Fan Letters

Readerly Performance

Susan Warner’s readers in the nineteenth century are beyond counting, but approximately sixty extant fan letters written by strangers and sent to Susan Warner and her sister Anna are now held by the Constitution Island Association and housed at the United States Military Academy, which is across the Hudson River from the Warners’ home on Constitution Island.  Many of these letters were written in response to the bestselling and now canonically sentimental novel The Wide, Wide World, though there are also letters prompted by the many novels written by Susan and Anna, separately or together, after this most famous one.  The letters span the second half of the nineteenth century and were written by men and women, both young and old, who posted their letters from Boston, Detroit, and San Francisco, from England, Germany, and Austria.

Who were these fans?  More specifically, they were Mary Barnes, a 14-year-old girl writing in 1880 from Derbyshire, England, about all the books by Warner she had read; Jonathan Burdick, writing from office of the Secretary of State of the State of New York for an autographed letter; an anonymous letter from Philadelphia, sent just months after the novel’s initial publication to ask for a sequel; and a writer calling himself “Ellen’s Ardent Admirer” who slyly suggests that Warner herself must be Ellen.  Among these fans are lifelong readers, who pass The Wide, Wide World on to their daughters; those who acknowledge the trivial nature of their queries even as they write with earnestness and excitement; and those whose closeness to Warner’s books is evidenced in the detail of their letters and in their confiding their troubles in this unknown but beloved author.  When we imagine Warner’s readers in the aggregate, that imagination may not include the writers of these often idiosyncratic, highly personalized missives.

There are numerous ways that we might position these fan letters—in a burgeoning celebrity culture, as a phenomenon of the rapidly expanding literary marketplace, as part and parcel of authorship.  When Susan Williams offered the first overview of this trove of fan letters, she folded them into a consideration of Warner’s authorship, arguing that material circumstances made Warner dependent on the financial support of her readers and therefore responsive to their desires as expressed in these letters.[1]  We might also consider the fan letter as an emergent, public genre of response.  Readers wrote to Samuel Richardson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the eighteenth century, and corresponding readers were also represented within novels contemporary to The Wide, Wide World like Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852) and Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall (1855).  Indeed, some of Warner’s readers indicated their awareness that other readers were also writing to this beloved author.  For example, Eugenia Sadler, writing from Kentucky in 1864, said, “Though an entire stranger to you, I write to you upon the presumption that you, in common with all authors, receive a great many letters from strangers.”

Amy Blair has noted that the fan letter attained generic status in the early years of the twentieth century, which leads her to caution that “even the most self-revelatory fan letter was, at least partially, a performance of reader reception.”[2]  In the mid-nineteenth century, this burgeoning, public tradition of corresponding readers also encourages us to read these letters as a conscious performance, and one with certain aims.  While we must be careful to consider these letters not as direct, unmediated, “pure” evidence of reading, and while we must recognize that these readers represent but a small, self-selecting subset of Warner’s readership, in their performances of response they have something to tell us about why these ordinary readers picked up their pens in the first place, and about what was at stake for them in reading Warner’s sentimental fictions.

[1] Williams, “Widening the World: Susan Warner, Her Readers, and the Assumption of Authorship,”  American Quarterly 42 (December 1990): 575.

[2] Blair, “Main Street Reading Main Street,” in New Directions in American Reception Study, eds. Philip Goldstein and James L. Machor (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), 146.