Epistolary Bodies: Gender and Genre in the Eighteenth-Century Republic of Letters

Synopsis

Proceeding from the perspective of Jurgen Habermas's public sphere theory, this book studies the popular eighteenth-century genre of the epistolary narrative through readings of four works: Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (1721), Richardson's Clarissa (1749-50), Riccoboni's Lettres de Mistriss Fanni Butlerd (1757), and Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782). The author situates epistolary narratives in the contexts of eighteenth-century print culture: the rise of new models of readership and the newly influential role of the author; the model of contract derived from liberal political theory as it relates to new writer/reader relations; and the techniques and aesthetics of mechanical reproduction. Writing at the paradoxical crossroads of public and private, epistolary authors used the genre to formulate a range of responses to a cultural anxiety about private energies and appetites, particularly those of women, as well as to legitimate their own authorial practices. Just as the socialcontract increasingly came to be seen as the organizing instrument of public, civic relations in this period, the author argues that the epistolary novel serves analogously in the ostensible private sphere of affective relations to produce, socialize, and regulate the private subject as a citizen of the Republic of Letters.