Stephanie Schulz ENGL 476 Dr. Linda Helstern 25 October 2011 Epistolary and Refuge “This is my letter to the world, That never wrote to me,— The simple news that Nature told, With tender majesty.” -Emily Dickenson
Terry Tempest Williams presents the book Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place as a form of self-discovery and personal healing. Looking back at her mother’s illness, Williams relates her family’s battle with her mother’s cancer in the first person. The first person style of writing draws the reader in, inviting the reader to experience Williams’ struggles on a more personal level. There are, however, a few instances where Williams allows someone else’s voice to be heard, unfiltered by dialogue or restatement. Williams shares a letter written by her mother, Diane Tempest. The letter is to a young woman, Tammy, who is just beginning to battle cancer. Williams’ use of this letter adds significant meaning to her story. Epistolary writing has a long history that has interested many theorists. It has also been closely related to feminist theory. Considering the implications of using epistolary writing provides insight into Williams’ story of family and community fighting with cancer and adds depth to her struggles with patriarchal society. Epistolary writing can be traced as far back as the Heroides of Ovid (Clampitt 178). Letter writing has been a common practice around the world for centuries. It is no wonder, then, that letter writing found its way into literature. In her book Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form,
Janet Altman observes that the letter genre “[contributes] to our general understanding of the rise of the novel itself, since epistolary narrative is primarily a product of that formative era in which the novel staked out its claim to status as a major genre” (Altman 5). Theorists have discovered several ways of reading and interpreting epistolary writing. Janet Altman offers the term “epistolarity” to describe “the use of the letter’s formal properties to create meaning,” (Altman 4). She contributes the idea of discourse to epistolary theory, identifying three specific characteristics of epistolary discourse. The first is the “particularity of the I-you,” which creates a relationship between two characters, based on the exchange of discourse and the trading of roles between writer and reader (Altman 117). The second is a present tense, from which the writer “looks toward both past and future events” (Altman 117118). Finally, a letter has temporal polyvalence; that is, it is written in one moment, dispatched in another, then read and reread in later moments (Altman 118). The combination of these three characteristics makes epistolary writing unique. Altman’s three characteristics of epistolary discourse can be applied to a reading of the letter in Refuge. The I-you narration of the letter creates an intimate feeling. It allows Diane to reach out to another woman, as if through conversation: “I would gladly, Tammy, take this cross you are to bear upon my own shoulders if I could” (Williams 82-83). The reader is immediately able to sink into Diane’s mind and experience Williams’ tale through a new perspective: “During the surgery, I had a spiritual experience that changed my life” (Williams 83). This connection between the reader and Diane could not have been accomplished through Williams’ own perspective. The use of present tense also draws the reader into the story. It illustrates the events the family experienced at the time, rather than just the way Williams remembers. The reader is momentarily transported to the past and becomes part of Williams’ experience. This blends into
Altman’s last characteristic of epistolary: temporal polyvalence. Readers get a sense of time from the letter. Even as they are drawn back into the past, they remain in the future. Reading the letter years after it is written brings up the question of who else has read this letter and what it meant for them. Obviously, the letter meant enough for Tammy to keep it and to respond. Williams recalled the letter, and thought it was important to include in her book. Countless readers, several times removed from the original writer and reader, have been drawn in by Diane’s words, originally meant for Tammy. All of the technical aspects of epistolary writing unite in the author’s goal: to create an intimate experience for the reader. Epistolary writing has always been closely associated with women, and by extension, feminist theory. In the past, there have been several epistolary novels that focus on love, seduction, or female suffering; Elizabeth Goldsmith refers to these as “standard topos of epistolary literature” (Clampitt 178). In a time when women were not allowed to become successful authors, they were allowed, and even expected, to write letters. Elizabeth Campbell describes letters as “a subversive and freeing agent” for women (Campbell 332). Letters between women provided a connection, a link to others who had been otherwise silenced. In more recent years, epistolary novels have reemerged in the genre of women’s writing. Campbell argues that these novels “radically rewrite women’s lives in a postmodern genre” (Campbell 332). Women can use epistolary practice as a tool to further feminist ideals. Campbell believes that women are “concerned most of all with seeking their individual identity,” and epistolary writing allows for this discovery (Campbell 334). Women have been writing letters for centuries. The only difference now is that the topics have changed. The form epistolary writing takes is also very traditionally feminine. Helene Cixous, a French feminism theorist, coined the term ecriture feminine, which means feminine writing.
Ecriture feminine is “fluidly organized and freely associative,” and “resists patriarchal modes of thinking and writing, which generally require prescribed… methods of organization, rationalist rules of logic,… and linear reasoning” (Tyson 101). Letter writing can be a form or ecriture feminine. As Campbell points out, epistolary writing often contains “fragmentation, subjectivity, abandonment of chronology, repetitiveness, associative and sometimes seemingly illogical connections, and, most of all, unconventional use of language” (Campbell 335). Diane Tempest’s letter to Tammy is a prime example of epistolary as ecriture feminine. The letter is sentimental, emotional, and organically organized. It jumps between the past, present, and future. Diane starts by writing that “I heard of you surgery yesterday” (Williams 82). She starts the next paragraph “When I was told I had cancer thirteen years ago,” moving into the past (Williams 83). She moves back to the present with a personal remark to Tammy. After that, she moves into hopes for the future: “I want to live and think as actively and creatively as possible” (Williams 83). Diane returns to the present with some direct advice to Tammy, then seamlessly into the past again to relate personal experience, and finally ends the letter in the present with a blessing. Diane also uses repetition, reiterating her wish that Tammy didn’t have to suffer and encouraging Tammy to be strong. The language is informal and personal, directly addressing Tammy on several occasions. All of this together creates provides a good example of ecriture feminine. This link to feminine theory is important to some of Williams’ overall themes. Throughout the story, Williams describes the patriarchal nature of Mormon communities. The men of her own family are notably different in their inclusion of women in prayer and family decisions. Williams also struggles with a government that spread cancer to so many women, including Williams herself. The feminist ideals that are linked to epistolary writing show up
toward the end of the book when Williams and several other women protest nuclear testing and its effects on women’s cancer. The letters in Refuge greatly enrich William’s writing. They carry a great legacy, built on years of women who also shared their thoughts in such a personal form. The feminist ideals connected to epistolary add depth to Williams’ struggle against her patriarchal religion and the government that continued to spread a terrible disease. Most importantly, though, they allow Diane to speak for herself and they offer the reader a glimpse into her mind, if only for a few pages. Diane’s words of comfort, love, and self-discovery parallel William’s own journey of healing. When all is said and done, a letter is a gift from one person to another. By sharing the letters with her readers, Williams is really sharing her mother’s gift.
Works Cited Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1982. Print. Campbell, Elizabeth. "Re-visions, re-flections, re-creations: Epistolarity in novels by contemporary women." Twentieth Century Literature 41.3 (1995): 332. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. Clampitt, Amy. "Purloined Sincerity." Kenyon Review 11.4 (1989): 178-183. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 25 Oct. 2011. Dickenson, Emily. “This is my letter to the world.” Bartleby.com: Great Books Online. Bartleby.com, 2011. 24 October, 2011. < http://www.bartleby.com/113/1000.html> Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print. Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.