Nineteenth Century Letters

Nineteenth Century Letters

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Nineteenth Century Letters

Nineteenth Century Letters

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Excerpt

Of the numerous species of written discourse to which the human instinct for communicating thought and feeling has given rise, that most frequently and generally employed is without question the letter. It is the one type of composition that approximately every one, whatever the degree of his literary attainment, finds it desirable and necessary after some fashion to cultivate. Novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays, biographies, editorial articles,--these are, after all, the contribution of a relatively small number of writers; but 'the literature of the letter' is always being unimaginably augmented through the activity of the people as a whole. Under such circumstances, circumstances that involve wholesale participation and infinite variety in purpose and adaptation, it is perhaps not surprising that attempts clearly to define the principles of excellence in letter- writing should have invariably failed. For the other species of literary activity, indeed, there are more or less familiar and adequate critical standards. Criticism, disseminated in some phase among all classes of readers and writers, has made it possible for almost any person to differentiate the novel, let us say, from the essay, or the play from an argument; everybody, unless it be the more enthusiastic writer of 'new poetry,' recognizes the difference between prose and verse; but criticism has not yet pointed out satisfactorily the characteristics that all good letters possess, and has promulgated no canons that commend themselves inevitably to any considerable body of good judges. We know of course that some letters are 'good' and that others are 'bad,' but what it is that effects the 'goodness,' other than those qualities that are common to memorable and felicitous writing in general, we are often at a loss to say. We are convinced that the letters of Cicero and of the younger Pliny are ex-

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