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Spring 2018 Undergraduate English Courses: Restoration/Eighteenth Century

358:435 Seminar: The Literature of Letters in Eighteenth-Century England

01 TTH5  CAC 12763  MCKEON, M.   SC-106

 The Literature of Letters in Eighteenth-Century England

The letter form had an enormous impact on English literature in this period, inspiring innovative genres and sub-genres that remain popular today.

The writing and circulation of actual letters underwent extraordinary growth at this time, along with the expansion of the English postal system. The letter form lends itself to a broad range of purposes: the communication of personal and private feelings and desires, local news of the day, diplomatic and state secrets, legal and business documents, etc. And as these purposes suggest, people associated the letter form with two different kinds of importance: the authority of official documentation and the authenticity of intimate relationships.

As actual letter writing became more common and popular, its diversity of styles and uses inspired fictional imitations that established new literary genres:

the epistolary novel

the “secret history” (actual or invented revelations of politically and sexually scandalous affairs

     of state)

the verse epistle

the “familiar letter” (actual letters revised and refined for publication)

We’ll read notable examples of these genres: epistolary novels by Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Tobias Smollett; Aphra Behn’s Love-Letters between a Nobleman and His Sister, as well as a brilliantly subversive parody of Behn’s romance that collects letters exchanged in a sodomitical love affair that may or may not have actually taken place; verse epistles by John Dryden, John Wilmot earl of Rochester, Anne Finch countess of Winchelsea, and Alexander Pope; and familiar letters by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Horace Walpole.

We’ll also read several numbers of Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s periodical essays (The Tatler and The Spectator), itself a new literary form that was extremely popular and that often published readers’ letters, both actual and made up. The periodical essay was one of the first modern genres that exploited the periodic or serial potential of print technology, which was akin to the serial form that was built in to the exchange of letters. The combination of these led to open-ended collections of readers’ letters with new, expanded editions published every few years as new letters were added to the old. One such serial that we’ll sample was Onania, which invited readers to comment on their habits of masturbation and its physical and mental dangers. The allure of another is evident in its title: The Post-Boy Robb’d of His Mail.

Requirements: consistent attendance and participation; two papers; and some short exercises.