Revising Letters and Reclaiming Space: The Case for Expanding the Search for Nineteenth-Century Women's Letter-Writing Rhetoric into Imaginative Literature

By Glascott, Brenda | College English, November 2015 | Go to article overview

Revising Letters and Reclaiming Space: The Case for Expanding the Search for Nineteenth-Century Women's Letter-Writing Rhetoric into Imaginative Literature


Glascott, Brenda, College English


This essay straddles lines of inquiry into historical letter-writing instruction that are frequently separated by disciplinary divides between literary studies and composition/rhetoric. These disciplinary divides typically focus attention on particular kinds of artifacts to the exclusion of others (novels or letter-writing manuals). By looking to imaginative literature by women for revisions of dominant letter-writing rhetoric, I demonstrate that we need to reassess the framework that we have used to describe women's letter-writing rhetoric in the nineteenth century. The current framework organizes the affordances and limitations of this rhetoric according to how it maps onto distinct domestic and public spheres. However, as I will demonstrate, our interest in a divided domestic and public sphere does not adequately describe the site that was the focus of women's letter-writing rhetoric within the context of the early- and mid-nineteenth century. By examining how letter-writing manuals constructed women's letter-writing rhetoric and how two nineteenth-century women writers revised this rhetoric, I posit that the battleground for women's rhetorical agency in letter writing was located in women's interiority. In other words, letter-writing rhetoric attempted to create a colonized emotional and mental landscape in which women could not conceptualize-let alone express- unpleasant, self-indulgent, or angry thoughts or emotions. Thus, when we look into the history of this rhetoric for the public sphere, we are riding out to the wrong battlefield. The evidence I present here suggests that nineteenth-century women would have understood the site of the struggle for rhetorical agency as interior, as comprising women's subjectivities.

My theory about interiority being a significant site of women's letter-writing rhetoric is based on a contrastive reading of mid-nineteenth-century letter-writing manuals against a case study of contemporaneous novels by women that include letters by female characters. I first noticed the consonances and dissonances among the letter-writing rhetorics in these artifacts accidently-I read these texts for separate purposes only to discover strong resonances between them. While the letter-writing manuals and the novels promote similar gendered values, including submission and self-sacrifice, the novels use letters as the sole site in which female characters can subvert these values without punishment. This use of letters in the novels contradicts the strong message about women's letter-writing rhetoric in the manuals. The novels, then, seem to offer women readers a revised rhetoric for letter writing.

What I offer here is a case study of how we might go about locating women's rhetorics in the imaginative literature by women in their historical contexts. I chose two novels, Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World and Maria Cummins' The Lamplighter, that focus on women's education and that were published during the pre-Civil War decade when the letter-writing manuals I examine circulated. These two novels are some of the most important novels by American women in the nineteenth century partially because of their extreme popularity-even today The Wide, Wide World, The Lamplighter, and Uncle Tom's Cabin are the most widely read "sentimental" novels from this era (Weinstein 304). These novels were read by men and women alike into the early twentieth century (there is even an allusion to The Lamplighter's female protagonist in James Joyce's Ulysses). The Wide, Wide World-which Jane Tompkins calls the "ur-text of the nineteenth-century United States"-was published in 1850 and was at that point the bestselling American novel (585). It went through fourteen editions in two years (Baym, American 584) and was popular through the rest of the nineteenth century in the United States and England. The Lamplighter was published a few years later in 1854 and outsold The Wide, Wide World. It was the second most popular novel in 1850s, after Uncle Tom's Cabin. …

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