Stylistic influences

The epistolary novel

An epistolary novel is a narrative made up of a series of letters, diary or journal entries and sometimes newspaper reports. The form allows a writer to use multiple narrators in the story. This means the story can be told and interpreted from many viewpoints.

The form was popular in England from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century and Walker may have been familiar with some of the following authors and works:

English authors

  • Aphra Behn (1640-1698) the first English woman writer to use this style in Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and his Sister (1684)
  • Samuel Richardson Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748)
  • Tobias Smollett Humphry Clinker (1771)
  • Fanny Burden Evelina (1778)
  • Jane Austen Lady Susan (written 1794 not published until 1871)
  • Mary Shelley Frankenstein (1819), a famous English example of the form in the nineteenth century.

Early American authors 

  • William Hill Brown The Power of Sympathy (1789)
  • Hannah Webster Foster The Coquette (1797).

The above are two of the earliest epistolary novels published in America. Both were written by white authors and feature white characters and values such as:

  • The role of women as guardians of the country's morality
  • The dangers of sexual temptation
  • The importance of womanly virtue
  • ‘Proper’ relationships between the sexes.

Twentieth century American authors

  • Jean Webster Daddy-Long-Legs (1912), a best-selling novel, successful play, and filmed twice. The sequel, Dear Enemy (1915) was also a best-seller
  • John O’Hara Pal Joey (1939), adapted from a series of fictional letters originally published in the The New Yorker magazine, later adapted by Rogers and Hammerstein into a Broadway musical (1941)
  • Helene Hanff 84 Charing Cross Road (1970), also adapted as a play on Broadway.

African-American authors

Although Zora Neale Hurston was the first black writer to use free indirect discourse and black vernacular language to create an authentic black voice in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), that work is not epistolary. Alice Walker is the first African-American writer to use the form.

The Color Purple is a collection of correspondence between two sisters, Celie and Nettie and to God. Celie’s letters are written in rural dialect, Nettie’s in Standard English. The letters reveal details of lives that are affected by race, class and sexual violence.

Slave narratives

Slave narratives first appeared in the United States around1703 but the majority were published from 1831 to the end of the American Civil War in 1865.

The purpose of a slave narrative was to gain the sympathy of white readers and encourage support for the abolitionist movement. In order to be published, black authors had to have a letter or a testimonial from a white editor or an abolitionist supporter.

The narratives generally included descriptions of slave auctions, cruelty from slave owners or overseers and accounts of violent abuse. Other distinguishing characteristics were a simple, straightforward style, vivid characters and shocking dramatic incidents.

Slave narratives were considered dangerous and subversive by slave holders, who feared that they might encourage revolts and riots.

Notable authors and narratives

  • Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass sold 30,000 copies between 1845 and 1860
  • William Wells Brown (1814-1884) Narrative sold four editions in its first year
  • Solomon Northup (1808-1863) Twelve Years a Slave sold 27,000 copies during its first two years in print. A film adaptation in 2013 won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay. Director Steve McQueen was the first black director to receive an Academy Award.

Notable women activists

  • Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) was a prominent abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Born a slave in New York State, she escaped and became a powerful speaker for racial equality. She is best known for her stirring ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech, given at a women’s convention in Ohio in 1851
  • Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) escaped from slavery and became famous as a ‘conductor’ on the Underground Railroad during the 1850s, before the outbreak of the Civil War. She led her family and hundreds of other slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Tubman also served as a scout, spy and nurse during the Civil War, after which she continued to work for civil rights and women’s suffrage.

White perspectives

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Though the slave narratives were popular and relatively successful in communicating the abolitionist message, the work that reached the widest audience at the time was a fictional novel about the evils of slavery written by a white woman.

Originally published in serial form, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) sold over 500,000 copies in America and overseas in its first year of publication and was translated into numerous languages.

Stowe was deeply involved in religious movements and feminist causes but primarily she was an abolitionist. The novel was intended to expose the horrors of southern slavery to people in the North so that slavery was brought to an end. Stowe also emphasised the importance of Christian love in putting an end to oppression. Her feminist beliefs are evident in her portrayal of women as equals to men in intelligence, bravery and spiritual strength.

Responses and reactions

Despite its popularity on publication, the novel polarised opinion between abolitionist readers in the North and pro-slavery readers in the South. Some historians have suggested that it was a major cause of the outbreak of the American Civil War.

In modern times, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been criticised as racist because of its stereotypical descriptions of the book's black characters, especially that of Uncle Tom.

Stowe intended Uncle Tom to be a ‘noble hero’ but the stereotype of him, as a subservient fool who submits to the white man, eventually came to mean that the name became used as an insult. An ‘Uncle Tom’ is now an African-American who sells out his people's interests.

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.