letters

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

letters

letters, in literature, written messages, ranging from those addressed to the public and those sent from lover to lover, to business letters and thank-you notes. The common quality they share is a lively style, echoing the personality of the sender yet aimed at the mind and heart of the receiver. Their intimacy gives them an immediacy that touches general readers as well. Long, eloquent letters, or epistles, were the favored means of communication in the ancient world. Those of Cicero and Horace, ranging in subject from political philosophy to literary criticism and social satire, served as models for the formal statement or manifesto. Although the epistles of Saint Paul and Saint Jerome are concerned with the Christian life of the spirit, they are patterned upon classical models. The writings of Cicero and Horace served as models once again for a revival of the epistle in the 18th cent., when John Dryden and Alexander Pope composed verse epistles and Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. Two famous sets of letters vividly portray life in the Middle Ages. The passionate correspondence of Peter Abelard and his mistress, Héloise, poignantly suggests the cruelty of the supposedly civilized church in 12th-century France; the Paston Letters reveal in detail the daily life of an English family in the 15th cent. The 18th cent. was a golden age of letters. Madame de Sévigné, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Lord Chesterfield all entered into long, highly polished, and extremely readable correspondences with their respective children. Letter writing was so popular in England at this time that Samuel Richardson capitalized on the vogue by writing the first epistolary novels, Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747–48). Each was meant to serve as a guide for writing different kinds of letters as well as for designating correct female behavior under trying circumstances. Among British writers of the 19th cent., the best correspondents included John Keats, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, and R. L. Stevenson. George Bernard Shaw wrote love letters to the actress Ellen Terry for three years before they met. Their eventual encounter was not a success, but the correspondence continued for 23 years. The particular ability of letters to convey with immediacy not only the emotions and tragedies of a past time but also the substance of daily life is well illustrated in The Children of Pride: A True Story of Georgia and the Civil War (1972, ed. by Robert Myers), a collection of letters written by a Georgia family between 1854 and 1868. Important to students of American literature are the letters of the editor Maxwell Perkins to such writers as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and Thomas Wolfe. Also illuminating, partly because of their very existence, are the letters of Groucho Marx to T. S. Eliot.

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