Essay And Letters As Literary Forms

Reviews147 stimulated and supported Whitford, communities which continue not only to challenge the heretofore dominant forms of thought in Western philosophy, but to provide a space within which to imagine the new forms so essential to the survival of the culture. University of Illinois—ChicagoRuth El Saffar Writing the Female Voice: Essays on EpistoL·^ Literature, edited by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith; xiii & 296 pp. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989, $32.50. Elizabeth C. Goldsmith has brought together a collection ofessays on women's epistolarity: letters written by real women ("writers" and non-writers), as well as letters written by fictional women in novels by both men and women. The time and place of these letters varies from sixteenth-century Venice (Veronica Franco) to twenty-first century "Gilead" (Margaret Atwood's TL· Handmaid's Tale). Despite the enormous variety in chronology and geography (Italy, France, England, Germany, Persia, North and South America, Africa), the essays are linked by their common attempt to define the nature of the female voice in the letter-writing genre. Various critical perspectives become apparent, as we survey the essays in this volume. Goldsmith raises, in her introduction, one of the key questions of the book: can male authors faithfully represent the female voice, or is this sort of literary "cross-dressing" inevitably doomed to failure? The authors who treat this problem, particularly acute in the eighteenth-century epistolary novel, respond in a variety ofways. Carson, in an essay on Richardson's Clarissa, develops a theory about male authors as female impersonators, allowing the male author, Pygmalion-like, to develop a maternal side. Pucci explores the eleven letters written by the Persian wives in Montesquieu's Lettres Persanes, finding, surprisingly , that Montesquieu does write "like a woman," particularly in the final letter by Roxanne, which redefines female passion, nature, and virtue. Epstein shows Cleland's Fanny Hill to be a manipulation of female epistolarity, to treat male sexuality (for a male audience), and eventually to consign Fanny to a traditional marriage and silence. Jackson, in the last of the eighteenth-century studies, demonstrates Laclos's Liahons dangereuses to overdetermine its female voices, through a predictable concern with mastery and victimization. The majority of essays mentioned above use a feminist perspective to show the failure of male authors, for a variety of reasons, to capture the female voice in the letters they attribute to female characters. The remaining essays in the 148Philosophy and Literature volume treat female epistolarity in works written by women, but must still address a host of other puzzling questions, particularly about the fundamental differences between fictional women's letters and collections of real letters by women, often assembled after the author's death. The analyses of "real" letters seem, in this reviewer's opinion, the least successful in the volume, as the critical questions asked of them are not the same as for epistolary fiction, male or female. The passionate female love letters found in epistolary novels written by males vanish when we look at realcollections of women's letters: Mme. de Sévigné (Goldsmith); Mme. de Sade (Hayes); and George Sand (Crecelius). None of these women intended to publish her letters, and they generally wrote to relatives rather than lovers. More comparison among these audiors would have strengthened these essays, all of which show lack of communication between writer and correspondent. The remaining essays treat fictional epistolarity in women authors, representing , for the most part, the voices of women characters. These essays are among the strongest in the collection, showing women who "find their voice" in letters, often overcoming isolation, and achieving communication with the reader, if not with the original (fictional) correspondent: Spacks shows Jane Austen to understand the power of the female voice, even in apparendy trivial letters; Altman celebrates the striking success ofMme. de Graffigny in the Lettres d'une Péruvienne, which challenge European ethnocentrism as well as sexism; Kauffman demonstrates how Margaret Atwood unearths a female voice from the year 2000; and finally Williams, in a masterful essay on The Color Purple, explores the ironic nature of Alice Walker's use of the epistolary form, which highlights Celie's isolation, and depicts links between the letter and the more solitary...

Since the late 20th century historians and literary scholars have become far more interested in letters as a genre and in letter writing as a social and cultural practice. The most notable books in this field have explored the work that letters have done as documents, as material items, and as forms of communication and expression. Given the prominence of the epistolary genre in the 18th century, it is hardly surprising that a lot of this scholarship has focused on that period. Altman 1982 offers a classic meditation on this genre. There has been a proliferation of edited collections on letters and letter writing. In part, the flourishing of electronic epistolarity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has made scholars more conscious of the importance of letters in earlier periods. Poster and Mitchell 2007, Barton and Hall 1999, and Earle 1999 range geographically and over the classical, early modern, and modern periods. Other works, such as Daybell 2001 and Gaul and Harris 2009, have presented more geographically and temporally focused overviews. These collections provide a helpful overview of key issues in the production, meanings, and circulation of the letter as a genre and as a textual artifact, and discussion of the genre and letter-writing manuals. The collections also include a variety of approaches, including literary interpretation, social network analysis, and material-centered considerations, and represent a range of disciplines, from historians interested in manuscript letters to literary scholars focused on print cultures to social scientists concerned with networks and communication. Altogether, however, most studies have tended to stress the agency of letters and their writers. Works have also pointed to the ways letter-writing models and practices have changed over time and within and across cultures, and have expanded to include many more individuals.

  • Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982.

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    This foundational work on the genre of letters focuses on the dialogic quality of letters. The text covers a wide range of letters, from the ancients to the moderns, but stresses the 18th century. Articles consider themes of mediation, confidence, readership, and narrative structure, among others.

  • Barton, David, and Nigel Hall, eds. Letter Writing as a Social Practice. Studies in Written Language and Literacy 9. Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1999.

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    This broad collection of articles, ranging from early America to Victorian England to modern Nepal, explores the more general social and cultural significance of the act of letter writing. There is an emphasis on Anglophone letters. Contributors include historians, anthropologists, and education specialists.

  • Daybell, James, ed. Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1450–1700. Early Modern Literature in History. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230598669E-mail Citation »

    This anthology looks at English women and their letters in the period from the late 15th to the early 18th centuries. The historians here find that elite women used letters in a variety of ways to maintain networks and to participate in religious and political activities.

  • Earle, Rebecca, ed. Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter-Writers, 1600–1945. Warwick Studies in the European Humanities. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

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    This well-edited collection of essays on letters and their writers deals with European and American letters, asserting that letters provide information not simply about particular writers or events but also about larger social and cultural contexts. Essays examine business, diplomatic, and personal correspondences and issues of gender.

  • Gaul, Theresa Strouth, and Sharon M. Harris, eds. Letters and Cultural Transformations in the United States, 1760–1860. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

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    These essays, of a largely literary bent, study the development of epistolary cultures in the emerging United States, finding such epistolary practices critical to American identity and culture. Collectively, the essays, which cover transnationalism, authorship, periodicals, and editing, emphasize the relevance of letter writing to public life.

  • Poster, Carol, and Linda C. Mitchell, eds. Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present: Historical and Bibliographic Studies. Studies in Rhetoric/Communication. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

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    This collection of articles on letter-writing manuals covers an exceptionally wide time span, beginning in the classical era and ending with e-mail. The volume includes helpful essays on English and American letter-writing manuals in the early modern and modern periods.


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