I am currently at work on a book project adapted from my dissertation, titled “Writing to the World: The Letter as a Bridge Genre, 1665-1840.” When I started grad school, I was coming off of three years as a professional reporter and many more before that as a student journalist, and I thought that my dissertation would be a literary history of journalism: The Spectator through David Foster Wallace, or something like that. While I’m still hoping to teach that course to undergrads soon, when I started looking more closely at eighteenth-century newspapers, I noticed something: these papers didn’t have articles but, rather, lists of letters. Almost all of the papers explicitly foregrounded the fact that the authors/editors weren’t doing their own reporting—they were basically cutting and pasting from either letters or other pamphlets and newspapers they had received in the post. And in order to distribute their aggregations, they had to use the post again, especially for news either coming from or going to provincial locations. Although literary scholars are pretty familiar with the idea that the novel originated in epistolary form, I was soon seeing letters everywhere and trying to draw connections across a huge range of genres.
“Writing to the World” recovers the foundational role that letters played in facilitating the rise of print between 1665 and 1840. I introduce the concept of the “bridge genre” to explain how epistolary writing mediated manuscript and print cultures, thereby initiating new readers and writers into the practices of print publication. A bridge genre enables change by transferring existing textual conventions to emerging modes of composition and circulation. I argue that the letter was the preeminent bridge genre of the long eighteenth century, as many of our most recognizably modern forms—from the newspaper and novel to the biography, scientific journal, and book review—developed through a reliance on letters for content and format. In the 1660s, the first British and American newspapers transposed manuscript newsletters, establishing journalistic norms. By the early 1700s, authors including Daniel Defoe and Richard Steele created standards for periodical publication by requesting reader feedback in the form of letters, simultaneously generating new ideas about authorship and the categories of public and private. Novelists, from Richardson through Austen, responded to these developments by positioning the novel as a commentary on epistolary practices and partitioning the concepts of fiction and nonfiction.
My book thus offers a model for the process of genre formation in literary history: new genres arise when new media become accessible and intelligible to a mass readership. The bridge genre allowed people to see themselves as connected by networks of communication—as members of what they called “the world” of writing. This phrase, which became ubiquitous as authors analyzed their literary marketplace, implied both global scope and what we would now term a “media environment.” In order to recuperate its eighteenth-century meaning, I combine techniques of genre theory with those of material textual studies and the digital humanities. The multiple “rises” that scholars have documented in this period—of print, the public sphere, the novel, and the newspaper—converged on a pervasive, but overlooked, strategy: the use of the letter to collect, present, and distribute information.