views updated May 23 2018


Nineteenth-century letters may be defined as handwritten messages, usually inscribed with pencil or ink on paper and sent to specific persons or audiences. Through them, correspondents conducted commercial, political, and academic business or, conversely, transacted personal matters. These familiar letters, typically invested with more literary sensibility than matter-of-fact business correspondence, attended the era's signal geographical mobility prompted by marriage, employment, fortune seeking, or westward expansion. By 1860 over one-third of the citizenry had moved from their birthplaces. The Civil War's (1861–1865) mobilization of regiments spurred copious correspondence, with an estimated 180,000 letters each day flowing between the battlefield and the home front. For whatever reasons they found themselves separated from friends and kinfolk, ordinary and eminent people alike declared love, facilitated courtship, announced births, offered condolences, extended thanks, and most often simply kept in touch from afar through letters. Before the era of widespread rapid telecommunication, letters were lifelines of communication over time and space. Even illiterate people dictated messages to scribes.


Although each one was a unique artifact bearing singular features, letters shared common themes related to estrangement: the expanse of space between correspondents, loneliness, and hope of reunion, if only after death. Because epistolary text replaced face-to-face interaction, attempts to replicate conversation were duly noted; yet in the struggle to sustain intimate bonds, correspondents inevitably felt defeated when conveying visual imagery, palpable events, or emotional states. Slaves or freed people torn from enslaved families encountered the limitations of epistolary expression perhaps more than did their white contemporaries. For example, Hannah Valentine, an Abingdon, Virginia, slave, desperately sought reunion via letter with her husband, Michael, at Richmond with his master, the state's newly elected governor. For emigrants to Liberia, Africa, reporting home about their new but difficult conditions, written words poorly substituted for spoken dialogue.

Unlike lively, spontaneous conversation, letters followed formulas derived from either epistolary manuals or custom, both of which potentially engendered stilted writing. To elude humdrum scribbling, some letter writers subverted conventions such as opening greetings, sign-off partings, and postscripts with comic parody that amused recipients. Fearing reproof or, worse yet, the correspondents' termination of letter exchange, writers ritually begged pardon for garrulous, shallow, or dilatory missives. Sometimes they enhanced a letter's interest by versifying instead of writing prose, enclosing objects of affection (such as dried flowers, hair ringlets, or bookmarks), adorning margins with sketches, or inserting clippings from the latest news.

Despite the challenges endemic to writing, letters often sparked lively intellectual discourse. In the highly literate Boston region, for example, many correspondents, especially women, zealously wrote about the latest literature. "Have you read . . . ?" was a ubiquitous query that invited reviewer-like repartee. This discourse not only fed the literary marketplace, it lubricated epistolary conversation. By writing to other sympathetic female souls about literature, both the formally educated and the self-taught correspondents transgressed proscriptions against women's intellectual attainment. Letter writing in this sense advanced female education.

Beyond the text itself, correspondents valued the letter's tangible qualities—ink and paper, handwriting, envelope and stamps, enclosures—because they represented material traces of the letter writer. Letters were cherished and carefully stored away to be admired, repeatedly read, or studied for any slight variations in chirography that disclosed changes in the writer's health, well-being, or mentality. Writers consequently took pains with penmanship, the high caliber of which not only reflected deliberation in committing thoughts to paper but also character, gentility, and refinement. To ensure fine script, well-to-do writers and some poorer folk purchased quality ink and, to absorb it evenly, high rag-content paper (versus cheap pulp). After mid-century, manufactured steel or gold pens that could glide over paper supplanted cheap quills that required cutting and mending. Before envelopes were patented in 1849, correspondents usually mailed stationery sheets, folded blank side out and secured with colorful sealing wax. Customized seals for stamping wax personalized letters and concealed their contents. So engaging were signets that the popular author Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith, in her poem "The Twice-Told Seal" (1845), immortalized one that figuratively thawed a business letter's icy text.

This excerpt from a letter dated 30 January 1838, from Hannah Valentine to her husband Michael Valentine, reveals the deep anxiety people felt when their correspondence went unanswered; even word-of-mouth news was a poor substitute for a letter.

My dear husband

I begin to feel so anxious to hear from you and my children, and indeed from all the family that I have concluded to write to you altho you have treated me badly in not answering my last letter. I heard through Mr Gibson last week that you were all well, but hearing from you in that way does not satisfy me. I want a letter to tell me what you are doing and all about yourself and Eliza & David.

Starobin, ed., Blacks in Bondage: Letters of American Slaves, pp. 69–70.


Letters were sent in various ways: via telegraph, courier, and postal system. First laid by Samuel B. Morse as a line between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore in 1843 and augmented by Western Union and other firms as a more far-reaching communication network after the Civil War, the electric telegraph quickly transmitted business messages and the latest news. But because it was expensive, most correspondents depended on other means. Although the federal postal system developed rapidly during the nineteenth century, with over fourteen thousand offices by 1845 and twice as many by 1860, correspondents still asked overland travelers and voyagers to "page" for them, that is, carry letters as a favor. Unlike volunteers, postal carriers provided regular service, making mailing more expeditious but certainly not cheaper than paging. Until 1845 a single sheet cost upward of six cents to mail depending on how far it traveled; a twenty-five-cent charge, then a considerable sum, was not uncommon. Forty-niners' eastern kin paid a whopping forty cents per California-bound letter. The thrifty illicitly scribbled on newspapers, much cheaper to mail than letters; if detected, however, they exacted letter postage. Mailing letters became economical after 1851, when rates dropped to three cents per single letter conveyed within three thousand miles, but newspaper exchange still had its adherents.

The postal service's relative efficiency notwithstanding, many letters never reached their destinations for various reasons, such as misdirection, the death of the receiver, or a change of address, and wound up in the dead letter office, established in 1825 as mail volume expanded along with the population and national boundaries. There, miscarried letters with valuable enclosures like wedding rings, gems, or money were opened with the intent of notifying the sender; unclaimed goods were auctioned and unretrieved letters burned. The department's dolorous mission inspired fiction, such as Herman Melville's short story "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (1853) and Metta Fuller Victor's (1831–1885) book The Dead Letter (1866), the first full-length American detective novel. In both, the office, a synecdoche for communication breakdown, plays a key role in delineating the protagonists' characters and indeed the human condition.


Because familiar letter writing essentially is an imaginative act involving creative self-representation, some believe it is automatically imbued with literariness. In form, content, and purpose, the correspondence of aspiring or published authors and prominent figures generally simulated that of ordinary writers, but the former exemplified creative facility of language, style, and thought, and because such writers often anticipated future publication, a self-conscious presentation of self. The historian and critic Henry Brooks Adams (1838–1918), for one, composed letters with their future publicity in mind. Nonetheless, for Adams, corresponding, a warmly human activity, counterpoised publishing for an anonymous mass reading audience. Some authors predictably elevated writing over speaking. Throughout his early life, the transcendentalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) preferred epistolary discussion to conversation, a predilection perhaps cultivated by his erudite aunt Mary Moody Emerson; so prized were her letters that Emerson transcribed excerpts in his journals. His epistles to fellow transcendentalists, especially Caroline Sturgis Tappan, exhibited artfulness within the rigid form. Nature (1836), among other publications and lectures, extracted ideas from correspondence and captured its more familiar tone. Like Emerson, the poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) inventively exploited letters for literary ends, to an extent probably greater than contemporary professional counterparts ventured; indeed, classifying her works as either letters or poems often becomes impossible.

Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith's poem "The Twice-Told Seal" (1845), the first stanza of which is shown here, is an homage to decorative signets commonly used for stamping the sealing wax that secured letters.

The letter was a common one,
A business letter too,
Announcing some commission done,
And thence its words were few.
I read it idly, tossed it by,
And then a pretty seal
And kindly motto met my eye,
That gave my heart to feel.

Elizabeth Oakes Prince Smith, The Poetical Writings of Elizabeth Oakes Smith (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1845), pp. 194–195.

The epistolary act, so commonplace to readers, inspired authors' belletristic productions for the liter-ary marketplace. It was thematically highlighted in sundry poems and became an element essential to the plot or characters' development in novels and short stories. Dickinson, an enthusiastic correspondent, devoted twelve poems to epistolary exchange, including "This Is My Letter to the World" and "The Way I Read a Letter's—This." In the latter, Dickinson envisioned sealed letters as secret treasures, locked up safe from snoopers' eyes and awaiting liberation. The poet Mary Eliza Tucker Lambert's poems about Civil War battlefront letters, "No Letter" (1867) and "The Mail Has Come" (1867), pondered civilian correspondents' emotional bind: eagerly awaited mail possibly bore bad news, while no letters at all portended tragedy. The aforementioned novel by Metta Fuller Victor not only situated its opening chapter in a post office, it wove its plot around a baffling "dead letter" that proffered clues in a murder case. Similarly Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) in his "The Purloined Letter" (1844) fashioned a riveting detective story around a stolen letter, recovered by amateur psychology rather than professional investigation. Both psychologically nuanced pieces addressed contemporaries' anxieties about lost or intercepted letters. Literary letter-writing cameos unveiled tensions and frustrations. Perhaps the most famous appears in Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) best-seller, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852): the elderly slave, Uncle Tom, recalling long-forgotten writing lessons, warily drafts a letter to his estranged wife and children under the watchful eye of Eva, his master's daughter. Though sentimentalized, the scene simulated actual impediments to slave family communication and symbolized, for white audiences, their own family disruptions.

In epistolary fiction, as opposed to fiction with letter-writing themes or vignettes, a series of letters, mimetic of actual correspondence, drives rather than informs the narrative. Although its European heyday had passed before the turn of the nineteenth century, the genre—apotheosized by Samuel Richardson's novels Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) and Clarissa Harlow (1747–1748)—attracted several American authors writing between 1820 and 1870. Following upon William Hill Brown's The Power of Sympathy (1789) and Charles Brockden Brown's Clara Howard (1801) and Jane Talbot (1801), the authors John Neal (Randolph, 1823), Theodore Sedgwick (Hints to My Countrymen, 1826), and John Gardiner Calkins Brainard (Letters Found in the Ruins of Fort Braddock, 1834) all invested the fading genre with contemporary appeal. The period's most noteworthy epistolary novels—the Unitarian minister William Ware's historical trilogy, Letters from Lucius M. Piso [pseud.] from Palmyra (1837), Probus; or, Rome in the Third Century (1838), and Julian; or, Scenes in Judea (1841), and the prolific, cheap-fiction writer Joseph Holt Ingraham's biblical tomes Prince of the House of David (1855), Pillar of Fire (1859), and Throne of David (1860)—previewed Lewis Wallace's Ben Hur (1880). Toward century's end epistolary fiction writers abandoned sentimentality for greater verisimilitude. Accordingly a review in the April 1871 issue of Atlantic Monthly praised Abby Morton Diaz's humorous William Henry Letters (1870) for its naturalistic rendering of a boarding schoolboy's letters home.

Epistolary fiction naturally evolved from "letter-writers," instructive guides for novice correspondents that in England date back to the sixteenth century. Manuals characteristically featured templates, or model letters, for diverse writing occasions and became increasingly didactic and literary in that they portrayed well-drawn characters and wove entertaining narratives. By the early nineteenth century reading letter-writers had become a form of entertainment as well as instruction. Indeed, Irwin P. Beadle of dime-novel fame tapped this market with Beadle's Dime Letter-Writer (1860). Most authors of these guides carefully guarded their anonymity, perhaps because the titles often promised more than the books could deliver. "R. Turner's" popular Parlour Letter-Writer (1835) dubiously sported model letters "On Every Occurrence in Life." Other books barraged readers with a hodgepodge of wisdom: besides writing lessons, one offered instruction in How to Behave, How to Talk, How to Do Business (1869); yet another contained The Very Best Directions for Making All Kinds of Ice Creams (1855). The levity no doubt eased correspondents' anxieties about writing. Publishers brought forth at least sixty original editions between 1837 and 1857 alone, but the market for these guides flourished well beyond the Civil War.

In the early twenty-first century, when most communication between separated people is conducted via telephone or e-mail, it becomes difficult fully to appreciate the impact of ostensibly silly guidebooks, sentimentally fraught epistolary fiction, macabre dead letter offices, and now-rarified stationery items upon nineteenth-century literate populations for whom the culture of letter writing was vital. While that culture was one of deceleration rather than acceleration of communication—letters after all took time to write, send, read, and respond to—it nonetheless amply nourished relationships that might otherwise have unraveled under the stress of dislocation. For that reason alone, nineteenth-century letters may be counted among the nation's most treasured cultural—and literary—artifacts.

See alsoCivil War; Death; Dime Novels; English Literature; Female Authorship; Friendship; Humor; Poems of Emily Dickinson; Slavery; Uncle Tom's Cabin


Primary Work

Victor, Metta Victoria Fuller. The Dead Letter Office and theFigure Eight. 1866. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2003.

Secondary Works

Bowyer, Mathew J. They Carried the Mail: A Survey of PostalHistory and Hobbies. Washington, D.C.: Robert B. Luce, 1972.

Decker, William Merrill. Epistolary Practices: Letter Writing in America before Telecommunications. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Chapters on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, and Henry Adams.

Guillén, Claudio. "On the Edge of Literariness: The Writing of Letters." Comparative Literature Studies 31 (1994): 1–24.

John, Richard. "The Politics of Innovation." Daedalus 127 (1998): 187–214.

Kelley, Mary. "Reading Women/Women Reading: The Making of Learned Women in Antebellum America." Journal of American History 83 (1996): 401–424.

Kielbowicz, Richard B. News in the Mail: The Press, PostOffice, and Public Information, 1700–1860s. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989.

Peters, John Durham. Speaking into the Air: A History of theIdea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Silber, Nina, and Mary Beth Sievens, eds. Introduction toYankee Correspondence: Civil War Letters between New England Solders and the Home Front. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1996. See pp. 1–24.

Singer, Godfrey Frank. The Epistolary Novel: Its Origin,Development, Decline, and Residuary Influence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933.

Starobin, Robert S., ed. Blacks in Bondage: Letters of American Slaves. New York: New Viewpoints, 1974.

Thornton, Tamara Plakins. Handwriting in America: ACultural History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.

Zboray, Ronald J. A Fictive People: Antebellum EconomicDevelopment and the American Reading Public. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Zboray, Ronald J., and Mary Saracino Zboray. EverydayIdeas: Socio-Literary Experience among Antebellum New Englanders. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, forthcoming.

Zboray, Ronald J., and Mary Saracino Zboray. "'Have You Read . . . ?' Real Readers and Their Responses in Antebellum Boston and Its Region." Nineteenth-Century Literature 52 (1997): 139–170.

Ronald J. Zboray Mary Saracino Zboray


views updated Jun 27 2018

LETTER1 An alphabetic symbol such as A or a, B or b. In WRITING based on the classical Roman ALPHABET, the separation of letters into majuscules (CAPITAL letters) and minuscules (small letters), the many variant alphabets (such as for English and Spanish), the typefaces available to them, and the distinctive joined letters of cursive handwriting have produced a wide range of letter forms.

Naming letters

In the GREEK alphabet, each letter has a name that is not directly related to its sound value (alpha, beta, gamma, etc.), but this practice is not common in ROMAN-derived ALPHABETS. The ways in which letters are referred to in English (ay, bee, cee, etc.) echo those of FRENCH, except that French double-v is English double-u, and the name of y may descend from the rounded OLD ENGLISH pronunciation of that VOWEL. Except for h, w, the names (ay, bee, cee, etc.) have a recognizable relationship with the sounds they commonly represent. The vowel letters are named by the long values in mate, meet, might, moat, mute, not the short values as in pat, pet, pit, pot, putt/put. Nine CONSONANTS in BrE and ten in AmE are named with a vowel after the sound value: with following ee in the case of b, c, d, g, p, t, v (and AmE z) and ay in the case of j, k. Six others are named with a preceding short e: f, l, m, n, s, x. The remainder (h, q, r, w, y, and BrE zed) have individual names.

Letters as symbols

When letters are used as symbols they may operate alone, in sets, or in combination with words: (1) Alone: capitals A, B, C, etc., to mark an educational or other grade, X to indicate a mystery; small letters such as a, x, and y as used in mathematical expressions. (2) In sets: zzz in cartoons and elsewhere, to represent sleep; the thousands of letter-based abbreviations, such as BBC, NATO, e.g., i.e., UN/U.N. (3) In combination with a word, as an ABBREVIATION: BrE L-plate, where L means Learner (such plates being attached to the front and rear of motor vehicles); AmE T-bill, where T means Treasury (a reference to high-denomination promissory notes). (4) Combined with one or more words as part of a series: B-movie in the motion-picture industry; C minor in music. (5) Representing a shape: X in Charing X for the junction known as Charing Cross in London; U-turn a turn made through 180°. Some letters operate within established conventions, such as A, B, C and X, Y, Z, as the opening and closing letters of the Roman alphabet, often used to refer to sets of three things taken in order. A to Z means from the beginning to the end of something, such as a subject to be learned.

The uses of letter symbols are complex and varied, and include: economy of expression in generalizing and in labelling, mnemonic aid, the replacement and augmentation of numbers, and special effects. For example: through such formulas as How do we get from Point A to Point B? and Flight X is now boarding at Gate Y; fonybas, a mnemonic list of coordinating conjunctions (for, or, nor, yet, but, as, so), and St Wapniacl, once used to help US children memorize the departments of government in the order in which they were created (State, Treasury, War, Attorney General, Post Office, Navy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor); alliterative sets of three (the three Bs for Bach, Beethoven, Brahms), the words sometimes adapted to fit the idea and the rhythm (the three Rs for reading, 'riting, 'rithmetic); A, B, C for 1, 2, 3, B–51, F–18 (types of US aircraft) or 4A (the top stream or track of the fourth year in a school).

Special effects

Although all letters are available for use as special symbols, K and X have been particularly popular for such purposes. The uses of K include: an abbreviation meaning one thousand (from kilo), 10K being 10,000 of a unit of currency; a token of alienness, as in Amerika, for the US conceived as dominated by Communists or Nazis; an eye-catching spelling for words in q and c, as with a company called Kwik-Fit and cartoon characters called the Krazy Kids. The uses of X include: a token for something unknown: Mr X, Substance X, X-ray; to represent ex-, as in MX for missile experimental, in Xtra strong and X-ellent (compare D-grading and D-lightful); for Christ in Xmas, representing the Greek letter khi; to signify censorship: an X-rated movie, not to be shown to minors; as the signature of an illiterate person; to mark a place on a map or where a signature should go on a paper (commonly called a cross and not necessarily identified as a letter); to represent a kiss, often in a series written in a letter.

Letters in word use and word-formation

Letter symbols are often attributive (an A student, Type B behaviour), and occur as abbreviations in compounds (A-bomb, N-test for atomic bomb, nuclear test). They may serve to emphasize significant words, whose full form may be taboo (the F-word for fuck), undesirable (the big C for cancer), or highly significant (the big O for the Olympics). Technical letter symbols in electrical engineering include GeV for gigaelectron volt and TeV for teravolt. Such symbols can include an AMPERSAND: R & D for research and development. However, it may not always be easy to distinguish letter symbols from initialisms: in Britain, ABC may refer to the socio-economic classes A, B, C taken together; in the 1983 general election in Canada, they meant Anybody but Clark; in Australia, they stand for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; in Los Angeles, they have been used to mean American-born Chinese; in military terms, they mean atomic, biological, chemical.



views updated Jun 11 2018

let·ter / ˈletər/ • n. 1. a character representing one or more of the sounds used in speech; any of the symbols of an alphabet: a capital letter. ∎  a school or college initial as a mark of proficiency, esp. in sports: I earned a varsity letter in tennis [as adj.] a letter jacket. 2. a written, typed, or printed communication, esp. one sent in an envelope by mail or messenger: he sent a letter to Mrs. Falconer. ∎  (letters) a legal or formal document of this kind.3. the precise terms of a statement or requirement; the strict verbal interpretation: we must be seen to keep the spirit of the law as well as the letter.4. (letters) literature: the world of letters. ∎ archaic scholarly knowledge; erudition.5. Printing a style of typeface.• v. 1. [tr.] inscribe letters or writing on: her name was lettered in gold. ∎  classify with letters: he numbered and lettered the paragraphs.2. [intr.] inf. be given a school or college initial as a mark of proficiency in sports: juniors who lettered in soccer, basketball or softball.PHRASES: to the letter with adherence to every detail: the method was followed to the letter.


views updated Jun 08 2018

letter a dead letter a law or practice no longer observed. Originally with reference to biblical passages in which St Paul compares the life-giving spirit of the New Testament with what he sees as the dead ‘letter’ of the Mosaic Law. Also, until the late 19th century, the Dead-letter Office was the name given to the organization dealing with unclaimed and misdirected mail.
letter of marque a licence to fit out an armed vessel and use it in the capture of enemy merchant shipping and to commit acts which would otherwise have constituted piracy.
letters patent an open document issued by a monarch or government conferring a patent or other right.

See also red-letter day, scarlet letter.


views updated May 29 2018

LETTER2. A piece of WRITING addressed and usually sent to someone. Personal and official letters date from remote antiquity, as for example between Hittite and Egyptian rulers in the late second millennium BC. Until the invention of the telegraph, telephone, and E-MAIL, letters were the commonest means through which people living at a distance from each other could keep in touch, and the 19c growth of national and international postal systems created a boom in letter-writing. Writing and reading letters became a major aspect of literacy after Rowland Hill introduced the penny post in Britain in 1840.


views updated May 23 2018

letter (in formal language theory) See word.


views updated Jun 27 2018

letter alphabetic character; epistle; pl. literature, learning. XIII. — (O)F. lettre :- L. littera letter of the alphabet, pl. epistle, written document, literature, culture.
So lettered learned, educated. XIV.

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