Epistolary novels aren’t dead yet.
I think it started with my father’s letters to me at camp. He could be a distant parent, fiercely cerebral and work-focused, not much interested in children between when they began to speak and when they had something to say. In the letters, I met a different man.
On paper, he was funny. He observed social peccadilloes, his own and those of others. He was mild-mannered and tolerant. He didn’t make me nervous. I liked this guy. As years passed, I realized that his letters not only were a rarely visible side of him, but also were how he wished to be, at least some of the time. On paper, he could be that person.
That’s part of the magic of a written letter, one on paper that has been planned. Letters can be drafted in a solitude that allows experimentation with different voices, with self-awareness, one that permits revelation that might be painful or feel awkward in person. It barely resembles texts fired off in the welter of daily life, or emails sent without being reread for tone, completeness, or typos.
When writers invented the novel three centuries ago, they naturally used letters between fictional protagonists to reveal character, provide backstory, and move the action along. That’s how they functioned IRL (see, I have texted; I just hate to).
Early epistolary novels included Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740), Tobias Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). More recent examples include The Screwtape Letters (1942) by C.S. Lewis and Saul Bellow’s Herzog (1964).
When I began researching The Burning Land, my new historical novel, I again met the power of letters for storytelling. The tale, inspired by two ancestors’ rocky path through America in the 1860s, follows unfortunate lovers through mad, violent times. My early research included reading many letters between soldiers and those at home. Often literate, Civil War soldiers endured years of separation from loved ones. They lived rough, surrounded by death from vile diseases and battlefield slaughter. But they wrote wonderful letters.
A classic of the genre came from Major Sullivan Ballou in July 1861. He wrote to his wife on the eve of a battle, anticipating his death the next day. As featured in Ken Burns’ documentary of the Civil War, Ballou told her:
“O Sarah, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you in the garish day, and the darkest night, amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours, always, always, and, if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath; or the cool air cools your throbbing temples, it shall be my spirit passing by.”
Correspondents wrote infrequently. They often waited for a reply before writing again, which made the letters a conversation that ripened over weeks and months. They chose words carefully, considerately, the recipient’s spirit strong in the letter-writer’s mind. When military duties interrupted letter-writing, soldiers would pick up their pencils days later, sometimes in a different mood or having found new ways to express themselves. Often, the unspoken was as potent as the spoken.
Conventions of the time are evident. Endearments, unlike Major Ballou’s, tended to be brief and awkward, yet brevity gave them weight. Soldiers devoted little space to the horrors of the battlefield, usually skimming over the subject in detached, summary terms. Wives wrote little of the suffering from having the family breadwinner off at war. Few at either end wrote of fear, except when silence fell over one end of the conversation. Those terrifying silences brought scoldings and fervent pleas for a response.
Domestic events were safe ground: crops, poor food, seasons, mutual acquaintances. Humorous moments were cherished and related with relish. So much was not said, either because it was too delicate, or too explosive, or had been forgotten in the tumble of days.
What, I realized, a powerful way to tell a story, to allow characters to say who they were and were not and at considerable length. Long speeches in novels usually seem ridiculous; other than the odd gruesome bore, people don’t talk in multi-paragraph bursts.
But letters may plausibly run on. We expect and often want them to. The letter-writer can develop her subject at the length it merits, or can step around it decorously, conspicuously changing the topic, which can signal as much as or more than words might.
And letters offer one final blessing for the novelist: During the Civil War, a shaky postal system worked slowly, allowing a natural telescoping of months of combat, or of camp life, or of home-front gloom. I used the letter format in only seven of 40 chapters, but those chapters provide a change of voice and new perspectives on each principal protagonist.
Is the epistolary novel destined to be frozen in the amber of historical fiction, unfit for use in stories about our world of hyperspeed communications? Yes and no. Today, soldiers text and Facetime from war zones. Cursive handwriting is a dying skill. A letter scrawled on a piece of paper may be seen as frequently as the white rhinoceros. So, the type of correspondence sustained by Henry and Katie in The Burning Land won’t fit tales set in 2023.
But novelists are resourceful when it comes to avoiding the straitjacket of the omniscient authorial voice. Their characters use today’s communication tools. In Russell Banks’ penultimate novel, Foregone, an ill-tempered, dying man tries to explain himself in a documentary film interview, but the filmmaker keeps changing the subject. Other writers tell contemporary and futurist stories through email and blogs, texts (ugh), social media posts, news stories, PowerPoint slides, and even imagined forms of communication.
Each form of epistle carries its own power and its own limitations. I retain an acute fondness, however, for the pace, reflection, and silences of 19th-century letters.
David O. Stewart is the author of five novels and five historical narratives. His Civil War novel, The Burning Land, released on April 4th.