The University of Wisconsin Press

Autobiography - General / Literature & Criticism / American Studies


Authority and Alliance in the Letters of Henry Adams
Authority and Alliance in the Letters of Henry Adams
Joanne Jacobson

Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography

“No reader of Jacobson’s work will ever again approach letters by literary figures in the same way. Authority and Alliance brings new insights to the work of Henry Adams and to epistolary objectives and modes of operation.”—Cecilia Tichi, Vanderbilt University

If the letter is an ideal lens through which to view late-nineteenth-century American society as it underwent radical change, Henry Adams is an ideal correspondent. Joanne Jacobson shows how Adams used letters to broker authority, to construct alliances with correspondents, and to negotiate issues of authorship and audience. She demonstrates the rhetorical complexity of the letter and underscores its role in the struggle over cultural authority which shaped much of late-nineteenth-century American literature.

Authority and Alliance takes the reader through the evolving stages of Adams’s letter writing. His earliest letters, to his older brother Charles Francis Adams, Jr., and to his friend Charles Milnes Gaskell, provided him with an arena in which he could claim authority as a writer and use that authority to establish parity with his correspondents. In succeeding letters the priority of equalizing authority between himself and his correspondents shifted to that of building alliances which bound Adams and his correspondents in shared, private opposition to the public discourse of mass democratic culture. Ultimately, Adams emerged in his letters with aggressive authorial control over “reality,” by writing himself and his correspondents into narratives whose terms were advantageous to Adams himself.

Jacobson also discusses the unity between Adams’s letters and his other literary work, to demonstrate the extent to which authority and alliance remained fundamental concerns for him, bound up with and shaped by the problematic status of authorship and audience. In an important final chapter, she compares Adams’s letters with those of Alice James and Walt Whitman, demonstrating the readiness of all three to deploy the letter as a means of reinforcing the writer’s own rhetorical authority, by exploiting the tension between narrative and authorship and between public and private discourse.

Jacobson’s study illuminates both a significant aspect of the life and work of one of America’s most important literary figures and a little examined but widely practiced literary form.

Joanne Jacobson is associate professor of English at Yeshiva University.

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Cover of book is purple with a black and white photo of letters in the center.

November 1992
LC: 92-007894 E
176 pp. 6 x 9

The cloth edition, ISBN 978-0-299-13440-2, is out of print.

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