The idea of writing a post such as this has been floating around in my head for a good, long while now. Letters, epistles, epistolography, are often thought of as ‘sub-literary’ or ‘documentary’ ‘evidence’ for the study of the history of a particular period or person. That is to say, the value of the letter as a piece of writing is to be found in the information which the scholar or other interested party can mine from it.
The implication, on the other hand, that letters are actually literature says that letters are intrinsically interesting of themselves. That is to say, you can read the letters of Cicero or Pliny the Younger of Ambrose of Milan or Leo the Great or Boniface or Abelard and Heloise or Erasmus or J R R Tolkien or C S Lewis for themselves rather than for their content alone.
I am not arguing that letters are not useful documents — from them we learn the tastes and friendships and horrors of individuals as well as, quite frequently, the events of their times. So Cicero’s letters to Atticus of the latter part of 50 BC and through 48 BC provide the student of the conflict between Caesar and Pompey an interesting and informative angle on this highly important Late Republican series of events. Or the letters of Pope Leo the Great from 448 through 455 are important sources for the events leading up to and resulting from the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Nevertheless, what I am saying is that letters are more than simply useful documents. They are interesting documents. Without knowledge of Latin, certain varieties of artistry in the letters of Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61-113) can come to the fore concerning how he constructs his identity or the concerns of what good style and oratory are. The art of philosophy is readily apparent in many of the letters such as those of the famous Stoic philosopher Seneca (c. 4 BC-AD 65) or the controversial philosopher-theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142).
If you can read letters in their original tongue, be it Latin or Greek, English or French, you can get a glimpse of their artistry in another manner. For Cicero the orator is not stylistically identical to Cicero the epistolary correspondent. Likewise Leo the Great. Not having read any of the letters of C S Lewis (1898-1963) as an adult, I cannot say for him, but I would be unsurprised if his letters differ from his essays and lectures in terms of style as well.
Furthermore, an investigation of the style of these letter-writers will reveal their use of literary devices, from devices of sound to puns to literary tropes. I, myself, have done an analysis Pope Leo the Great’s Letter 28, the ‘Tome’, and have found it full of rhetorical devices of balance and antithesis, thus mirroring the theological content of the letter.
Of course, my reference to Leo’s ‘Tome’ brings up another issue surrounding the literariness of letters. All letters, whether real ones such as Cicero’s or fictive ones such as C S Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm, are written with a particular audience in view. Many of these, however, including many of Cicero’s, have a wider immediate audience than the ‘intended’ recipient — most famously, the letters of Paul the Apostle (AD 5-67) have found themselves in almost every language on earth in the hands of people living in places the Apostle did not know even existed. Certainly, Paul did not think of the Papuan living in the 21st century when he wrote. Yet he was also undoubtedly thinking beyond the Corinthians of his own day as well.
Thus does Leo write his ‘Tome’ to Flavian of Constantinople yet put enormous rhetorical effort into it, not only in the devices employed but also in the cadence and rhythm of the words, consistently using a prose rhythm known to us best from Ammianus that will last throughout the Middle Ages, but also the prose metre known to us best from Cicero. This consciousness of a wider audience in the letters of people such as Cicero or Pliny or Leo or Erasmus leads to more careful artistry in both the original copy as well as in polished versions presented for publication.
This careful literariness in so many of the famous epistolographers of history should make us pause when we read them, then. How are we to say that this is a less ‘mediated’ version of the character we are reading? Pliny has polished his letters and arranged them to produce a particular vision of himself. Leo has similarly polished his letters and sought to uphold certain values throughout. Who knows what that pope would fear and wonder in the dark nights of Vandal invasions of Rome?
All of this is to say — read some published letters. They run through a range of subjects from oratory to philosophy to poetry to any other piece of literature to art and architecture to theology to politics to daily life to economics. They do so with a certain style that raises them above mere ‘documentary’ evidence for the past.
Recommended Letter Collections (chronologically)
M. Tullius Cicero. I would recommend them all, but they are legion, so read D R Shackleton Bailey’s Selected Letters (Penguin Classics) instead. Online: The complete letters in English at the Perseus Project.
L. Annaeus Seneca. A nice sampling of Seneca’s letters is in the Penguin Classic Letters from a Stoic translated and selected by Robin Campbell.
Pliny the Younger. The Letters of the Younger Pliny. Translated by Betty Radice (Penguin Classics). This corpus is short enough that you can read them all; furthermore, there is much to be said for reading an entire collection of letters as its author/editor intended.
Ambrose of Milan. Ambrose’s letters vary greatly in subject matter; therefore, to get a sense of the man, read the selections gathered in the Translated Texts for Historians volume, Political Letters and Speeches as well as the small sampling in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Ambrose volume, available online.
Pope Leo I (the Great). No translation exists of all of Leo’s letters, but the bulk can be found in the NPNF volume, available online, and a somewhat different selection in the volume from The Fathers of the Church, translated by Edmund Hunt.
Boniface. I’ve not read all of Boniface’s letters, but I found those I did read to be of interest. There is a recent edition by Ephraim Emerton, and they are also available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
Peter Abelard. There is a Penguin Classic, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, translated by Betty Radice, where I first met these two star-crossed (and on his part castrated) lovers/monk and nun.
Francesco Petrarch. Petrarch, as a ‘Renaissance’ humanist, takes up many of the perceived ideals of epistolary writing found in Pliny and Cicero. A selection is available through the Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
C S Lewis. Letters to Children. This I own and enjoyed in my youth.
—. Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer. This is an interesting series of fictive letters to a correspondent called Malcolm. An interesting project from a literary standpoint.
—. Letters. Walter Hooper has edited all of them, I think; but there must be a ‘selected letters’ out there for the faint of heart!
J R R Tolkien. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien: A Selection, ed. Humphrey Carpenter.
—. Letters from Father Christmas. This amazing volume contains letters Tolkien wrote in the person of Father Christmas to his children. It is a delight!
There are, of course, many more bodies of correspondence out there to be discovered. I just know very little about them or have not read them at all, so I am not keen to recommend them. Add your own recommendations in the comments!