- Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism
Anne Bower examines the literary and personal spaces for writers and readers created by twentieth-century epistolary novels; in addition, she considers the re-visioning power of letters when used in or as critical studies. Noting that authors often create fictional women writing to “increase their power or sense of self,” inventing an empowering space, Bower discusses seven American epistolary novels that contain a “heroine, caught in situations that ask too much of her, reacting to people who seem to misunderstand or ignore her, puzzled by a changing self.” In her final chapter, Bower analyzes several critical texts that use letters as academic tools. Throughout the book, she questions traditional academic discourse and structure by incorporating personal letters to her readers, using the first person consistently in her analytical discussions, and including personal and professional correspondence. While the combination of the literary, the critical, and the personal enacts the complexity and responsiveness of the epistolary genre itself, the personal insertions and self-reflexive comments about the critical task seem at times unnecessary and distracting.
Bower chooses an admirable variety of popular and literary epistolary novels to discuss. In separate chapters, Bower focuses on Lee Smith’s Fair and Tender Ladies (1988), John Barth’s LETTERS: A Novel (1979), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), John Updike’s S. (1988), Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs (1912), Upton Sinclair’s Another Pamela, or Virtue Still Rewarded (1950), and Ana Castillo’s The Mixquiahuala Letters [End Page 1007] (1986). Bower alters her approaches to the texts, working with four basic principles that she highlights, combines, or foregrounds. She interrogates the negotiation between absence and presence in fictional letters, particularly with Smith’s and Barth’s texts. Another central and organizing principle is the “gendering of writing style”; Bower compares the male and female authors’ construction of female characters and female writing voices. Focusing on the intertextuality of epistolary texts, such as Barth’s numerous allusions, Bower considers Upton Sinclair’s relettering of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela with his text, and the delettering of Webster’s book by the dramatic, musical, film, and cartoon versions. The epistolary novel’s generic power to theorize reading and writing acts illuminates her discussion of Castillo’s novel.
In the last chapter, Bower fully explains her use of “personal criticism.” Arguing that many, including herself, “find the standard argumentative article alienating or . . . uninteresting,” Bower asserts that personal criticism, particularly when embedded in an epistolary format, can provide connections and responses between readers, writers, and re-readers. Faye Weldon’s Letters to Alice, Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card, Gerald MacLean’s “Citing the Subject,” Gloria Anzaldua’s “Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers,” and others all provide models of this type of epistolary criticism. In the individual chapters, Bower includes personal insights and correspondence. Barth, Updike, and Castillo respond to specific questions about their texts: the first two authors, in their responses, indicate that their concerns with the epistolary form and the female characters diverge considerably with Bower’s concerns, while Castillo provides a moving letter about the character Alicia and her choice of the epistolary form. Various critics, such as Dorothy Hill, Linda Kauffman, and James Schiff, comment in letter form on sections of Epistolary Responses. This inclusion emphasizes the creative and critical acts as processes, just like the epistolary ones; but some sections of the letters do not relate to the central point of the particular chapter.
The spaces created by epistolary fiction are vast, and the breadth of the originating idea occasionally weakens the individual arguments within the whole. For example, in the chapter on The Color Purple, Bower argues that the readers and critics of the novel correspond with it, so she feels it “appropriate to incorporate much of this larger correspondence, [End Page 1008] creating a sort of in-gathering”; yet the variety of responses confuses any central thesis about the text. Also, Bower, despite acknowledging the complexity of...