What defines someone as a "man/woman of letters

Would it be the books on my shelves? Would it be which books on the shelves I’ve actually read again since reading in undergraduate school? Does slamming one’s way through a lot of Western and Eastern literature qualify me as man of letters? Cause, I didn’t. I’ve read a small smattering of what many folks feel is essential reading.

Am I ( or, is one ) a man of letters for having read enough and lived enough to be able to place experiences read about in context of real life experiences, therefore enriching both? Am I less a man of letters for feeling that I’ve learned a heck of a lot about human nature by reading Chaim Potok and Stephen King instead of Homer and Kafka? ( read Kafka. The man had issues. )

Or is it more of a process that is silently but directly linked to simply being alive for more than two decades?

Is there some acceptable definition? If I’d joined a Great Books Club in 1980 I might well have read the cycle by now. Does that matter? SHOULD that matter? I do realize that " a man of letters" may be a bit of a misnomer, so I am opening this question up to more than just literature.

At what point does your average avid reader and world-experienced adult have everything in common with the so-called man of letters?


You mean it’s not about having a letter jacket?

Of course you’re a man of letters. 13 of them to be precise: C, a, r… :smiley: :smiley:

Just get a pipe, no one will know any better.

Doesn’t a man/woman of letters have to actually do something vaguely literary? Don’t you have to write something, produce a play, be a publisher, teach drama or literature, be a critic, or otherwise contribute to the literary world?

Reading is a skill, and a ‘man of letters’ is a master of that particular skill.

A man of letters has reached a level of experience in their reading where they can judge every book on its own merits. Stephen King, James Joyce, JK Rowling, William Gass you name it. The man of letters has read, understood and digested them, sees where they fit into their own genres and outwith into literature as a whole.

If one takes a classic text and put it down unfinished because it was too difficult / dry / dense / boring, one is not making a meaningful judgement on the work, only showing that one’s reading skill is not yet at the level it needs to be to make a proper assessment. One is not a man of letters.

Equating an ‘average avid reader and world-experienced adult’ with a man of letters is a valid oranges to oranges comparison, similar to ‘my Dad and Tiger Woods both play golf.’

And if one takes a classic text and decides that it’s much overrated? Is he then no longer a man of letters? I’ve attempted Joyce’s Ulysses at least twice, and consider it a waste of time. Ditto for Finnegan’s Wake. Some folks out there will tell me I’m (sniff) just not literary enough and don’t appreciate really good writing; but I remember such things as the Spectric school of poetry and Alan Sokal’s post-modernist hoax and am reminded that an awful lot of what passes for art, literature, music and philosophy is pretentious tripe.

A purist might argue that merely attempting to read a classic text, even twice, doesn’t qualify you to judge it as overrated. Perhaps a true man of letters would read Ulysses irrespective of how much he dislikes it and write a scholarly paper on why he thinks the work is overrated.

Well Lonesomepolecat, I am not a man of letters myself. Although I have read Ulysses and appreciate that its the bomb-diggity :smiley:
I don’t think its reasonable to pick up Finnegan’s Wake, the supreme ball-breaking novel of western literature, and expect to find it easily assimilable, or even assimilable at all on a first reading. You wouldn’t pick up a baseball bat and expect to knock Roger Clemens out of the park, would you? After years of training, honing your skills against the best baseball players available, then you might look to give old Roger a tanning. Such is the journey of the man of letters.

So you’re saying that no one can be a “man of letters” unless he has some standing in the academic community? After all, people rarely write scholarly papers merely for their own gratification.

See, this is what worried me. In order to be considered a man of letters, I must publish or perish. In other words, only academics may attain this lofty goal. Your average schlub cannot.

What if I read Ulysses and find it to be extremely lacking next to the body of work of, say, Ayn Rand or J.K. Rowling but cannot very well get a paper published that I’ve written on this topic. Am I no less a lover of the word and attentive to the subtleties of literature because I am not in the world of academia, able to publish?

It is this very rigid code of expectations that has shut out (potentially brilliant) minds from engaging in intellectual discourse for the last 500 years or so. Or, to bring it to a community level, if I join Great Books or somesuch book club and I hold forth an opinion on a book we’ve read and back it up with a reasonable argument, how much less a man of letters am I that I did not have that argument published in a peer review quarterly?

If one persons idea is valid, why does it take a committee to validate so that others will respect that idea? Immense social change begins with one persons idea. No?

If it’s any comfort to you, I feel the same way about William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. :smiley:

But even someone who’s never picked up a baseball bat in his life can often tell when a ballplayer is truly exceptional or overrated and dare to disagree with the experts on the subject. And there are controversies in sports as well as literature, e.g. does Bonds deserve the title of home run king if he spent a substantial part of his career on steroids?

Here’s an opinion from one writer and journalist on what constitutes, or constituted, a Man of Letters. I agree with him (and Evelyn Waugh) that the concept of a Man of Letters is probably extinct, except perhaps within the most arcane literary circles.

I tend to agree that a Man of Letters “lives and dies by literature” but I’m not sure about the beard. More importantly:

Clearly according to this definition, which people are free to disagree with and probably will, a Man of Letters should have, or would have had, some standing in the academic community in order to justify the appellation.

So, Cartooniverse, unless you make a contribution to the cultural atmosphere, and exhibit commitment in more than one area as above, and produce some published output then it seems you can’t be a Man of Letters.

I know I am. F and U mostly.

The Wikipedia article on Intellectuals includes a section on “Men of Letters.” Originally, the phrase just meant people who were literate.

In other words, your status as a “man of letters” is defined more by what you write than by what you read.

It seems to me the OP is more about debating what it means nowadays to be “well-read” rather than what it means to be a “man of letters.”

To me the two are identical concepts. I wanted to know if such an ideal still exists, I wanted to know what defined this concept in the minds of others.

If I am not a man of letters, I’ll live. Were I no longer literate or able to read and accept the lessons of what I read, I would feel a loss. Whether or not I think I fulfill the requirements of others to be considered a man of letters is not so important to me.

Welcome to the Internet. If you want to write a detailed argument about why exactly Ulysses is not, in fact, the bomb-diggity, all you have to do afterwards is post it up on a blog and maybe post links to it on some message board somewhere.