Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism

Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism

Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism

Epistolary Responses: The Letter in 20th-Century American Fiction and Criticism

Synopsis

Letters - a most traditional and old-fashioned form of discourse - continue to offer special opportunities for writers and readers in the postmodern era. Bower explores the way letters shape the act of writing and writing as act. Epistolary Responses uses a variety of theoretical approaches (chiefly feminist and reader response) to analyze seven novels, all featuring women letter writers: Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters, Upton Sinclair's Another Pamela, John Updike's S., Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies, and John Barth's LETTERS (in which six men also write letters, but the central and most original epistolarian is female). Punctuated with various letters - from novel authors and critics - Epistolary Responses enacts some of the give and take of the subject matter and provides some sense of the collective or composite textuality.

Excerpt

June 26, 1995

Dear Reader,

Ever since I was a child I have loved letters. An envelope received from the dark of the mailbox crackles with promise, waiting for my fingers to expose its enshrouded gift. This letter was once held by its writer and is now held by me, so that the page forms a physical bridge between sender and receiver. E-mail's convenience has its advantages but lacks the contact point of a shared page; its speed and effortlessness also reduce the "gift" quality. E-mail has become part of my communications system, but I still prefer the old-fashioned letter, an attachment some of my friends see as "romantic." Carefully drawn or impatiently ripped from the envelope, a letter brings not only a message, a presence, a relationship, a memory, a secret, a possibility, a joke, an invitation, or a thank you, but traces of its sender (from handwriting to a mere smudge at the fold line).

What particularly marked letters as special in my early years was discovering that what I wrote down and enclosed in an envelope made a difference to others. The essays for Mrs. Brown's fifth grade got A's, but those grades were negated by their overwhelming negative consequences: the girls in class teased me for being a teacher's pet, and the boys disdained me, preferring the girls who received lower grades. Poems I wrote embarrassed my parents, who preferred limericks to my efforts at lyric or philosophic expression, and my early efforts at journalism brought forth only head pats, fleeting smiles, and other gestures of condescension. But letters . . .

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