What happens to the un-notable letters?

The short profile in the New Yorker online of epistolary blog Letters of Note makes clear both the totemic status letters hold in our current media moment, and how aberrant an interesting standalone letter is. The blog features mainly celebrity letters and each one has to hold the reader’s interest (the most interesting have also now been collected into a book). The letter represents a form of communication thought to be dead or dying, re-vivified through both the Internet and the printed book.

Key quotes:

[Editor Shaun] Usher has an evident knack for selecting letters that land with the force of a good short story, with personalities and dramatic arcs emerging swiftly, from just a page or two. Many of the writers are famous people, caught in a moment of accessibility and rawness or off-the-cuff virtuosity.

The idea behind the Letters of Note project—that correspondence holds a rare communicative and aesthetic power—also happens to be well calibrated for the Internet. It hits on a juncture of Pinterest-style object nostalgia, an appetite for emotive but bite-size reading, and a mild voyeurism.

Usher points out the irony that “the very service that’s going to kill off letter writing” is responsible for bringing these missives before so many eyes.

While Usher, and likely many of the blog’s readers, believe that handwritten letters offer a special form of communication separate from email (letters typed on a typewriter, another focus of “Pinterest-style object nostalgia,” constituting an in-between case), what the blog really shows is how much letter writing anticipates our current transitional moment. Usher combs through dozens of letters, and rejects many submissions, in order to find those that merit individual attention. Most letters were of the mundane, straightforward, and, in that way, revealing vein of our common email communications.


Letters vs. historians

The New York Times had an article today on the planned publication of Robert Frost’s letters, arguing that the forthcoming volumes “could soften a battered image” and re-humanize Frost. The article sets up a familiar dynamic, pitting the biographers offering “their” versions of Frost’s life against the letters, which, the article assumes, will show the “real” Frost. The collected correspondence, the author writes, will “offer the most rounded, complete portrait [of Frost] to date.”

It’s not an unusual stance to take, but I’m fascinated by the article’s unspoken implication that letters offer the unmediated truth of life—that they are facts, while scholarly works are mere interpretation. This seems particularly naive when dealing with writers, who spend their lives searching for the right words and crafting the measured response. This is as true of letters as of any other authorial work.


Well, it looks like the government reading our letters isn’t only a historical analogy: in the wake of the NSA leaks, the Times reveals that the government records metadata for all paper mail, too. It should remind us once again that what we think of the quintessentially private form of communication—the sealed letter—in fact travels through many hands and many levels of government bureaucracy before reaching a recipient. This ongoing debate about publicity and privacy in a digital world becomes increasingly complicated, and revealing, when we put it in a long history of communications media and the relationship between the domestic sphere and political exigency.

Privacy in the information age

“The opening of … mail, like the revelations that the N.S.A. has been monitoring telephone, e-mail, and Internet use, illustrates the intricacy of the relationship between secrecy and privacy. Secrecy is what is known, but not to everyone. Privacy is what allows us to keep what we know to ourselves. … As a matter of historical analysis, the relationship between secrecy and privacy can be stated in an axiom: the defense of privacy follows, and never precedes, the emergence of new technologies for the exposure of secrets.”

Jill Lepore has a great article in this week’s New Yorker in which she reflects on the NSA’s PRISM program through the lens of an 1844 uproar over revelations that the British government had opened the mail of an Italian emigré. The resulting outcry about “post-office espionage” led to a governmental inquiry that established new norms about the privacy of personal letters, resulting in “calls for transparency and an end to secrecy.” She makes a key point about technology, literacy, and the development of a right to privacy: before near-universal literacy, all writing was, in some ways, “secret.” But once everyone could read and write, everyone could be read and written—and they needed to develop new ways to avoid such a fate.

Lepore offers a penetrating analysis of the relationship between genres of writing—in this case, the letter—and concepts of privacy and publicity. Significantly, however, all of her examples come from the mid-Victorian period, after the major postal reforms of 1840, which introduced prepaid postage (previously, the recipient paid) and new mechanisms of postal privacy like envelopes, stamps, and letter boxes. The 1840 reforms marked a systemic revolution, but they were also the culmination of a long process of transforming letters into culturally and legally private documents. In the eighteenth century, it was fairly difficult to keep letters “private”: these were assumed to be documents that were read aloud, shared with family and friends, or even printed for broader circulation. As most buildings did not have numbered street addresses, letters were picked up at  local post offices, themselves public places where a variety of business transactions took place. And it was well known that government oversight of letters was routine: letter writers frequently referred to the possibility that their notes would end up in the Secret Letter Office. As Richard Grenville-Temple, an earl and powerful politician, wrote to a friend 1762, “I am so used to things of this sort at the Post office”—referring to a torn cover on one of his letters—”& am so sure that every line I write must be seen, that I never put any thing in black & white which might not be read at Charing Cross, for all I care.”

Opening letters, then, wasn’t new in the 1840s. But what is fascinating, and historically crucial, is that it was newly seen as a problem. In some ways, we are experiencing the same phenomenon again with the NSA revelations: we have assumed for some time that behavior on the Internet, from what we post on Facebook to what we buy on Amazon, is somewhat “public”—that we are choosing to engage in these forms of self-presentation and are therefore inviting scrutiny. But the extent of the ongoing surveillance, combined with the government’s extensive assertions of secrecy, have newly revealed this as a widespread social problem. It remains to be seen how digital surveillance will impact our ideas about publicity, privacy, and the right to either.


Jane Johnson was a vicar’s wife in Olney who lived from 1706 to 1759. Her favorite author was Samuel Richardson, her favorite novel was Clarissa, and she appears in many ways to be the mythical “implied reader” for Richardson’s works. She imitated his heroines, Pamela and Clarissa, by carefully improving her penmanship and epistolary skill, circulating letters on domestic and religious duties to her female friends and family. She also produced a children’s reading library, following the example of Pamela, that includes what scholars now consider to be the first children’s fairy tale in English. And she kept a commonplace book in which, like Clarissa, she mixed quotations from her favorite authors with her own maxims. These contributions include platitudes such as, “Gratitude & Friendship are things much talk’d off, but very little practiced,” which she wrote in slightly altered form twice.

Even before marriage and motherhood, Johnson used her literacy to document her world and as a tool for self-improvement. As Jane Russell, she assembled a handwritten recipe book that she apparently preserved for her entire life—it is part of the Bodleian Library’s collection of her papers, which also include her marriage certificate and will. She cut the paper, quired it, and sewed it together, consciously assembling a book for longterm reference. But while this dutiful, conduct-book-following behavior is apparent, Johnson’s enthusiasm and literary skill shine through. Next to a recipe for stewed damson plums, Johnson wrote “mmmmmmmmmmmmmm,” a strikingly modern touch and one that brings to mind present-day food blogs or Instagram comments. Johnson may have been, in many ways, Richardson’s ideal reader, but she was also a real one who left an intricate literary record.


Real people, real letters

I’m fascinated by the ways in which “real people”—which, funnily enough, is how both reporters and academics refer to non-reporters and non-academics—have semi-spontaneously used epistolary genres to respond to the ongoing economic crisis. There are, of course, the letters to the editor and op-eds that have been the way for “real people” to talk back to the media for centuries. But we could also see the Occupy movement’s use of Tumblr, which consisted largely of photos of people holding up open letters, as a new iteration of the letter as a political tool. Rather than simply posting text, the contributors and editors have decided that there is something powerful in transmitting an image of the author’s handwriting and, in most cases, face and hands. And in another remediation, these websites have spawned a published book, The Trouble is the Banks: Letters to Wall Street. The site the book draws from, Occupy the Boardroom, both allows people to send direct messages to bankers and politicians, and publishes those letters in an open forum. As we continue to struggle with the effects of the global financial crisis, it seems that the familiar genre of the letter provides an opening for people to express their frustration in both old and new media.