In This Article Letters and Letter Writing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Edited Collections
  • Literary Criticism of Epistolary Fiction and Letter-Writing Manuals
  • Notable Correspondents
  • Networks, Migration, and Mobility
  • Religious, Political, and Intellectual Networks
  • National Trajectories
  • Love and Family Letters
  • Gender and Letters
  • The Mechanics and Material Culture of Letter Writing
  • Secrecy, Privacy, and Censorship

Atlantic History Letters and Letter Writing
by
Sarah M. S. Pearsall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 December 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0187

Introduction

The early modern period was a great golden age of letters and letter writing in many parts of the Atlantic world. The 18th century in particular saw a flourishing of the epistolary genre across numerous settings. Letter-writing manuals taught elite and commoner alike how to craft a wide variety of letters. Epistolary novels and stories filled bookshelves and magazines, as audiences enjoyed the titillation of reading the supposedly private correspondence of heroes and especially heroines. An ever-wider range of individuals participated in this literary culture, writing letters to families, friends, business partners, and fellow intellectuals. Much late-20th- and early-21st-century literature has focused on this expansion of letter-writing cultures. Letters are of course the genre par excellence of mobility, and scholars interested in connections and disconnections among Atlantic migrants, settlers, and refugees have increasingly turned their attention to letters and their functions. Curiously, for such a liminal source, scholars only began interrogating letters as Atlantic documents in the late 20th century; most studies continue to focus on national trajectories of epistolarity. Still, letters underlay a range of Atlantic and even global networks, whether familial, business, religious, political, or intellectual. Understanding this genre is essential for comprehending a variety of Atlantic developments, not least migration, trade, and networks. From family members who found themselves on opposite sides of the Atlantic to merchants organizing transatlantic trade to governors and diplomats assessing political and military occurrences, letters underpinned the development of an Atlantic world. Letters were also of critical significance in literary cultures and provide a particularly useful means of exploring the intersections of print culture and lived experience. A genre strongly associated with women, letters elucidate ideas and practices of gender. Letters also illuminate shifting ideas of privacy, secrecy, and trust in a period in which censorship, especially in wartime, existed. Finally, work on the cultures of letter writing and postal services demonstrates the financial and material foundations of letter writing and the ways connections required resources, from writing desks and ink to postal carriers and ships to move letters across the Atlantic (and beyond).

General Overviews and Edited Collections

Since the late 20th century historians and literary scholars have become far more interested in letters as a genre and in letter writing as a social and cultural practice. The most notable books in this field have explored the work that letters have done as documents, as material items, and as forms of communication and expression. Given the prominence of the epistolary genre in the 18th century, it is hardly surprising that a lot of this scholarship has focused on that period. Altman 1982 offers a classic meditation on this genre. There has been a proliferation of edited collections on letters and letter writing. In part, the flourishing of electronic epistolarity in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has made scholars more conscious of the importance of letters in earlier periods. Poster and Mitchell 2007, Barton and Hall 1999, and Earle 1999 range geographically and over the classical, early modern, and modern periods. Other works, such as Daybell 2001 and Gaul and Harris 2009, have presented more geographically and temporally focused overviews. These collections provide a helpful overview of key issues in the production, meanings, and circulation of the letter as a genre and as a textual artifact, and discussion of the genre and letter-writing manuals. The collections also include a variety of approaches, including literary interpretation, social network analysis, and material-centered considerations, and represent a range of disciplines, from historians interested in manuscript letters to literary scholars focused on print cultures to social scientists concerned with networks and communication. Altogether, however, most studies have tended to stress the agency of letters and their writers. Works have also pointed to the ways letter-writing models and practices have changed over time and within and across cultures, and have expanded to include many more individuals.

  • Altman, Janet Gurkin. Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1982.

    E-mail Citation »

    This foundational work on the genre of letters focuses on the dialogic quality of letters. The text covers a wide range of letters, from the ancients to the moderns, but stresses the 18th century. Articles consider themes of mediation, confidence, readership, and narrative structure, among others.

  • Barton, David, and Nigel Hall, eds. Letter Writing as a Social Practice. Studies in Written Language and Literacy 9. Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    This broad collection of articles, ranging from early America to Victorian England to modern Nepal, explores the more general social and cultural significance of the act of letter writing. There is an emphasis on Anglophone letters. Contributors include historians, anthropologists, and education specialists.

  • Daybell, James, ed. Early Modern Women’s Letter Writing, 1450–1700. Early Modern Literature in History. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230598669E-mail Citation »

    This anthology looks at English women and their letters in the period from the late 15th to the early 18th centuries. The historians here find that elite women used letters in a variety of ways to maintain networks and to participate in religious and political activities.

  • Earle, Rebecca, ed. Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter-Writers, 1600–1945. Warwick Studies in the European Humanities. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    This well-edited collection of essays on letters and their writers deals with European and American letters, asserting that letters provide information not simply about particular writers or events but also about larger social and cultural contexts. Essays examine business, diplomatic, and personal correspondences and issues of gender.

  • Gaul, Theresa Strouth, and Sharon M. Harris, eds. Letters and Cultural Transformations in the United States, 1760–1860. Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    These essays, of a largely literary bent, study the development of epistolary cultures in the emerging United States, finding such epistolary practices critical to American identity and culture. Collectively, the essays, which cover transnationalism, authorship, periodicals, and editing, emphasize the relevance of letter writing to public life.

  • Poster, Carol, and Linda C. Mitchell, eds. Letter-Writing Manuals and Instruction from Antiquity to the Present: Historical and Bibliographic Studies. Studies in Rhetoric/Communication. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection of articles on letter-writing manuals covers an exceptionally wide time span, beginning in the classical era and ending with e-mail. The volume includes helpful essays on English and American letter-writing manuals in the early modern and modern periods.

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