Paper Bodies: Letters and Letter Writing in the Early American Novel

Kacy Tillman, University of Tampa
Vol. 35, No. 1 (Spring 2016), 123-144

This article suggests that in early American novels, the letter served as a kind of paper body, a contested space where women writers and their readers vied for control over the female form, symbolizing the broader cultural struggle in which women were enmeshed during and shortly after the American Revolution. Using Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple, Hannah Webster Foster’s The Coquette, William Hill Brown’s The Power of Sympathy, Tabitha Gilman Tenney’s Female Quixotism, and the letter-writing manuals that informed these novels, this article argues that epistles in early American fiction function less like scenery and more like characters with rules of propriety governing their construction, delivery, reception, and response. While letters offered a certain amount of agency to women as paper bodies that could travel long distances unaccompanied into the private rooms of men, they could also pass out of their writers’ control. Men and women could intercept, change, misinterpret, redirect, and generally manipulate epistles as they saw fit. In these novels, no matter what choice a woman makes—write or avoid writing, read or avoid reading—her agency is as easily destroyed as the paper on which her words are written.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]