Epistolary Literature

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Epistolary Literature


a correspondence that is conceived at the outset or later understood as literary or publicist prose directed to a wide circle of readers. A correspondence of this sort may easily cease to be an exchange of letters between two persons and become a series of letters sent to a conventionalized or nominal addressee. An orientation toward a recipient, even though fictitious, nevertheless constitutes an important, distinguishing feature of epistolary literature and sets it apart from the memoir or the diary.

In antiquity, letters were composed as literary works, and their style and structure were shaped by the principles of rhetoric. The difficulty of drawing a clear line between private correspondence and epistolary stylization is evidenced by such renowned examples of epistolary literature as the letters of Epicurus, Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Cato, and Seneca. Letters written in verse, such as those of Horace, constitute a poetic genre distinct from epistolary literature proper (seeEPISTLE).

The epistolary literature of the Sophists was distinguished by the conscious artistic use of the stylistic opportunities presented by the letter. In their epistolary works the Sophists approximated conversational speech, created a lyric subtext, made use of allusions and employed nuances reflecting the speech of a particular social class. Notable examples of this approach are the erotic letters of the rhetorician Lesbonax and the letters of Alciphron, which include a fictitious correspondence of the comic playwright Menander with his beloved Glycera.

The didactic tendency natural to the letter became predominant in the epistles of the apostles and church fathers, such as Cyprian, Jerome, St. Augustine, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Epistolary literature was the preeminent genre of publicist writing in the Byzantine period, as evidenced by the letters of Theodore Studites, Nicholas Mysticus, and the patriarch Photius.

In medieval Europe, correspondence between monasteries was a means of publicly conducting theological debate. Medieval epistolary literature came to a close with two works that anticipated the Reformation: J. Reuchlin’s Clarorum virorum epistolae (Letters of Famous Men; 1514) and, especially, the Epistolae obscurorum (Letters of Obscure Men; 1515–17), in which both the intimate and didactic epistle are parodied. Luther’s letters continued the tradition of the medieval public polemic. Russian medieval publicist literature is represented by the correspondence of Ivan IV with Prince Kurbskii and by the letters of Arch-priest Avvakum. Characteristic of the epistolary literature of the Renaissance are the letters of P. Aretino, in which the various characteristics of an epistolary exchange become satiric devices for exposing vice.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the epistolary form was used to impart a sense of immediacy to philosophic discourse, as in B. Pascal’s Lettres provinciales, the letters of the Marquise de Sévigné, the correspondence of Voltaire, the letters of the British state figures W. Temple and Lord Bolingbroke, and Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son.

Of particular importance is J. Swift’s Journal to Stella, a collection of private letters that marks the beginning of the English so-ciopsychological novel. After Montesquieu’s openly fictitious Persian Letters, a philosophic novel published in 1721, the epistolary novel became a familiar genre in European literature; notable examples are S. Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa, T. Smollet’s The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, J.-J. Rousseau’s Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.

The first important examples of epistolary literature in Russia were N. M. Karamzin’s Letters of a Russian Traveler, a collection of documentary sketches, and D. I. Fonvizin’s Notes of a First Journey (1777–78), a collection of letters written by the author in France and sent to P. I. Panin. The epistolary tradition underwent further development in I. M. Murav’ev-Apostol’s Letters From Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod (1813–14); A. S. Pushkin sought to apply the epistolary technique to fiction in his “Novel in Letters” and “Mariia Shoning.” The didactic trend in epistolary literature was continued in M. S. Lunin’s Letters From Siberia, P. Ia. Chaadaev’s Philosophical Letters, N. V. Gogol’s Selected Passages From a Correspondence With Friends, A. I. Herzen’s Letters From France and Italy, and V. P. Botkin’s Letters From Spain. F. M. Dostoevsky drew on the epistolary tradition for the manner and form of his novella Poor People.

In the 20th century epistolary literature has retained its variety, as evidenced by V. V. Rozanov’s Fallen Leaves, P. A. Floren-skii’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, I. A. Bunin’s “The Unknown Friend,” V. B. Shklovskii’s Zoo: Letters Not About Love, L. Housman’s An Englishwoman’s Love Letters, and G. Bernanos’ “Letter to the English.” Some epistolary works have taken fictional form, such as A. Saint-Exupéry’s novella Letter to a Hostage, T. Wilder’s novel The Ides of March, and V. Kaverin’s novel In Front of the Mirror. In the postwar period, which has witnessed a flowering of documentary literature, the letter as a direct, genuine, and lyric testimony has been used in such works as Letters of the Executed French Communists (1948).


Antichnaia epistolografiia. Moscow, 1967.
Elistratova, A. A. “Epistoliarnaia proza romantikov.” In Evropeiskii romantizm. Moscow, 1973.
Black, F. G. The Epistolary Novel in the Late 18th Century. Eugene, Ore., 1940.
Singer, G. F. The Epistolary Novel. Philadelphia, 1933.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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