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

By Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO
Writing the Republic of Letters THE 'LETTRES PERSANES' AND THE CITIZEN - CRITIC

Montesquieu Lettres persanes ( 1721) definitively reshaped both epistolary poetics and the thematics of public and private for subsequent eighteenth-century epistolary fictions. Its innovativeness does not have to do with the story of strangers visiting the West, for the "foreign observer" plot was well established by the end of the seventeenth century.1 However, Montesquieu's is the first letter-narrative to exploit the full narratological possibilities of the epistolary form.2 Montesquieu moves beyond the models of the satirical exposé and the sensational roman à clef to make his letter-narrative an analytical instrument that shapes its own ideal reader, a reader whose relation to the text and the society it describes is (literally) critical. At the same time, the book consolidates a new space, that of the Enlightenment public sphere, in which readers become citizens, participating actively in the political order through their critique of it.3 In becoming the citizen-critic, Montesquieu's reader unites the different participatory modes of the literary and the political. In the idealized domain of the Republic of Letters, Montesquieu's epistolary strategies involve the readers of the Lettres persanes as critics themselves, actively engaged, like the Persians they read about, in the project of social and political critique.

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