Biography 25.4 (2002) 685-687
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Epistolary Histories consists of eight essays and responses, and a full introduction by the editors. The essays are grouped into three sections: "Epistolarity [End Page 685] and Femininity," "Cultures of Letters," and "New Epistolary Directions." After each essay, one of the contributors responds to it, not so much to criticize as to expand upon the essay itself. This format adds substantially to the depth of the volume.
The editors' opening paragraph describes succinctly the intent and overarching theme of their volume:
The epistolary form, as we have come to recognize, is historically and culturally specific: the letters that come to us, and the fictions/histories that we write about them, rely on and bear the traces of particular historical practices. The essays in this volume focus mainly on Anglo-American texts from the seventeenth century to the present day, and they enter into an ongoing debate about the cultural history of the epistolary form. Crucially, they ask us, in Mary Favret's resonant phrase, "to read the envelope of contingency that surrounds any letter," and in so doing they annotate the ways in which each letter, however private and personal it may seem, is a letter marked by and sent to the world.
While the editors' introduction can get a bit dense, at least for this reviewer, it serves well to situate epistolary studies in contemporary theory by noting that "the major trend in epistolary studies is away from thematic and structuralist criticism and toward meticulous cultural historicism." In other words, as the editors acknowledge, critics including those represented in this volume are "tak[ing] account of the impact of New Historicism." This would seem to be one of the major contributions of epistolarity: that it enables the writer to draw both on the cultural biases of the real or fictional author as well as those of the recipient. Thus, in Clare Brant's essay "Love Stories? Epistolary Histories of Mary Queen of Scots," she observes that "The history of readers and readings should consider not only when the reader is reading but what kind of letter the reader thinks it is, and with whom this reading will be shared." This leads to the question of what creates changes in culture, and as Nancy Armstrong asserts in her essay about "Writing Women and the Modern Middle Class," "we must . . . rethink the commonplace that the emergent middle class was responsible for writing novels and assume instead that novels were responsible for modernizing the middle class." Perhaps so, but it would seem that the making of a culture and the responses to it are always a two-way street. Letters in fiction are particularly fascinating because they add a third layer of complexity to a work: not only are there the perspectives of the writer and the recipient, but there is that of the author of the work, who while controlling her fictional creations is also reflecting a cultural attitude, both consciously and subconsciously.
What appears to me most productive in these essays is the authors' utilization in good New Historicist fashion of biographical and historical details [End Page 686] to explicate the texts they consider. Thus, to oversimplify, Martha Nell Smith teaches us a good deal about Emily Dickinson and her work by examining the poet's intimate relationship with her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson. Smith demonstrates how "the near-hegemonic prevalence of conscriptive heterosexual story lines renders inscrutable the imaginary explosion of one woman lover to another beloved woman." She concludes that "study of their correspondence . . . reveals how the two equated poetic union, or linguistic coition, with erotic union, how false our distinction can be between textual study and biography, and how, for them, in the words of Emily, 'Poetry and Love . . . coeval come.'"
Richard Hardack considers Melville's passionate friendship with Hawthorne in much the same fashion as Smith does that of the Dickinsons. Hawthorne's great influence on Melville is common...