Date of Award

Winter 1997

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Patricia Sullivan


Although professors of ancient art of letter writing were among the most revered in medieval universities, instruction in this "gentle art" as Virginia Woolf once described it, is currently relegated to etiquette manuals and elementary school textbooks. And for most composition instructors and rhetoricians, that is where it should stay. Most twentieth century rhetoricians portray the medieval genre of letter writing as the product of a dark period in the history of rhetoric, passing it by in a quick move from the sermons of Saint Augustine to the classically grounded rhetoric of Peter Ramus.

During the nineteenth century, training in the art of letter writing became a central part of a young man's university instruction and of a young woman's homebound instruction. Essays were written in letter style, travel books were written as letters home, correspondence was carefully saved in bound letter books. By the early twentieth century, however, letter writing had begun to lose its place in the university, and its instruction soon became relegated to the appendix of grammar school composition texts and letter-writing manuals since instruction was focused on creating models of efficiency rather than strengthening the writer's personal voice.

This dissertation presents a narrative picture of letter-writing instruction, considering specifically the way letter-writing was incorporated into college writing instruction. The final chapter positions the letter-writing genre within the theoretical framework of twentieth century composition studies by considering: (a) theoretical analysis of this genre from the perspective of divergent theoretical perspectives including feminist theory and social construction theory; (b) the ramifications of the letter as a bridge between old and new, familiar and unfamiliar, known and unknown, of letter as link which lessens dislocation from home and shortens the distance to the familiar; and (c) the social implications of response in letter-writing and possibilities of letter-writing as a social act of invention.