Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.43

G.O. Hutchinson, Cicero's Correspondence: A Literary Study.   Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1998.  Pp. 235.  ISBN 0-19-815066-0.  £35.00.  

Reviewed by Jennifer Ebbeler, University of Pennsylvania
Word count: 1976 words

As is the case with his previous two books, Hutchinson's choice of Cicero's letters for his current project is largely motivated by a desire to recuperate a body of texts which, in his eyes, the scholarly establishment has slighted. At the same time, Cicero's Correspondence represents a significant departure from the earlier literary historical studies, Hellenistic Poetry and Latin Literature from Seneca to Juvenal. Rather than survey the literature of a period, H. has here focused very narrowly on a single genre and, nominally, a single author. Yet many of the same criticisms leveled against his earlier studies apply to Cicero's Correspondence: his readings of individual letters are impressionistic rather then critical; neither Cicero nor his letters are properly historicized; there is a striking lack of engagement with even the most basic tenets of critical theory. While H. is right to point out that Cicero's letters (and letters in general) have been read for too long as uncomplicated sources for historians and biographers, his study does not adequately address the nexus of issues inadvertently raised by suggesting that they be read as "literary" artifacts (23-4).

In the preface, H. writes, "This is not a book covering every aspect, or even every literary aspect, of Cicero's and his correspondents' letters. It is merely an exploratory essay, which I hope may stimulate interest in works that very much need it" (vii). Even in a late-20th century critical climate sympathetic to genres outside of the epic, lyric, and drama triumvirate and open to methodologies that challenge the conventions of textuality, Latin epistles (verse and prose) have seldom been treated as anything other than transparent social-historical documents. When they have been the object of critical attention, as in the case of Ovid's Heroides, their epistolary status is typically elided--and certainly not treated as integral to an interpretation of the text. Epistles of various sorts are a significant part of the corpus of extant Latin (particularly in Late Antiquity), yet more than perhaps any other ancient genre, our understanding of them has been distorted by a failure to historicize the genre; in other words, by an insistence on approaching a letter of Cicero, Pliny, or Symmachus the way that we approach modern letters. Cicero's Correspondence surely sets the stage for the first of many fruitful inquiries into Latin (and Greek) epistolographic texts. We may only regret that H. himself did not view this extraordinarily rich body of material with a more critical (and less insistently New Critical) eye.

H.'s intended audience seems to be the naïve historian/biographer who has somehow escaped all theoretical discussions since the advent of New Criticism. It is questionable whether any such creature exists. With each letter he discusses, H. supplies a comprehensive bibliography that situates the letter historically. Further, he claims, "It must be stressed at the outset that literary approaches cannot ignore history; and also that the study of history cannot without loss ignore literary approaches" (2). H. unfortunately fails to understand the full implications of the first part of his statement (i.e. historicizing a letter involves more than citing discussions of the immediate events which it discusses); and is simply wrong in the second half. Throughout the book, H. suggests that Cicero's letters can benefit from a "literary approach" yet seems to assume that the texts themselves will be of interest mainly to historians. A quick glance at his bibliography or footnotes will uncover this assumption. At the same time, he makes stilted gestures to engage the more literarily-inclined reader by including unexplicated references to, among others, Derrida, Genette, and Foucault. And, at the end of the first chapter, he suggests that his primary audience is, in fact, the literary scholar (23-4). It also remains unclear whether H intends to introduce an audience of advanced undergraduates/beginning graduate students to some interesting themes in Cicero's letters (which would go to some length to explain his willingness to indulge in an "exploratory essay") or is addressing the discussion to his peers (in which case the absence of critical judgment is a serious failing of the book).

The structure of Cicero's Correspondence is one of its strongest features. The book is thematically organized into seven chapters. In the first chapter, "The Letters and Literature," H. briefly characterizes previous scholarship on Cicero's letters and then explicates his own thesis and methodology. In a nutshell, he is concerned to establish that the letters are "literary." Though H. acknowledges that intentionality is problematic, the construct is nonetheless fundamental to his reading of the letters (22). In his argument, the letters' status as literature is dependent on an authorial intention that manifests itself in such formal features as prose rhythm. Other "literary" markers include Graecisms, the intent to persuade, and what is termed "artistry" passim. Each of the succeeding chapters addresses what H. has determined to be a major theme of Cicero's letters: exile, consolation, narrative, dialogue, time, and humour.

Each chapter begins with a brief introduction of the particular theme. Typically, H. discusses the presence of the chosen theme in Cicero's "published" works and, in his notes, refers to numerous other scholarly studies that deal with the particular issue in ancient literature. He then performs close readings of three or four letters that specifically illustrate his argument; at least one of his choices is a letter preserved in Cicero's collection but authored by a contemporary. Within each reading H. footnotes parallels, primarily thematic, with other literary texts. H. apparently believes that if he can demonstrate that a particular sentiment in a Ciceronian letter has a parallel in an accepted literary text, then the Ciceronian usage is infused with a literary sapor. Each chapter concludes with a short (less than a page) summary. H.'s conclusions are generally reiterations that the letters are persuasive and literary without reference to a clearly developed argument grounded in his readings of the individual letters. Apart from the introductory chapter, the chapters stand independent of one another. Similarly, the sections of each chapter are clearly demarcated. Though few readers will likely have the patience to wade through all seven chapters, certainly many will be able to use the book as a starting-point for research on common epistolary themes like consolation and exile, or for information on individual letters. To this end, a useful and accurate index of discussed passages as well as a general index may be found at the end of the book.

Rather than work through H.'s argument chapter by chapter, I thought it more expeditious to address a few broader issues. From the start, H. is extremely loose with his terminology, particularly in his definition of literature. That this is an extraordinarily problematic term in current theoretical discussions wholly escapes his notice. He seems to think that if he can demonstrate a certain amount of authorial intent, manifested in the arbitrarily determined "artistic" nature of the text's formal qualities, then the text is literary. I am troubled by his lack of engagement with (or even mention of) available critiques of New Critical methods. It is a risky move to adopt a methodology that severs the ties between text and material context in a study of letters, a genre so grounded in the material realm. H.'s refusal to examine the multiple assumptions that New Criticism makes about texts seriously cripples the usefulness of his close readings. In failing to establish a sound definition of "literary," he jeopardizes the grounds on which he stakes his claims for Cicero's letters.

Likewise, H. characterizes the process of ancient publication as more uncomplicated than it actually was. He does acknowledge that the modes of composition for the letters and speeches were not unrelated, yet he repeatedly opposes the letters to "published" works. This suggests that we can draw a firm line between published and unpublished texts or, in his schema, between Cicero's speeches, philosophical, and rhetorical works on the one hand and the letters on the other. In part, this false distinction results from a lacuna in our knowledge about the publication of Cicero's letters. Yet we know, as H. points out, that Cicero planned to publish the letters himself (4). Cicero preserved and perhaps edited copies of his own letters as well as select letters of his correspondents. The details surrounding the composition and promulgation of letters in the late Republic are sketchy, but it is surely possible that letters were read aloud to small groups both by their author and their addressee. H. makes the mistake, I think, of imputing a privacy to letters that many of them did not and were not intended to enjoy. As well, he underestimates the distinction between the letter qua letter and the preserved or copied letter. Cicero may not have put his imprimatur on the collection as we have it, but we should not therefore assume that some of the letters did not see a form of publication in Cicero's lifetime.

Though H. titles his book Cicero's Correspondence, one of its notable features is the amount of space devoted to analyses of letters written by Cicero's contemporaries and preserved by Cicero. Nearly one-fourth of the letters discussed are non-Ciceronian. While I applaud H.'s introduction of these letters into his analysis of Cicero's letters, I find the credulity with which he reads them questionable. It is important to recall our source for these letters and to interrogate Cicero's motivations for preserving (and possibly editing) them. By virtue of the fact that he didn't save all of his correspondents' letters, we may assume that the choice to preserve a particular letter was possibly marked. Likewise, we would be wise to contemplate the likelihood that damaging letters were suppressed. Such a reading seriously complicates the way we understand Cicero's preserved exchanges. Again, we see that literary issues cannot be severed from the material conditions of their production and preservation.

A major methodological problem that confronts the scholar writing on letters is the sheer bulk of most extant collections. Cicero's letters occupy 1,431 Teubner pages--half as much as the extant speeches, twice the length of the genuine rhetorical works, and nearly as long as the philosophical works (3). Simply to read through, much less to explicate, this massive body of material is a daunting task. H.'s demonstrated familiarity with the whole of the collection (as well as many modern epistolary collections) is to be complimented. He formally explicates only twenty-one of the letters (sixteen by Cicero), but does bring to bear a number of parallels both in his discussion and footnotes. At the same time, H. somehow fails to convey a sense of the collection as a whole. In part, this results from his insistent fragmentation of the Latin text under discussion. Rather than dealing with large chunks of Latin, H. moves sentence by sentence, often summarizing parts he judges insignificant. It is nearly impossible to follow the course of his arguments without reference to a text of the particular letter. The learned though sometimes labyrinthine footnotes can add to the reader's sense of disorientation. In the end, the reader of Cicero's Correspondence is left with a vague understanding of Cicero's epistolary style, but with no sense of the articulation of the whole letter collection, much less of Cicero's place in the tradition of ancient epistolography. This is especially disappointing since it is one of H.'s few explicit goals for the book (199).

Despite its failings, however, Cicero's Correspondence draws attention to a genre whose day in the sun is not far off. H offers some suggestive, though subjective and idiosyncratic, approaches to Cicero's letters specifically and ancient epistles generally. There is no doubt, as he hopes, that others will continue his enthusiastic explorations into this largely undiscovered world of texts. We should thank H. for bringing such an important body of Latin to our attention and hope that a case has been made for reading ancient letters as the sophisticated texts they are.

Read Latest
Index for 1998
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:00, Friday, 03 April 2009