Rahel Varnhagen was a German-Jewish intellectual who is known for a large archive of letters and correspondence that documented her conversations with artists and thinkers of her day.
Varnhagen's father was a wealthy jeweler who himself kept company with the great minds of his generation. For example, Moses Mendelssohn and Goethe were family friends, and so the young Varnhagen was raised in a vibrant intellectual atmosphere.
Varnhagen married in 1814, and due to her husband’s position as a diplomat the couple traveled quite a bit throughout Europe. All the while, she hosted salons and maintained extensive correspondences with various thinkers and artists. In fact, because she was not a novelist or author in the usual sense of the word, she regarded her letters as her body of work. Over the course of her lifetime, she amassed a substantial collection that documented not only her own ideas, but also those of her famous friends.
Although she had converted to Christianity at the time of her marriage, Varnhagen remained mindful of her Jewish roots. Despite being described as a “self-hating” Jew she was greatly disturbed by anti-Semitic outbursts in Germany. Eventually she reconnected with her Jewish faith, and took great solace in the heritage that she had so long denied.
Shortly after her death in 1833, Rahel Varnhagen's husband published a three-volume anthology of the letters that she had collected. Nearly 6,000 letters were cataloged, with more than 300 actors, writers, thinkers, and friends included in their scope. Today, the letters are celebrated for their “theoretical” relevance... they were after all, the first of their kind – a life's work embodied through a vast inter-connected web of conversations.