Complete Story

VanHaitsma, Pamela

Spring, 44:1, pages 6-25

Queering the Language of the Heart: Romantic Letters, Genre Instruction, and Rhetorical Practice

Abstract: While romantic letters are usually understood as unstudied and natural expressions of heartfelt love, I argue they are learned through genre instruction and crafted through rhetorical practice. In the nineteenth-century United States, manuals taught generic conventions for epistolary address, pacing of exchange, and rhetorical purpose, embedding within this instruction a heteronormative conception of romantic relations. Yet these same conventions were susceptible to queer adaptation, particularly in the epistolary practices of writers composing same-sex relations. Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus were African American women who learned but reinvented the conventions by negotiating category-crossing forms of address, timing exchange with urgency rather than restraint, and repurposing the romantic letter to erotic and even political ends. Analyzing Brown and Primus’s letters alongside manuals thus underscores the dynamic ways both instruction and practice shape romantic letters and life.

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