A "Wild and Ambiguous Medium": Letters and Epistolary Fictions in Early America, 1780-1830

Doctoral Dissertation


This dissertation studies the changing function and cultural meaning of the epistolary form in early American fiction from 1780-1830. Epistolary writing was extremely popular during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but American works differ from their British literary predecessors. American authors recognized the ambiguities inherent in the epistolary form and used letters to complicate and destabilize the teleological narrative of national destiny that characterized political documents and popular rhetoric. At the same time, the expansion of print culture changed the ways in which letters were read and interpreted, paradoxically investing the handwritten form with greater authority and meaning than it signified a century earlier. Letters became not only a means of reflecting social, political, and cultural upheaval, but also a powerful form capable of generating disruption and uncertainty. The epistolary novels of the 1780s and ‘90s, including canonical works such as The Coquette and The Power of Sympathy, demonstrate how women appropriated the letter to form epistolary networks through which to participate in rational critical debate of public issues. However, the epistolary form of these novels also undermines popular belief in the distinctively American right to pursue happiness by guiding both fictional characters and readers through endless cycles anticipation, disruption, and deferral. Charles Brockden Brown’s novels, Jane Talbot and Arthur Mervyn, and a well-publicized case of forgery interrogate the proper use of letters during the tumultuous 1790s. In contrast to print, the handwritten letter was perceived to embody the moral character of its author, thereby rendering the forgery, theft, and misappropriation of personal correspondence even more dangerous. The debates surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts and the publication of personal correspondence written by America’s founders reveal the extent to which interpretation of the epistolary form was a contested issue. In the epistolary travel texts of the early nineteenth century, the letter becomes a vehicle through which to critique print culture and imagine a transnational culture of gentility. The nationalism of the 1820s is reflected in James Fenimore Cooper’s Notions of the Americans, which instead uses the epistolary form to reinforce America’s strength and separation from Europe.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-06292006-131817

Author Jacqueline Marie Den Hartog
Advisor Sandra Gustafson
Contributor Glenn Hendler, Committee Member
Contributor Javier Rodriguez, Committee Member
Contributor Sandra Gustafson, Committee Chair
Contributor Jesse Lander, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline English
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2006-06-06

Submission Date 2006-06-29
  • United States of America

  • early american novels

  • letters

  • epistolary fiction

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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