Scholarly Lives in Letters // Shaul Magid // JQR Blog


posted September 1, 2017

The proliferation of epistolary activity in the modern West began in earnest in the 18th century with the marked rise in literacy in Europe and the Americas. The Post Office, invented in 1860, and the typewriter, invented in 1860 and marketed in the 1870s, increased the exchange of personal letters among lovers, friends, family, and colleagues. Letter writing increased even more when paper became more affordable and then began to decrease with the ubiquity of the telephone in the 20th century.

Letters, especially among the literati, were more than a conveyance of greeting and news; they were often the vehicle for early stages of ideas and theories that later matured and appeared in published works. One example among many is Walter Benjamin’s celebrated essay “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man,” which began as a letter to his friend Gershom Scholem. Letters like his often served to illustrate the complex nature of intellectual friendships and relationships, mixing the personal with the ideological, the relational with the intellectual.

My essay, included in a forum in the current issue of JQR, explores the complex relationship between teacher and student, Gershom Scholem...

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