Annotation: Elizabeth Hewitt’s “Introduction: Universal Letter-Writers” (2004)

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This is an annotation for a paper I am currently writing on Martha Meredith Read’s Margaretta. See my prospectus here.

Hewitt, Elizabeth. “Introduction: Universal Letter-Writers.” Correspondence and American Literature, 1770-1865. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

In her introduction Hewitt argues that authors in America’s early nationhood “so often turn to the epistolary form” because it allowed them to “theorize the kinds of social intercourse necessary to the articulation of a national identity and a national literature” (2). She claims that the genre of epistolarity is unique in that it conveys the “utopian possibilities of American democracy” while also exposing the obstacles to attaining national union (6). For instance, Hewitt demonstrates how letter writing is an act that simultaneously emphasizes the individualism of the writer and the reciprocity of his or her relationship with the reader. Yet, this reciprocity in correspondence can also be a façade that obscures submission or discord (6). Hewitt’s fascinating analysis of the inherent contradictions in epistolarity and conception of letters as “a crucial site by which democratic theory passes into social practice,” ultimately provides an important framework for my examination of Read’s Margaretta as an epistolary novel (6-7). I will extend Hewitt’s argument on letters to a consideration of how the structure of correspondence in Margaretta, namely, the shift from a multiplicity of letters at the beginning of the story to the middle section dominated by the heroine’s perspective, lends itself to the re-imagining of a coherent American national identity.