Review of Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education

Review of Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education

Peitho Volume 23 Issue 1 Fall 2020

Author(s): Patricia Fancher and Amelia Rodriguez

Patricia Fancher, PhD is a lecturer at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she teaches and researches digital media, technical rhetoric, and feminist rhetorics. Her research on gender and digital media has been published in Rhetoric Review, Present Tense, Composition Studies, Computers & Composition, Enculturation, Peitho, and Catapult in addition to several edited collections.

Amelia Rodriguez is a poet and Writing and Literature student at UC Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies. Her current research focuses on the queer rhetorical practices of 20th-century Polari speakers. She was an assistant editor at Palm Springs Life magazine. 

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VanHaitsma, Pamela. Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education. U of South Carolina P, 2019. 162 pages.

We read Pamela VanHaitsma’s Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education as two feminists, a student and a teacher, both queer women embarking on queer archival research projects. We studied VanHaitsma’s book in order to develop our own methods for queer archival research. VanHaitsma addresses many of the questions that we grapple with in our own work: How can we engage in archival research of queer lives when queerness has been systematically silenced? How can we interpret queerness in the past without projecting our contemporary standards? What interpretive practices can researchers adopt to attune to queer rhetorics in the archives? To answer these inquiries, VanHaitsma draws upon previous feminist and queer methodologies and, through her own research, demonstrates how to apply them.

VanHaitsma’s Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age: A Rhetorical Education demonstrates that queer romantic letter writing builds upon heteronormative standards in ways that resist binaries between public and private, erotic and civic, to queer traditional genre expectations. VanHaitsma invites readers to consider queer romantic letters as rich sites of rhetorical education and civic participation. Further, she offers readers a methodology for queer archival research: “Methodologically queering binary distinctions between public and private life, my archival research turns historiographic attention to romantic engagement while exploring its civic implications within instruction and practice” (21). Her work of “methodologically queering binary distinctions” has a long precedent in both queer rhetorics and feminist research methods, upon which VanHaitsma builds her methodology.

Queering Romantic Engagement expands upon previous work in queer rhetorics and contributes to an emerging conversation on queer archival methodologies. Serving as an important grounding for queer rhetorics, Jean Bessette’s queer rhetoric in situ pairs queer theory and rhetorical analysis to effectively analyze queer rhetorical practices across historical contexts. In her article, Bessette defines queer rhetorics in historical and cultural contexts that identify both the dominant norms and what it means to queer those norms. Bessette’s approach to queer rhetoric has been important for queer scholars who need to define queer within historical contexts. Further, Bessette’s book, Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives, is important for understanding the constructed, curated nature of archives and for theorizing lesbian identity through archival materials.

One of the most important contributions to queer archival research can be found in KJ Rawson’s archival theories and archival work on the Digital Transgender Archive. Rawson identifies the rhetorical and political significance of archival infrastructure, metadata, and access. This is important because Rawson identifies how heteronormative logic erases queer experiences and at the same time reimagines and rebuilds archives to make queer lives and experiences accessible to scholars. Of course, VanHaitsma’s own previous work has already outlined a queer methodology that includes gossip, genre analysis, and storytelling. From this work, she demonstrates her deep commitment to methodologies that resist stable definition and encourage imaginative interpretation. Released in the same year as Queering Romantic Engagement, Ames Hawking’s These Are Love(d) Letters similarly offers a queer archival methodology that breaks distinctions between personal and public, past and present, text and author. In addition, Hawkings performs the queer genre-bending that VanHaitsma identifies a feature of queer rhetorics.

In this review, we first offer these key terms that are central to VanHaitsma’s queer archival methodology:

  • Queer Failure: By failing at heteronormative instructions and genres, writers make visible how literacy practices discipline hetero norms and how writers can recreate and invent new queer rhetorics. (pg. 45-48)
  • Queer Practices: Actions, relations, and practices themselves are defined as queer, which allows an archival researcher to identify queer rhetorics without imposing an identity category that a person did not chose for themselves. (pg. 10-14)
  • Queer in Context: Each genre, situation, and archive is placed in historical context, first outlining the hetero standard in order to feature queer failures and queer inventions.
  • Queer Intersectionality: Queer rhetorics are defined in relation to intersections of oppression that include race, class, and gender. (pg. 61-63)


How does [instruction in language arts] enable nonnormative, or queer, rhetorical practices and romantic relations? (9)

As detailed among the key terms listed above, VanHaitsma’s preface and introduction emphasize the book’s interest in queer practices rather than identities. By studying more than forty 19th-century letter writing manuals, VanHaitsma considers how such sites of romantic epistolary education established the norms from which some writers queerly departed. As she notes, the queer writers she studies employed “rhetorical practices that were unconventional in their transgressions of generic boundaries while pursuing nonnormative romantic relations” (13). Additionally, she identifies queer writers as learners whose “romantic communication [is] a form of rhetoric, one with intimate as well as social dimensions” (15). VanHaitsma describes her own methodological practices as queer, noting her work’s insistence that the personal and romantic cannot be considered totally separate from the field of rhetoric’s emphasis on civic engagement as the primary purpose of rhetorical education. By turning to romantic engagement as a locus of rhetorical education, she “[queers] binary distinctions between public and private life” (21).

VanHaitsma stresses that queer archival methods must always work against both archival and historical erasure—take, for example, the tendency for historians to assume that erotic and romantic letter writing among same-sex couples was primarily a form of affectionate friendship. VanHaitsma names this erasure and dedicates her archival research to recovering the erotic and romantic.

Chapter 1: Norming and Failing

How might we critically imagine still other possibilities for pedagogical, rhetorical, and queer failures? (47)

VanHaitsma’s first methodological move is to identify a normative frame against which she later contrasts the queer rhetorical practices of her historical subjects. Chapter One, “‘The Language of the heart’: Genre Instruction in Heteronormative Relations,” defines the norms of heteronormative romantic epistolary engagement. By analyzing manuals that taught 19th-century readers how to write letters for social and romantic purposes, VanHaitsma determines that these norms include heartfelt yet crafted expression, gendered address, restraint, and an explicit purpose of letter-writing towards marriage. The chapter follows Jean Bessette in placing queer rhetoric in situ, crucially emphasizing context and convention. By defining heteronormative conventions, VanHaitsma is able to then identify queer rhetorics specifically within this context and thereby avoid any overreach that may frame queerness as a stable or objective term.

VanHaitsma then identifies moments of queer rhetorical practice even within the letter-writing handbooks. She asks, “How might we critically imagine still other possibilities for pedagogical, rhetorical, and queer failures within complete letter writers and across nineteenth-century manual culture?” (47) and “when desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail ‘exceptionally well’ by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them?” (102). These questions guide her queer archival methodology in this chapter. In order to identify queer rhetorics within otherwise heteronormative letter-writing handbooks, VanHaitsma models methods of queer archival research by pairing critical imagination (Royster) and queer failure (Halbastram; Wait). She takes note of “hints,” suggestions, slippages, ellipses, and openings within the archives that could have been adopted for queer romantic engagement. VanHaitsma asks readers to “imagine this learner as a woman in a same-sex, cross-class relationship,” to think outside the literal text and towards what could have been (40). Later, she reads between the lines of model “skeleton” letters and speculates how writers could have reinvented this writing instruction towards queer ends.

Chapter 2: Rhetorical and Romantic

[H]ow we might complicate interpretations of romantic letters through greater attention to the ways they are evidence of rhetorical instruction and practice as much as they are of romantic feelings and relations[?] (72)

Turning towards archival examples that defy and queer the hetero norms espoused by letter-writing manuals, VanHaitsma’s second chapter focuses on the romantic epistolary exchange between “two freeborn African American women, Addie Brown and Rebecca Primus” (49). The romantic undercurrent of Brown and Primus’ correspondence was not their only departure from the norms established by the manuals. The women engaged in queer practices, addressing one another with terms that denoted friendship, familial relations, and romantic affection. They also broke from the “straight time” practice of caution and moderation advocated by letter writing handbooks. Instead, their correspondence was urgent and intense and not oriented toward marriage. Perhaps most importantly, the women’s romantic epistolary rhetoric strayed, topically, from that which was acceptable in heteronormative romantic letters of the time—Brown’s letters to Primus were at times erotic, even describing flirtations with and attractions to other women, as well as political, with “information and commentary about racial politics” existing within and alongside expressions of “more conventional romantic longing” (61-62).

Central to VanHaitsma’s approach is her deliberate attention to “‘everyday’ people” (49), and, specifically, Black women, whose rhetorical contributions have historically been under-researched and erased. VanHaitsma quotes scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin in order to emphasize that Brown and Primus’ correspondence addressed both the personal and the civic and, crucially, was concerned with racial uplift: “Brown and Primus were ‘women who loved each other romantically’ but ‘who were no less committed (in fact, were more committed than most) to the struggle for black freedom and progress’ (7)” (51). Moreover, she keeps the fact that Brown and Primus’ relationship was one that crossed class lines at the forefront, and she pays particular attention to Brown’s exclusion from formal education, highlighting the ways in which Brown was self-educated.

Chapter 3: Queering Genres

How might we read such texts within the context of not only genre-specific instruction but also networks of other related genres? (98)

In the following chapter, VanHaitsma turns her attention to a college-educated white male writer, who would have been a normative audience of the letter-writing manuals, but who nevertheless also engaged in nonnormative, queer rhetorical practices. Chapter Three studies the commonplace book-turned-diary of Albert Dodd, a document VanHaitsma considers “both multigene and epistolary: as taking the form of multiple genres other than the letter, yet functioning according to an epistolary logic of address to and exchange with readers” (75). This use of the diary was genre-queer, she argues, not only because of its switch from an academic genre into a personal genre, but because it functioned as “a site of rhetorical invention” (90) where Dodd developed and practiced romantic epistolary address to both men and women. The diary also demonstrates that Dodd drew upon his classical rhetorical education to inform his civic and romantic writing. In the diary, he introduces homoerotic ideas and writing from the classical era, concepts that Dodd used to understand and explore his own sexuality through self-rhetorical writing practices.

VanHaitsma’s methodological attention to genre allows her to counter popular interpretations that deny any possibility of homosexual desire within Dodd’s only other extant writings, three familial letters from later in his life. VanHaitsma argues that previous scholars fail to take into account the clear differences in genre between the personal diary and the familial letter and their corresponding audiences. While she does not assign a sexual identity to Dodd, her interpretation of the genre differences opens possibilities of queer romantic and erotic practices in his post-college years—which is to say, the fact that Dodd does not mention any romantic attachments in his letters to family may indicate more about the letters’ audience than it does the realities of his romantic or sexual life. Accordingly, VanHaitsma calls for increased attention to genre on the part of scholars working with epistolary rhetoric, asking, “How might we read such texts within the context of not only genre-specific instruction but also networks of other related genres?” (98).

Concluding Towards Failure

 When desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail “exceptionally well” by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them? (102)

VanHaitsma concludes with the chapter that most explicitly addresses her methodological commitments to queer archival research. Again, she posits questions that can guide future researchers, including, “When desires and relations are queer within the context of contemporaneous conventions, how do people fail ‘exceptionally well’ by learning to compose nonnormative relations from the models, genres, and practices available to them?” (102). With this question, VanHaitsma connects imagination and failure through the act of invention. She describes Brown, Primus, and Dodd as “learners who failed by the heteronormative standards within their given historical contexts and, in so doing, revealed the failures of heteronormative rhetorical education” (100). By extension, she suggests, queer failure also makes visible the failures of heteronormative archives and histories and creates space for novelty, surprise, and creativity. In this way, queer failure is also queer invention.

She ends by centering queer failure within queer methodologies. The goal is never to master queer theory, to apply it perfectly and perform it the same each time. Rather, she invites us to fail well and fail in interesting ways. And with each beautiful failure, she encourages us to be inventively queer.

To that end, this book could most immediately be included in graduate courses on queer theory and queer rhetorics. More broadly, any course that teaches or integrates archival research methods would benefit by including Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age in its curriculum. We believe that all scholars of rhetoric can benefit from VanHaitsma’s queer archival methods. She invites scholars to think capaciously and creatively about archival research and the interpretation of affect within archival materials. Importantly, her approach to queering archival methods can open up new lines of questioning, highlight new relationships, and enliven the research of any scholar whose research subject has been systematically erased from archival history.

Moving Forward | Queer Movement: The Next Steps

Our dear readers, we invite you to take up Queering Romantic Engagement in the Postal Age as a model of queer archival research. Flirt with the texts. Look for the intimate and public touching and the erotic and political aligning. Remember that genres are ours for the taking, breaking, and remaking. We hope you fail queerly and with joy.  


Amelia and Trish

Works Cited

  • Bessette, Jean. “Queer rhetoric in situ.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 148-164.
  • Bessette, Jean. Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives: Composing Pasts and Futures. SIU Press, 2018.
  • Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Duke UP, 2011.
  • Hawkins, Ames. These are Love(d) Letters. Wayne State UP, 2019.
  • Morris, Charles E., and K. J. Rawson. “Queer archives/archival queers.” Theorizing histories of rhetoric. Southern Illinois UP, 2013. pp. 74-89.
  • Rawson, K. J. “Rhetorical History 2.0: Toward a Digital Transgender Archive.” Enculturation, vol. 16., no. 9, 2013.
  • Rawson, K. J. “The Rhetorical Power of Archival Description: Classifying Images of Gender Transgression.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 4, 2018, pp. 327-351.
  • Royster, Jacqueline Jones. Traces of a Stream: Literacy and Social Change among African American Women. U of Pittsburgh P, 2000.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Queering the Language of the Heart: Romantic letters, genre instruction, and rhetorical practice.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, 2014, pp. 6-24.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Gossip as rhetorical methodology for queer and feminist historiography.” Rhetoric Review, vol.  35, no. 2, 2016, pp. 135-147.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Stories of Straightening Up: Reading Femmes in the Archives of Romantic Friendship.” QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking, vol. 6, no. 3, 2019, pp. 1-24.
  • VanHaitsma, Pamela. “Digital LGBTQ Archives as Sites of Public Memory and Pedagogy.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, vol. 22, no. 2, 2019 pp. 253-280.