Letters and Letter Writing

Sarah M. S. Pearsall

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online December 2012 | | DOI:
Letters and Letter Writing

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History



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).

Article.  10417 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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