March 7, 2016 | Tess Goodman.
Is there such a thing as a relationship between a reader and an author? Authors often structure their relationships with readers in different ways, in order to connect with a potentially enormous group of readers, widely variant in personality and opinion, whom he or she will never meet. How do authors frame these relationships in ways that can be sustainable over decades or even centuries? And what do those relationships help the author to achieve?
Let us consider two case studies from the nineteenth century. First, Elizabeth Gaskell, who was reticent about her own presence in her works. In her biography of her friend Charlotte Brontë, she hides her own personality. The stories she tells focus on Brontë, eliding her own role in their friendship. In her novels, Gaskell manages her relationship with her readers by creating a fictional persona: a carefully created narrator, who shares only a few characteristics with the writer. The narrator can explain aspects of Lancashire culture in Mary Barton because she herself is “Lancashire born and bred,” as Gaskell was (34).  She also speaks of her own feelings: she alludes to her “sympathy and […] attention” to the working-class citizens of Manchester who are the focus of her novel. Gaskell creates a thinly-sketched narrator, a sympathetic person from Lancashire. This person has the authority to interpret Mancunian culture to a London reader. She mediates between the characters in the books—real, or realistic, people—and her readers, most of whom have never been to Manchester in the 1840s. Gaskell builds just enough of a persona to act as a bridge between her readers and her characters, in hopes that her readers will sympathize with the people she writes about. Gaskell’s relationship with her readers helps her act as an advocate.
Walt Whitman, on the other hand, focused on forming as strong a relationship as possible with his readers. In his poetry, he speaks directly to his reader. “Why should I not speak to you?” he asks in “To You” (175).  After all, he adds in “Thou Reader,” you “throbbest life and pride and love the same as I” (175). But he builds that connection by framing the physical copies of his book as physical connections between himself and his readers.  He writes: “Camerado, this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man” (611). In one edition, he has a portrait inserted opposite these lines:
These burin’d eyes, […]
[…] from these to emanate,
To you whoe’er you are—a look.
[…] to you I opposite turn,
As on the road or at some crevice door by chance or open’d window,
Pausing, inclining, baring my head, you specially I greet,
To draw and clinch your soul for once inseparably with mine,
Then travel travel on. (296-7) 
Whitman imagines, as forcefully as possible, that his portrait is really his own face—that he and the reader really meet in the pages of his book.
Whitman wants to build a strong empathetic connection to his readers. Gaskell wants to develop a persona just dimensional enough to act as a mediator. These two examples suggest the infinite variety of relationships available to the author and the reader—similar to the infinite variety of relationships that are possible between any two human beings. All authors shape their relationship to their works and their readers. They may elide themselves, they may create fictionalized personae, or they may insert themselves into their writing for all to see.
Tess Goodman is a PhD candidate in English at the University of Edinburgh, an alumna of the University of Virginia, and a quondam employee of Rare Book School. She is curious about everything to do with book history, bibliography, libraries, and travel. Her current research focuses on how tourists in nineteenth-century Scotland used books—as both narratives and objects—to hold on to intangible memories.
Edited by Vicki Madden and Louise Adams.
1. Gaskell, Elizabeth. Mary Barton. Ed. Thomas Recchio. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008. Print. 34.
2. Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York, New York: Library of America College Editions, 1996. All other Whitman quotations are from this edition unless otherwise cited.
3. Ed Folsom and Kenneth Price call this entwinement Whitman’s “great metonymic invention—to turn human types into printed type… this extraordinary conflation of book and identity.” See Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price. Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2005.
4. Whitman, Walt. 7th edn, 14th printing. PS3201 1889. Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.