary conversation. It is no coincidence that the subtitle reads “conversations and literary letters.”

We can debate whether the dialogic publication of letters is gaining in popularity in the wake of independence because Lithuanian literary and textual horizons have inevitably expanded in response to fresh ideas in literary theory and other perspectives on authorship (such as Barthes’ and others’ postulates on “the death of the author”). In addition, the possibility of questioning the nature of reality and fiction must have made a contribution, as well as a boom in the research of autobiographical texts. Changes have also occurred in the publication of texts in other genres; adherence to their canonical renditions is no longer seen as imperative. In Ignas Šeinius’s Raštai (Works, 2001), several versions of his classic story Kuprelis are offered side by side, and Baranauskas’s Raštai successfully highlighted textual variations. Questioning the distinction between fictional and nonfictional narratives changes the attitude towards documents versus literature: everything is literature, but everything is also a document. Therefore, in their principle of presentation, letters approach the reading of literary texts, but the fundamental editorial principle is to provide texts in as documentary a form as possible. It should be noted that in the current publishing situation, claims of approaching a “golden mean,” a universal semicritical publication, are no longer made. The division between the types of publication and the attitude towards letters has become apparent: the most popular ones choose to provide an interesting text, such as snippets of letters to illustrate an important piece of reality, or, conversely, to demonstrate some literary aspect of the text. When the publisher considers the letter a document, less attention is paid to its limits and it is published without excisions: every detail is important, and there is less worry about whether the content of the letter has any appeal to the reader. However, there are also editors of epistolary texts who seek to highlight the literary nature of the letters and edit them in such a way as to fulfill an aesthetic function.

At the beginning of this article, it was mentioned that textual practices influence the perception and interpretation of the text. It seems that the variety of epistolary publications (not so characteristic of other texts) and the usual uncertainty in the face of publishing a letter comes from the fact that the latter must strike a balance between the documentary and the literary. In Lithuania, there is no single letter-publishing tradition, and striking differences are being established between the treatment of letters in popular and critical (literary) publications. The choice of publication venue – documentary, critical, popular or other – is directly linked to the concept of the letter and to a fundamental editorial question: are letters historic documents that should be presented in their original entirety? The older tradition of publishing letters stressed their literary value; editors treated them as literary texts and felt free or even obligated to revise them. The situation has changed, and letters are now considered documents; they are still an important portion of an author’s oeuvre, but are edited more lightly. The current emphasis leans towards a less assertive editorial role; published correspondence stays closer to the author’s version. The overarching modern editorial goal is to present the letters as part of a conversation, to demonstrate an entire epistolary relationship, or to show a network of such relationships. These publications receive greater attention from researchers, who analyze not just the various facts found in the letter or their expression in the text, but precisely the epistolary dialogue. 

The complex features of a letter’s authorship, ownership, documentation, literary value, and other borderline aspects cause problems for bibliographers as well: in catalogues, letters are classified by the author as well as by the recipient, and sometimes by an edition’s editors. It is likely that the more precise the definition of the concept of the letter becomes and is applied both to the editing and the reading and research level, the determination of its publication type, the choice of texts, and the editing of their language would be easier and more clearly motivated. 

Translated by Irena Blekys

1 Cohen, “Introduction,” xiii.
2 Greetham, The Theories, 4–5, 20.
3 Bell, “The Letters,” 65.
4 Walker, “Editing,” 108.
5 Tanselle, “The Editing,” 2–57.
6 Ibid., 9–13.
7 Ragauskienė and Ragauskas, Barboros Radvilaitės, 167.
8 Reiman, The Study, 113.
9 Altman, “The Letter Book,” 19.
10 For example, Šatrijos Ragana, Laiškai (1957); Lindė-Dobilas, Laiškai (1999), etc.
11 Several examples can be mentioned that more or less follow all of the specifics of the publication of collected works of that time period, i.e., Višinskis, Raštai (1964); Žemaitė, Raštai (1957); Petkevičaitė- Bitė, Raštai (1968); Šatrijos Ragana, Laiškai (1986).
12 Kymantaitė-Čiurlionienė, Raštai, 520.
13 Subačius, Tekstologija, 57.
14 See Kučinskienė, “Ne-laiškas,” 552.
15 Reiman, The Study, 57.
16 Niecisław, A. a. kunigo.
17 See Braziūnas, Eduardas Mieželaitis: post scriptum (2008); Zelčiūtė, Jurga atsiminimai, pokalbiai, laiškai (2008); Gavelienė, Bliuzas Ričardui Gaveliui (2007); Žvirgždas and Žmuida, Alfonsas Nyka-Niliūnas: poetas ir jo pasaulis (2010); Babickaitė, Laiškai. Amžininkų atsiminimai, (2005); Babickaitė, Atsiminimai. Dienoraštis. Laiškai. (2001); Pakėnas, Neužmirštamas Vaižgantas (2009), etc.
18 See Čiurlionis, Laiškai (2001); Mekas, Trys draugai (2007), etc.
19 See Halsband, “Editing,” 30.
20 Žirgulys, Tekstologijos bruožai, 169.
21 Ibid., 170.
22 Ibid., 199–200.
23 L ewis, “Editing,” 30.
24 Wood, “Historians,” 875–76.
25 Žirgulys, Tekstologijos bruožai, 204, 205.
26 Lewis, “Editing,” 30.
27 Janonienė, Vladas Drėma; Sasnauskas and Terleckas, Jei esame.
28 Griškaitė, Simono Daukanto.
29 Šmitienė, “Susirašinėjančiųjų bendrija,” 38.
30 Subačius, Tekstologija, 57.
31 See Mykolaitis-Putinas, Vinco Mykolaičio-Putino.


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