What Is A Letter?

It is not so long since most personal letters, after an extremely formal salutation, began "I take my pen in hand." We do not see that so much nowadays, but the spirit lingers. Pick up the average letter and you cannot fail to discover that the writer has grimly taken his pen in hand and, filled with one thought, has attacked the paper. That one thought is to get the thing over with.

And perhaps this attitude of getting the thing over with at all costs is not so bad after all. There are those who lament the passing of the ceremonious letter and others who regret that the "literary" letter—the kind of letter that can be published—is no longer with us. But the old letter of ceremony was not really more useful than a powdered wig, and as for the sort of letter that delights the heart and lightens the labor of the biographer—well, that is still being written by the kind of person who can write it. It is better that a letter should be written because the writer has something to say than as a token of culture. Some of the letters of our dead great do too often remind us that they were not forgetful of posterity.

The average writer of a letter might well forget culture and posterity and address himself to the task in hand, which, in other than the most exceptional sort of letter, is to say what he has to say in the shortest possible compass that will serve to convey the thought or the information that he wants to hand on. For a letter is a conveyance of thought; if it becomes a medium of expression it is less a letter than a diary fragment.

Most of our letters in these days relate to business affairs or to social affairs that, as far as personality is concerned, might as well be business. Our average letter has a rather narrow objective and is not designed to be literature. We may, it is true, write to cheer up a sick friend, we may write to tell about what we are doing, we may write that sort of missive which can be classified only as a love letter—but unless such letters come naturally it is better that they be not written. They are the exceptional letters. It is absurd to write them according to rule. In fact, it is absurd to write any letter according to rule. But one can learn the best usage in correspondence, and that is all that this book attempts to present.

The heyday of letter writing was in the eighteenth century in England. George Saintsbury, in his interesting "A Letter Book," says:

"By common consent of all opinion worth attention that century was, in the two European literatures which were equally free from crudity and decadence—French and English—the very palmiest day of the art. Everybody wrote letters, and a surprising number of people wrote letters well. Our own three most famous epistolers of the male sex, Horace Walpole, Gray, and Cowper—belong wholly to it; and 'Lady Mary'—our most famous she-ditto—belongs to it by all but her childhood; as does Chesterfield, whom some not bad judges would put not far if at all below the three men just mentioned. The rise of the novel in this century is hardly more remarkable than the way in which that novel almost wedded itself—certainly joined itself in the most frequent friendship—to the letter-form. But perhaps the excellence of the choicer examples in this time is not really more important than the abundance, variety, and popularity of its letters, whether good, indifferent, or bad. To use one of the informal superlatives sanctioned by familiar custom it was the 'letter-writingest' of ages from almost every point of view. In its least as in its most dignified moods it even overflowed into verse if not into poetry as a medium. Serious epistles had—of course on classical models—been written in verse for a long time. But now in England more modern patterns, and especially Anstey's New Bath Guide, started the fashion of actual correspondence in doggerel verse with no thought of print—a practice in which persons as different as Madame d'Arblay's good-natured but rather foolish father, and a poet and historian like Southey indulged; and which did not become obsolete till Victorian times, if then."

There is a wide distinction between a letter and an epistle. The letter is a substitute for a spoken conversation. It is spontaneous, private, and personal. It is non-literary and is not written for the eyes of the general public. The epistle is in the way of being a public speech—an audience is in mind. It is written with a view to permanence. The relation between an epistle and a letter has been compared to that between a Platonic dialogue and a talk between two friends. A great man's letters, on account of their value in setting forth the views of a school or a person, may, if produced after his death, become epistles. Some of these, genuine or forgeries, under some eminent name, have come down to us from the days of the early Roman Empire. Cicero, Plato, Aristotle, Demosthenes, are the principal names to which these epistles, genuine and pseudonymous, are attached.

Some of the letters of Cicero are rather epistles, as they were intended for the general reader.

The ancient world—Babylonia, Assyria, Egypt, Rome, and Greece—figures in our inheritance of letters. In Egypt have been discovered genuine letters. The papyrus discoveries contain letters of unknowns who had no thought of being read by the general public.

During the Renaissance, Cicero's letters were used as models for one of the most common forms of literary effort. There is a whole literature of epistles from Petrarch to the Epistolæ obscurorum virorum. These are, to some degree, similar to the Epistles of Martin Marprelate.

Later epistolary satires are Pascal's "Provincial Letters," Swift's "Drapier Letters," and the "Letters of Junius."

Pope, soon to be followed by Lady Mary Montagu, was the first Englishman who treated letter writing as an art upon a considerable scale.

Modern journalism uses a form known as the "open letter" which is really an epistle.

But we are not here concerned with the letter as literature.

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