The Letters and Literature
For explanatory power, the idea of the literary would seem to have sunk in our day to about the level of phlogiston. A generation of critics has questioned whether it is a property that can be predicated of texts rather than of the social conditioning or mental processes of those who read them, or whether indeed it means anything at all.1 I borrow the word “literature” for the chapter title nevertheless, not from any wish to rehabilitate it, but because its expansivity makes it a handy umbrella category.2 This chapter will discuss letters that may be called “literary” in various senses having mostly to do with their affinities to books, in that they are written to or by the writers of books, they are about books or invoke them, or they themselves acquire or aspire to book form. The direction of argument will be clearer if I declare at the outset that my goal is not to assess whether “literary” is a more appropriate label for one than for another of these attributes, or whether it is the ideal label for any. Rather, it is to bring to bear an admittedly loose set of criteria that can still be exploited to improve our appreciation of one side of Cicero’s correspondence. And second, my focus here as throughout this book is on the letters, not on Cicero per se. I am concerned with what the letters do, not with the performance of their writers on any wider stage. Because we know that Cicero was intensely engaged with literature as both reader and creator, we may expect that the letters will reveal him to us in that light. But in fact, they afford only a partial and obstructed view of his literary interests. The following pages will illustrate that point and try to explain it. But before examining the part that literary activities play in his correspondence, it will be necessary to discuss a more basic idea of what makes a letter a literary letter.