Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2011

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Addressing Each Other: Reciprocal Relationships in American Fan Letters

My dissertation explores how Mark Twain, Edward Bok, Willa Cather, and their respective readers use fan letter correspondence to test and shape their perceived ideas of who is writing and who is listening. I describe fan letters as a genre that creates a middle ground on which each individual trades the position of reader and writer. By writing such letters, readers fashion their personal narratives for an author whose writings have led them to believe he or she is predisposed to understanding them. By seeking a reply from the author, readers risk replacing their imagined connection to an author with an actual one. Although readers often shared similar motivations for writing, Twain, Bok, and Cather each had different reasons for responding to fan letters. Twain imagined his fan letter correspondence as a means of circumnavigating the power of the editor. Bok codified, popularized, and commodified fan letters as a way of imbuing himself with authority both as the editor of theLadies' Home Journaland of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography,The Americanization of Edward Bok. Cather used fan letters as a way to privatize and individualize the wider discourse on her writing. These authors used fan letters, then, to either undercut or buttress a broader conversation taking place in public print culture about who could write literature, how it should be produced, and the nature of the relationship between reader, author, and editor. By placing Twain, Bok, and Cather together, I build case studies of each individual author, as well as a narrative arc that focuses on the shifting historical context of magazine publishing and editorial intervention as factors influencing changes in author-reader relationships.

In Chapter 1, "Fan Letter Frameworks," I argue that fan mail should be defined as a relational genre: by trading positions as reader and writer, both parties replace an imagined or generalized sense of each other with the specificity of an actual one-on-one correspondence. Fan letters across the archives use remarkably similar rhetoric, as well as the desire to test the vexed sensation of knowing an author who is actually a stranger. Rather than using fan letters as a location in which common readers find their voice, I emphasize that the fan letter provides a venue through which many kinds of readers approach authors through an informal, enthusiastic, and private mode. A relational definition of fan mail highlights the power of a genre that entices even professional readers to abandon or supplement their spheres of influence in the classroom or reading room in order to address the author in a mode often associated with the amateur. Thus, fan letters expand scholarship on the history of reading created thus far by scholars like Janice Radway and Robert Darnton. Unlike the self-discursive writings that appear in book marginalia and diary entries, or brief treatments in letters circulated among friends, these letters offer readers' sustained depictions of their own reading efforts to the very individuals who have inspired them.

The subsequent author-specific chapters explore the implications of the fan letter correspondence sustained by Twain, Bok, and Cather. Each author spent a substantial amount of time on such letter writing, often sacrificing time that could have been spent on major works. Yet even as the authors devoted their energy and time to addressing individual readers, they also displayed various kinds of ambivalence toward fan letters that both invite and invade epistolary relationships with his readers. Chapter 2 focuses on a segment of Mark Twain's vigorous, career-long fan-letter exchange. In 1878, Mark Twain explains to his mother one reason for traveling to Europe to work on a book: "It comes [from the need to escape] the persecutions of kindly letters from well-meaning strangers--to whom I must be rudely silent or else put in the biggest half of my time bothering over answers." His public discourse, such as his editorial contributions to theGalaxymagazine and public interviews, often lament the time and expense of fan-letter exchange, though often he undercuts his own claims by including gestures that welcome additional correspondence. Although Twain was publicly and privately ambivalent about these letters, he also viewed them as a duty, an opportunity, an indicator of his fame, and a prompt to explore themes that appear frequently in his literature, such as the figure of the mysterious stranger.

The third chapter focuses on fan letters from the perspective of the fan. In both in his autobiography and in magazine pieces, Edward Bok depicts his own fan-letter writing as a formative practice of self-education. Although previous scholars often note the ways in which Bok used the literary and political connections from his fan letters to bootstrap his editorial career, my own argument focuses on how Bok translated the practices of fan- letter writing into a revolutionary persona for the figure of the editor for theLadies' Home Journal(LHJ), the first magazine to reach over one million subscribers. Whereas previous editors had been distant, third-person voices, Bok created a personal, warm editor who not only solicited frequent letters from readers, but also structured his staff around replying to readers in ways that mimicked fan letter correspondence. The chapter traces Bok's shifting fan letter practices--from his youthful days to his days as prominent magazine editor--by focusing on his epistolary relationship with Mark Twain. Bok first appears in the Twain archive as an over-eager teenager who sent Twain many requests for an autographed reply (on the annotation on an envelope, Twain calls Bok a "persistent puppy"). As Bok began his editorial career, he unsuccessfully negotiated with Twain to publish some of his fiction. Finally, as editor of theLHJ, he printed not Twain's fiction but material that reflected fannish engagement with Twain. Instead of stories or essays, Bok published pictorial essays on Twain's domestic life well as a feature on Twain's fan letter correspondence with his Angelfish fan club. Bok's publication choices were informed by recognizing readers' desires to have such private access to authors.

By the time Willa Cather ended her managing career atMcClure'smagazine in 1911, she had been exposed to the taxing nature of fan-letter-influenced correspondence. She recognized the value of readers' voices when she incorporated fan letters into her ghostwritten biography of S.S. McClure, but she continually resisted the threat that fan letters from her own readers might circulate into publication. Although Cather maintained the boundaries between the public and private nature of her correspondence with readers, Chapter 4 overturns scholars' assumptions that fan letters are the creation of "real" readers, as opposed to the professional readers who held sway in the classroom or on the printed page. Since professional and general readers appear in her archive, it is incorrect to claim that the archives represent only the common, unheard reader. Instead, fan letters are more accurately and constructively read as a genre used by many kinds of readers. Throughout her career, Cather retained fan letters that demonstrated her preferred reading methods, an author-reader relationship based on repeated readings and affective responses to the text as well as personal familiarity with its locations and characters. Moreover, while those who study fan cultures often imagine fans poaching the professionals, I demonstrate the ways in which professionals such as reviewer Dorothy Canfield and publisher Alfred Knopf publicly appropriate fan letter methods when supporting Cather's work. This chapter delineates Cather's resistance to professional reading methods, and the alternatives she suggests not only in essays and speeches but also in letter-by-letter replies to her fans. Ultimately, fan letters offer a corrective to the critical habit of opposing the figure of the general reader with professional and trained readers and shows the ways both kinds of readers use fan letters and the rhetoric of fan letters to engage with Cather's work as an object of pleasure and beauty.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Colette H Winn

Committee Members

Pascal A Ifri, Tili Boon-Cuile


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Available for download on Friday, May 15, 2111