Magazine February 22, 2010, Issue

Men of Letters

(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Yours Ever: People and Their Letters, by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon, 352 pp., $26.95)

Dubious legend has it that the world’s first letter was written by Queen Atossa of Per­sia, daughter of Cyrus the Great, in the sixth century B.C. We do know that the ancient Greeks had foot runners, the Romans had couriers, and early Europe had messengers, but it was all strictly government business — like the coded order to impale England’s Edward II on a red-hot poker written by a bishop in league with the queen’s lover. Things did not get personal until Louis XI of France formed a regular royal message service, which grew into private carriers for the rich.

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