ENG 402: Lives and Letters

Spring 2013
3:10–4:25 M/W
Neville Hall, 406

Christopher M. Ohge
325 Stevens Hall
Office Hours: 1:45–2:45 p.m. M/W, and by appointment


In 1929, George Saintsbury proclaimed that letter writing was nearly dead as a result of the penny-post. Yet many letter writers since then have flourished, and many letters editions continue to be published. Is letter writing a dying art? Into what genre do we put letters?

This course considers the art and history of correspondence as a means for primary humanities research; throughout we will examine the textual problems in editing letters, the critical puzzles of contextualizing communiqués, and the means with which we produce narratives based on correspondence. After a brief introduction to the epistolary tradition—Ovid, Horace, and Cicero, to name a few—we will read a selection of exemplary case studies of letter writers, epistolary styles, works of biography, and life-and-letters editions of various cultural figures from roughly the eighteenth century to the present. This course will emphasize the role of letter writing in the creative process––namely, how thinkers use letters as a forum to discuss their ideas and make sense of their place in history, suggesting T. S. Eliot’s saying about Keats’s letters that “fine things come … between trifle and trifle.”

We will examine letters and biographies from various disciplines, scrutinize key historical developments, attend to issues of cultural context, and examine the editorial principles underlying each selection. Throughout, emphasis will be placed on the close reading of texts, critical thinking, and the use of technological resources for archival study and editing.

Required Texts

The Epistles of Horace, translated by David Ferry (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux).

Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister, by Aphra Behn (free e-book available on Kindle; also an e-text from Project Gutenberg).

The Life of Johnson, by James Boswell (Oxford World’s Classics). A free Kindle version is also available in 4 vols, but the Oxford ed. has helpful annotations.

Letters of John and Abigail Adams (Penguin).

Letters to a Spiritual Seeker, by Henry David Thoreau (Norton).

Highly Recommended Texts

Henry James: A Life in Letters, by Philip Horne (this is out of print, but you can find a cheap copy on Amazon or AbeBooks).

The Selected Correspondence of Aaron Copland (Yale University Press).

Handouts will be frequently used as supplementary readings and in-class exercises. Please find them posted on the course’s Blackboard site.


14 Jan
The epistolary tradition––forms of address––neurotic editing––epistolary genres.

Ovid’s Epistulae Heroidum––Horace’s Epistles.

No class. Start reading Aphra Behn.

Horace’s Epistles––Cicero’s letters––Paul’s epistles––Machiavelli’s letters.

The Dark Ages of letter writing, or medieval epistolography (ars dictamini), from Fridugisus to William Pittis––Chaucer’s Epistolary Style––Petrarch and Erasmus on letter writing––James Daybell’s work on letter writing in Early Modern England––Aphra Behn, Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister.

Love Letters between a Nobleman and his Sister.

4 Feb
The “great epistolick art” of Samuel Johnson––Hyde edition of Johnson’s letters, edited by Bruce Redford––Boswell’s Life of Johnson.

Life of Johnson.

Life of Johnson.

Finish Life of Johnson––Johnson’s Life of Pope––William Cowper’s letters; the life of a not-so-great poet.

Letters of early America: Benjamin Franklin letters––AdamsJefferson letters––Letters of John and Abigail Adams.

Letters of John and Abigail Adams.

Finish Letters of John and Abigail Adams.––Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer.

John Keats: letters as criticism. Charles Dickens: Pilgrim edition of his letters––John Forster’s biography––Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s Becoming Dickens––George Sand: letters from the French countryside.

4–17 March: Spring Break
Read Henry David Thoreau: Letters to a Spiritual Seeker.

Transcendental Circles: Margaret Fuller–Henry David Thoreau–Ralph Waldo Emerson–Walt Whitman; Emily Dickinson to The Father––Henry David Thoreau: Letters to a Spiritual Seeker.

Herman Melville: Correspondence––Hershel Parker biography––Walt Whitman: Civil War letters––Whitman digital archive.

Christopher Ricks, Two Victorian Lives and Letters: Tennyson’s Tennyson and Gaskell’s Brönte––Letters as Mentorship: Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke––Correspondence of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

19th-century “picture letters” and children’s literature: William M. Thackeray, Edward Lear, Beatrix Potter.

Henry James: Leon Edel’s edition––Philip Horne’s Life in Letters.

1 April
Edith Wharton: Autobiography versus biography––A Backward Glance, Hermione Lee’s Edith Wharton.

Aaron Copland: Musical notes.

Richard Ellman’s work on James Joyce––Samuel Beckett: principles of selection, problems of translation––Anne Stevenson on Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath.

Paul Bowles: Jeffrey Miller’s letters edition––Sawyer-Lauçanno and Carr biographies––Bowles’s correspondence with composers––Bowles’s correspondence with Jane Bowles, with Millicent Dillon’s edition.

Final project proposal due

William Empson: Haffenden’s biography of a critic, and his letters edition—Thomas Hart Benton, letters from the renegade artist, biographies by Henry Adams, Justin Wolff.

Epistolary Novels: Samuel Richardson, Pamela and Clarissa––Goethe, Sorrows of Young Werther––Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice and Lady Susan––Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

Epistolary Novels, continued: James Baldwin, The Fire This Time––Saul Bellow, Herzog––John Barth, Letters––Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table.

Epistolary Poems, revisited: Rimbaud, Lettres du Voyant (& Starkie’s biography)––Donald Hall––Harold Pinter; Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop.

Contemporary Instances: Alistair Cooke’s Letters from America––Conversations: Norman Mailer, William Styron, James Jones––Salman Rushdie’s email queue.

1 May
Leftovers––Final project discussion.

Final Projects due by midnight.


One thought on “ENG 402: Lives and Letters

  1. Pingback: ENG 402: Lives and Letters | meghangerry

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