The Letter Essay

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To a Very Young Lady on her Marriage.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

The Repudiation of the Pennsylvanian Debt.

Sydney Smith (1771-1845)

On the Accession of a Liberal Pope.

Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864)



THIS kind of essay - writing was the earliest of all divergences from the classic model established by

Bacon. Nor did it derive itself from the essay form, but, having had an independent origin, when it had reached a certain stage in its growth, was grafted on to and made a part of the essay's development. The history of the letter essay and of the English published letter are the same until we come to James Howell (1594?-1666) (vide The Great English Letter-Writers, vol. i, pp. 1-25). The letter essay, as is obvious, was in its beginning no more than the ordinary form of private written communication, although intended for publication. Curiously enough, the didactic essay of Francis Bacon and the published letter, purporting to be private, of Bishop Hall made their first appearance in our language almost simultaneously. Technically, Bishop Hall holds premier claim to the earliest publication of English epistles, only his do not appear to have been genuine letters which were ever sent to any individual correspondent. Therefore, though in result they are identical with the letter essay of Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, historically they differ in this, that they were meant to be mistaken for genuine, whereas the epistolary essay of later years was acknowledged by its writer and understood by its reader to be only a new way of saying thingsa literary contrivance. To a modern man these pioneer deceptions of Bishop Hall proclaim themselves by their

internal evidence to be no real letters. They are cramped both in thought and expression by the writer's knowledge that his auditor is no one man, like-minded to himself, but the hydra-headed public. Wherefore, being a man in holy orders, he feels that he is expected to moralise; and when he does so, it is not in the voice of a comrade friend, going forward with loosened rein unwatchfully, but in the authoritative tones of the pulpiteer. His aim is precisely the same as Bacon's—to instruct; yet, by virtue of his literary device, he allows himself a wider liberty than Bacon, for he must be immediate and direct in his utterance, and, though he may will otherwise, is continually compelled to stoop to the immodesty of naming himself. James Howell, in publishing his Familiar Letters, at once advanced and retarded the progress of the letter essay: advanced it by his more generous friendliness and wider range of topics; retarded it by the claim which he set up that his letters were really genuine. Probably they were only almost genuine, being compiled from his old correspondence, dated from various places at home and abroad, which he over-wrote and made suitable for the public when his time hung heavy on his hands, while he lay a Royalist prisoner in the Fleet. For vividness they are vastly superior to Bishop Hall's, and the incidents which they relate, whether he actually witnessed them or only learned them from hearsay, are worthy of Daniel Defoe, that great father of so much that is modern in our literature, of whom it is said that he surpassed all men in knowing how "to lie like the truth.” Very much of that which Howell relates in the first person as his own experiencesfor example, our selection from him concerning the death of Buckingham-appears likely to be fiction, but he possesses the novelist's faculty for making every event that he narrates seem actual. This genius for the momentary

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