restricted access The Fiction of Correspondence: Letters and History
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The Fiction of Correspondence:
Letters and History

Were He French, John Barth might have titled his 1979 novel LETTERS with a similarly self-reflexive pun to emphasize its preoccupation with textuality and the American past: "histoire."1 English may demand that we choose between "history" and "story," but the French term broad-mindedly embraces both, extends the range of signification even to "idle story, untruth, falsehood," and suspends questions of verifiability or referentiality. History, in LETTERS, plays across this entire range of textual possibility even as it spans three centuries of American revolution and social unrest, Indian conspiracy, diplomatic intrigue, and civil rights struggle, and crosses and recrosses borders from the Niagara Frontier and Chesapeake backwaters to Elba and St. Helena. "While I don't conceive the work in hand to be a historical novel," writes the Author to one of the seven characters whose correspondence constitutes LETTERS, "I evidently do have capital-H History on my mind" (431)—a history at [End Page 405] once carnivalesque and tragic, national and personal, ambiguous, disruptive, but above all, the function of "letters"—of language.

Just as the reflexive narrative structure of LETTERS engages the mimetic foundation of belles-lettres in a postmodern critique, so the novel challenges traditional notions of history that assume a prior object to which the text simply corresponds and referentially reconstitutes. In the domain of LETTERS, fiction and history engage intertextually as competing forms of lettered construction, just as the script for Reg Prinz's film "reenacts and recreates events and images from 'the [Author's] books,' which do likewise from life and history and even among themselves . . ." (383). As one correspondent writes to Author Barth, "History is a code which, laboriously and at ruinous cost, deciphers into HISTORY" (332)—the novel, movie, TV docudrama. It becomes a text that necessarily offers itself for continued decipherment and reencodement: "[H]istory really is that bird you [Barth] mention somewhere," suggests another correspondent, "who flies in ever diminishing circles until it disappears up its own fundament" (381).

Yet Barth himself does not fully endorse the notion that history self-deconstructs, leaving only the faintest of traces. As Charles Harris observes, although "LETTERS seems to insist upon its status as mise en abym, a Derridean plexus of intertextual traces . . . Barth is not quite ready to cast literary tradition into the ahistorical abyss of the deconstructionists" (165). Literary and historical discourse, in Barth's terms, derives not simply from the free play of signification but instead evolves within the confines of a complex historical archive—"an entire set of cultural rules [that] determine the production, distribution, and consumption of the discourse" and "effectively delimit the flight of the signifier."2 As we shall see, it is with these rules and this production that LETTERS reflexively engages, for its particular concern is to expose how America, as narrative and object, is called into being by competing discourses, and how these, in turn, regulate the institutions, behaviors, and social and political practices of those who articulate and are articulated by these discourses.

The novel's title and structure have tempted some critics to read LETTERS as a clever but solipsistic formalist game. "LETTERS" signifies a text comprised of eighty-eight letters (epistles) written over a seven-month span (but reaching back two hundred years) by seven correspondents—one character to correspond to each of the alphabetical [End Page 406] letters (characters) that the word "LETTERS" (reflexively) signifies. Six of these seven correspondents are "autoplagiarized" from the six earlier texts of Barth's oeuvre, and as each meditates upon the significance of his life to date—his history—the Author participates in a similar review by composing LETTERS—a narrative that seeks "neither to repeat nor to repudiate [his] career thus far" (767). But just as this enterprise narrows dangerously into a hermetic illustration of the exhaustion of the postmodern writer, Barth introduces the structural conceit of the epistolary form itself; with it, he turns his reflexive scrutiny not simply upon his own authorship nor upon traditional belles-lettres, but upon the processes by which generations of people have "lettered" their experience. Even as the epistolary form takes LETTERS back to...