Though historians of English literature have long labeled the eighteenth century the golden age of letter writing, few have paid more than lip service to the unique epistolary craftsmanship of the period. Bruce Redford corrects this omission with the first sustained investigation of the eighteenth-century familiar letter as a literary form in its own right. His study supplies the reader with a critical approach and biographical perspective for appreciating the genre that defined an era. Redford examines six masters of the "talking letter": Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, William Cowper, Thomas Gray, Horace Walpole, James Boswell, and Samuel Johnson. All seek the paradoxical goal of artful spontaneity. Each exploits the distinctive resources of the eighteenth-century letter writer: a flexible conversational manner, a repertoire of literary and social allusion, a flair for dramatic impersonation. The voices of these letter writers "make distance, presence," in Samuel Richardson's phrase, by devising substitutes for gesture, vocal inflection, and physical context, turning each letter into a performance--an act. The resulting verbal constructs create a mysterious tension between the claims of fact and the possibilities of art. Redford recovers a neglected literary form and makes possible a deeper understanding of major eighteenth-century writers who devoted much of their talent and time to "the converse of the pen."