Although evidence for the existence of epistles can be found from earliest antiquity, the letter, as a rhetorical vehicle used for essay writing, developed from the Athenian oratory of Isocrates, from whom we have nine surviving letters as discourses, and flourished during the Hellenistic age. Epicurus embedded much of his philosophy in letter form.
Thus by the time of St. Paul the elegant Hellenistic figures were firmly a part of the epistolary tradition, though some church historians such as Adolf Deissmann (Paulus [1911; St. Paul: A Study in Social and Religious History]) have argued strongly that the Pauline epistles are unliterary “conversations” intended only for a limited community.
Among the Romans, however, the epistolary essay clearly became a literary type of the highest order. Cicero used the letter for some of the prose on political and ethical topics that most clearly exemplifies his periodic style. Many of the stoic treatises of Seneca, such as the Ad Marciam de consolatione (wr. c. 43 CE; To Marcia on consolation), were cast in epistolary form, while the letter in verse form also became popular with the elegant Romans. The Ars poetica (wr. c. 12–8 BCE; The Poetic Art) of Horace was actually his epistle to the Pisos, and the work of Ovid also included verse epistles.
Long letters on serious topics saw their next great flowering near the end of the Middle Ages. In fact, late Victorian and modern scholars have rediscovered and delighted in the epistolary form and in the way it took on increased importance as a vehicle for political, literary, and even scientific ideas. In the preface to his late lectures on the Life and Letters of Erasmus (1895), the great Victorian scholar J.A.Froude wrote, “The best description of the state of Europe in the age immediately preceding the Reformation will be found in the correspondence of Erasmus.” In England, Sir Thomas More was using the letter for similar purposes. Following the founding of the Royal Society, a century and a half later, the standard method for expressing new and elaborate ideas was in “letters” for publication in the transactions of the Society, a practice that continues to this day. (A typical example is the communication on “a case of squinting,” dated 10 March 1777, sent to the Royal Society by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, and clearly named after the great Erasmus.)
The letter as an elaborate literary form itself, and not just as a vehicle for ideas, enjoyed a major resurgence with the neoclassicism of the late Renaissance and Enlightenment. Alexander Pope rejuvenated the verse epistle of Horace, so that his An Essay on Man (1733–34) is set as an epistle to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke. At the same time Voltaire published his Letters Concerning the English Nation, which are also known as “philosophic” letters because of their highly essayistic quality. Similarly,
Charles de Montesquieu and Oliver Goldsmith made use of the long letter in prose to convey their ideas on culture, and in the course of so doing produced literature of a high quality. The form was widespread throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, ranging from the Earl of Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son (wr. 1737 onward; pub. 1774) through a number of letter-essays by Edmund Burke, to Thomas Malthus on the “poor laws,” to de Crèvecæur’s Letters from an American Farmer (1782), to Sydney Smith’s Peter Plymley Letters (1807) on religion and the Church.
The complex interface between the personal letter and that crafted as literature, which troubled scholars looking as far back as the Pauline epistles, took on an additional dimension with the epistolary novel, which evolved in the late Renaissance and continues to the present. Prime examples are the works of Samuel Richardson. He wrote (and printed himself) a how to handbook on writing the personal letter (Letters Written to and for Particular Friends, 1741), much of which was realized in his seminal novel Pamela (1740–41). A century later, Anthony Trollope incorporated letters elaborately into many of his 47 novels, constituting one variation on the epistolary form in fiction; and Trollope, who worked for the British postal service, also illustrates how important the long personal letter became in the Victorian age. In the 20th century, Saul Bellow and John Barth are two American writers who have made complex use of the letter in literature.
Barth’s Letters (1979) is not only fiction but also essay in the most florid sense. Thus, in the last two centuries the distinction between the personal letter and more public forms of literary expression has become blurred almost beyond recognition. Some of the greatest writers have had their personal letters published as major works, often regarded as discussions of literature. An early example would be the letters of John Keats, which were originally personal, but which now appear in collections of essays on literary theory. Thus the ancient form continues to have an intriguing ambiguity of purpose and a vigorous potentiality in relation to the essay form.
The Faber Book of Letters, edited by Felix Pryor, London: Faber, 1988; Boston: Faber, 1989
The Letter Book: Selected, with an Introduction on the History and Art of Letter Writing, edited by George Saintsbury, London: Bell, 1922
Love Letters: An Anthology, edited by Antonia Fraser, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976; New York: Knopf, 1977
Love Letters: An Anthology from the British Isles, 975–1944, edited by James Turner, London: Cassell, 1970
Love Letters: An Anthology of Passion, edited by Michelle Lovric, New York: Marlowe, 1994
The Oxford Book of Letters, edited by Frank Kermode and Anita Kermode, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995
The Personal Art: An Anthology of English Letters, edited by Philip Wayne, London and New York: Longman Green, 1949
Postman’s Horn: An Anthology of the Letters of Later SeventeenthCentury England, edited by Arthur Bryant, New York and London: Longman Green, 1936; revised edition, London: Home and Van Thal, 1946
Treasury of the World’s Great Letters, from Ancient Days to Our Own Time, edited by Max Lincoln Schuster, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1940
Almeida, Teresa Sousa de, “Pour une théorie de la lettre au dixhuitième siècle,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 304 (1992):863–66
Altman, Janet Gurkin, Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982
Altman, Janet Gurkin, “Epistolary Conduct: The Evolution of the Letter Manual in France in the Eighteenth Century,” Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 304 (1992):866–69
Altman, Janet Gurkin, “Teaching the ‘People’ to Write: The Formation of a Popular Civic Identity in the French Letter Manual,” Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 22
Cherawatuk, Karen, and Ulrike Withaus, editors, Dear Sister: Medieval Women and the Epistolary Genre, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993
Classen, Albrecht, “Female Epistolary Literature from Antiquity to the Present: An Introduction,” Studia Neophilologica 60, no. 1 (1988):3–13
Drew, Elizabeth, The Literature of Gossip: Nine English Letter Writers, New York: Norton, 1964
Exler, Francis Xavier J., The Form of the Ancient Greek Letter: A Study in Greek Epistolography (dissertation), Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1923
Fantazzi, Charles, “The Evolution of Erasmus’ Epistolary Style,” Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme 13, no. 3 (1989):263–88
Grassi, Marie Claire, “L’Art epistolaire français: XVIIIe et XIXe siècles,” in Pour une histoire des traités de savoir-vivre en Europe, edited by Alain Montandon, Clermont Ferrand: Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Clermont Ferrand, 1994
Henderson, Judith Rice, “Erasmus on the Art of Letter Writing,” in Renaissance Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Renaissance Rhetoric, edited by James J.Murphy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983
Howland, John W., The Letter Form and tbe French Enlightenment: The Epistolary Paradox, New York: Lang, 1991
Perelman, Les, “The Medieval Art of Letter Writing: Rhetoric as Institutional Expression of the Professions,” in Textual Dynamics of the Professions: Historical and Contemporary Studies of Writing in Professional Communities, edited by Charles Bazerman and James Paradis, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991
Redford, Bruce, “The converse of the pen’: Letter Writing in the Age of Johnson,” Yale University Library Gazette 59, nos. 1–2 (1984):49–96
Robertson, Jean L., The Art of Letter Writing: An Essay on the Handbooks Published in England During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1942,
Saliba, Jaimee R., “Regulating the I-You: Gender, Dialogue, and the Epistolary Text,” Papers on French Seventeenth-Century Literature 21, no. 40 (1994):177–85
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