Men and Women of Letters: The Epistolary Personae of Fiction Writers

By:
Mrs. Kacy Tillman
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We rarely question the validity of the short story, novel, or poem as an author's medium for expressing art, yet with Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography to the literary canon, our definitions of literature are slowly expanding. I would like to contribute to that widening definition of what constitutes art by suggesting that fiction writers' letters can and should be viewed as literature. I will utilize both published and unpublished correspondence to support my argument.

Many fiction writers carry their art into their letter-writing, often incorporating storytelling devices such as shaping the characters in the letters, creating a persona for themselves which separates them as "the narrator" and developing plotlines which unfold over the course of their correspondence. In order to ascertain if each fiction writer is using his/her story-writing techniques in his/her own letters, I will first examine common methods of storytelling in each writer's short fiction or novels. Sannery O'Connor, for example, often used "fallen" characters and devil's advocates to draw attention to a Christian moral she was trying to get across. In her letters, she also played the devil's advocate to make a point about Christianity to her atheist correspondent, Betty Hester. Along a similar vein, William Faulkner created an epistolary persona for himself as he pretended to be a British fighter-pilot one day and farmer the next, though he was none of these things. So I will be observing any similarities in tone, character development, narration, or style between the authors' fiction and their letters that might indicate literary merit.

Since little has been done about epistolary identities but much on autobiographies, I will lean on the theory of projection in autobiographies as Els Andringa's article "The Interface between Fiction and Life: Patterns of Identification in Reading Autobiographies" discusses. Likewise, Stanley Fish's "Is there a Text in this Class" will support my argument because it claims that the academy determines what constitutes literature but should not have that power. This study is urgent since many unpublished letters of the late 1800s, early 1900s are now being published, or at least paraphrased, as executors of estates pass away and will that printing power to more open-minded (or power-hungry) curators. With these letters may come disturbing truths, as with the printing of T.S. Eliot's papers which revealed his anti-Semitism. But before we dismiss these authors as hypocrites (O'Connor's own unpublished letters are racist though she claims Christian equality for all mankind in her published works), we must realize that those authors could have used an epistolary identity to spark a reaction from the letter's recipient, a reading dependent upon whom that author was addressing and his/her relationship to that correspondent.


Keywords: Epistolary, Letter-Writing, American, Autobiography, Definitions Of Literature, Persona, Personae, Flannery O'Connor, William Faulkner
Stream: Literature, Literary Studies
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
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Mrs. Kacy Tillman

PhD Candidate, English Department, University of Mississippi
USA

I was graduated from Baylor University with a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts, and I am currently working on my PhD at the University of Mississippi, where I am studying Southern American literature. My interest lies mainly in fiction writers' letters, and I have been studying the unpublished letters of people such as William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, and Margaret Mitchell. I have presented my findings about individual authors but am looking forward to having the opportunity to discuss in a larger context my theory that fiction writers' letters can be considered literature. I have taught at Baylor University and am currently teaching at the University of Mississippi as a graduate student, and I eventually want to teach Southern American literature at the collegiate level after graduation. The University of Mississippi is located in Oxford, Mississippi, home to William Faulkner, and my location in Oxford has afforded me many opportunities to study, among other rare Southern American archives, the William Faulkner letters and speeches not available to the public today. The Flannery O'Connor Special Collection in Milledgeville, Georgia, is also nearby, and I have treasured the opportunity to study there as well. The fruits of my findings will be presented at this conference, should I be accepted.

Ref: H05P0217