Letter collection

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A letter collection or collection of letters consists of a publication, usually a book, containing a compilation of letters written by a real person. Unlike an epistolary novel, a letter collection belongs to non-fiction literature. As a publication, a letter collection is distinct from an archive, which is a repository of original documents.

Usually, the original letters are written over the course of the lifetime of an important individual, noted either for their social position or their intellectual influence, and consist of messages to specific recipients. They might also be open letters intended for a broad audience. After these letters have served their original purpose, a letter collection gathers them to be republished as a group.[1] Letter collections, as a form of life writing, serve a biographical purpose.[2] They also typically select and organize the letters to serve an aesthetic or didactic aim, as in literary belles-lettres and religious epistles.[3] The editor who chooses, organizes, and sometimes alters the letters plays a major role in the interpretation of the published collection.[4] Letter collections have existed as a form of literature in most times and places where letter-writing played a prominent part of public life. Before the invention of printing, letter collections were recopied and circulated as manuscripts, like all literature.[1]

Letter collections in history[edit]


In ancient Greece, Cicero (106 – 43 BC) is known for his Letters to Atticus, to Brutus, to friends, and to his brother.[3] Seneca the Younger (c. 5 – 65 CE) and Pliny the Younger (c. 61 – c. 112 CE) both published their own letters. Seneca's Letters to Lucilius are strongly moralizing. Pliny's Epistulae have a self-consciously literary style.[2] Ancient letter collections typically did not organize the letters chronologically.[3]

Early Christianity is also associated with collected and published letters, typically referred to as epistles for their didactic focus. Paul the Apostle (c. 5 – c. 64/67 CE) is known for the Pauline epistles which make up thirteen books of the New Testament.[3] Saint Augustine (354 – 430 CE) and Saint Jerome (c. 342-347 – 420 CE) also wrote prolific and influential theological letters.[1]

Medieval and Renaissance Europe[edit]

Medieval European letter-writers were heavily influenced by Cicero in the development of rhetorical conventions (ars dictaminis) for letter-writing.[2]

Petrarch (1304 – 1374 CE) added a greater level of personal autobiographical detail in his Epistolae familiares.[2] Erasmus (1466 –1536 CE) and Justus Lipsius (1547 – 1606 CE) also promoted flexibility and enjoyable reading in letter-writing, rather than a rule-focused formula.[2]

Eighteenth-century Europe[edit]

Published letters and diaries were particularly prominent in eighteenth-century British print, sometimes called "the defining genres of the period".[5] The letters of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal (1626 – 1696) and her daughter were published beginning in 1725, and widely regarded across Europe as the model for witty, enjoyable letters.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Rosenthal, Joel T. (2014-06-03). "Letters and Letter Collections". Understanding Medieval Primary Sources: Using Historical Sources to Discover Medieval Europe. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-79631-2.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Bray, Bernard (2001). "Letters: General Survey". In Jolly, Margaretta (ed.). Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. Translated by Lamontagne, Monique. London: Routledge. pp. 551–553. ISBN 9781579582326.
  3. ^ a b c d Gibson, Roy (2012). "On the Nature of Ancient Letter Collections". The Journal of Roman Studies. 102: 56–78. ISSN 0075-4358.
  4. ^ Grasso, Linda M. (2008). "Reading Published Letter Collections as Literary Texts: Maria Chabot—Georgia O'Keeffe Correspondence, 1941–1949 as a Case Study". Legacy. 25 (2): 239–250. ISSN 0748-4321.
  5. ^ Taylor, Richard C. (2001). "Britain: Restoration and 18th-Century Diaries and Letters". In Jolly, Margaretta (ed.). Encyclopedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. London: Routledge. pp. 137-138-553. ISBN 9781579582326.