Graduate Program

350:550 - The Discourse of Letters in the Long Eighteenth Century

Course No:  350:550
Index # - 18719
Distribution Requirement:  A3
Tuesday - 9:50 a.m.
MU 207

The Discourse of Letters in the Long Eighteenth Century

Michael McKeon

This seminar will study the letter form and its literary uses in eighteenth-century Britain.

We’ll begin with actual letters, whose writing and circulation, along with the expansion of the English postal system, underwent extraordinary growth in this period. The letter form lent itself to a broad range of purposes. The most common were scribal or hand-written “familiar letters,” informal exchanges between friends and acquaintances. Letters might also communicate diplomatic and state secrets and official legal and business matters. And as these purposes suggest, contemporaries associated the letter form with two different kinds of truth value: the authority of official documentation and the authenticity of personal and intimate relationships. The aura of secrecy, as well as the distinct and emergent notion of “privacy,” were closely associated with both kinds of letter. Nonetheless both kinds were also seen to be legitimately subject to opening and perusal by government agencies.

Contemporaries were highly self-conscious--as we will be--about the conventions of epistolary correspondence, and about the complex overlap of oral, scribal, and printed modes of cultural production and exchange.

Literary genres and sub-genres that were inspired by the letter form had an enormous importance during this period. Besides a variety of familiar letters (by Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle,; John Wilmot, earl of Rochester; John Gay; Horace Walpole, and Samuel Johnson) and excerpts from letter writing manuals, we’ll be reading in a range of epistolary genres:

Printed Letter Collections (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s Embassy Letters).
Verse Epistles (by John Dryden; Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea;
Alexander Pope; and William Cowper).
Dedicatory Epistles (by Dryden, Jonathan Swift, Frances Burney, and Ann
Periodical Essay letters, authentic and invented (Richard Steele and Joseph
Epistolary Serials (Anon., Onania; or, the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution;
Swift, The Drapier’s Letters; and Oliver Goldsmith, The Citizen of the
Epistolary Narratives (Aphra Behn, Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and
His Sister; Delarivier Manley, The Unknown Lady’s Pacquet of Letters;
(Anon.), Love-Letters Between a certain late Nobleman And the famous Mr.
Wilson, a sodomitical parody of both Behn and Manley; Samuel Richardson,
Pamela; Henry Fielding, Shamela; and Tobias Smollett, Humphry Clinker).

We’ll also read some secondary texts on epistolary form and publication.

Requirements: consistent attendance and participation; two papers; and a short annotated bibliography on an epistolary topic.