The Mail Gaze: Early American Literature, Letters, and the Post Office

In an 1830 address to Congress, Kentucky Senator Richard Mentor Johnson asks “what would be the elevation of our country if every new conception could be made to strike every mind in the Union at the same time?” Johnson’s thought experiment emerged when information was bound by material transmission and the news could travel only as fast as the person who carried it. In 1830, that speedy news-carrier was almost certainly working for the U.S. Post Office Department, which, after the Post Office Act of 1792, was toiling to keep the far-flung citizenry informed. Yet, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the national postal system was understood to be the cutting-edge of high-speed long-distance communication. For the first time, horses, riders, and the traffic of paper incorporated the entire nation within a single system. Thus, the horse-drawn postal system was enough to arouse Johnson’s imagination to presage our own digital age where information is “made to strike every mind” with the click of a mouse.

Early national postal growth was incredible: the postal map evolved from a sparse constellation of drop-points to an intricate web of private and affordable communication that incorporated every city, town, and village in the country. The postal system did not simply deliver letters, however. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the postal system transmitted newspapers, books, and magazines; employed more civilians than any other institution (including the military); and incorporated new technologies to ensure speedy and safe delivery of the mail. In today’s terms, the postal system was the nation’s first comprehensive social network and informational infrastructure. By reanimating the material conditions of the postal system, my dissertation contends that the mail had a profound impact on what was read and who was reading it.

My dissertation, “Citizen Technologies: The U.S. Post Office and the Transformation of Early American Literature,” takes as its focus official and unofficial systems of communication and their influence on American literature of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries--when the U.S. Post Office Department ruled the communications world. Not only did this early systematization of communication have a profound impact on textual circulation, but I argue that contemporary authors used representations of the postal system to work through the problems and promises of national union within their works. Each chapter draws upon the postal archive to argue for a range of intersections between the mail and the book.

The larger stakes of my project constitute an intervention into conventional understandings of the circulation of texts and ideas. Rather than relying on an implied circulation of the printed word, my research takes advantage of the meticulously preserved postal archive (in Philadelphia, DC, and beyond) to show how the systematization of mail delivery influenced contemporary American’s understanding of national literature and culture. Building on recent work in print culture and queer theory, “Citizen Technologies” draws out the precise geographical and temporal details of early American mail delivery, and theorizes how these underexamined material factors might differently orient scholars toward the study of early American literature.