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A Single Us

Elizabeth Hewitt, in Correspondence and American Literature, 1770-1865, explores the relationship between letter writing and the formation and early governance of the United States. Hewitt notes much about the letter that we know but don’t think much about, including: the letter is both a private and public affair, sealed in an envelope for secrecy yet delivered via the the most public of systems; it demonstrates, simultaneously, union and disunion (do you remember both kissing the stationary your beloved had touched and also the very reason you were kissing stationary and not your beloved?); it has the capacity for high formalism, base informality, and any mode between. Hewitt argues that eighteenth and nineteenth century American authors “turn to the epistolary form as a means by which to theorize the kinds of social intercourse necessary to the articulation of a national identity and a national literature.” She continues, “They turn to the genre that inscribes social intercourse in an effort to interrogate the most crucial question of national construction: how will we be united?”

Her authorial subjects are Emerson, Fuller, Melville, Jacobs, Dickinson, and Whitman. Other major players are, amongst multitudes, epistolary novels; the post office(s); the institution of slavery; notions of sovereignty and liberty set against equality and union; the law; private versus public; the major documents of The Founding, including the Articles of Confederation (a letter), the Declaration of Independence (a letter), and the Constitution (not a letter); federalism and anti-federalism; democracy.

After an introductory essay, the book is made of five chapters and a concluding essay. The first chapter, “National Letters,” introduces two epistolary theories and matches them with appropriate political groups from the period: the idea of “political reciprocity through an ongoing and sustained correspondence of one citizen to another” goes to the individual liberty-loving Anti-federalists; the Federalists, on the other hand, who believe in a more centralized government, subscribe to an epistolary theory that “emphasizes a perfect correspondence that becomes a template by which to orchestrate all subsequent political conversations between citizen and nation.” The rest of the book, through the arguments, delivered in letters, of the above authors, pits one theory against the other.

I won’t give away which one wins.

(But here’s a hint: The final essay concerns Whitman, who happens to contain multitudes.

And here’s another hint: I was surprised.)

Nor does it seem fair (or maybe even possible) to simplify too much what seems to me an extraordinary piece of scholarship. I will say, though, that it’s been a while since I learned so much about a subject I thought I already knew something about.

I’ll say also that my favorite piece of the book concerned thoughts and arguments and theories regarding the post office. Hence my last post. (Note also my admiration for The Crying of Lot 49 and my late-teen love of Bukowski.) Here’s what had me thinking: The post office served as, essentially, the government itself. It was, for many if not most people, the only direct contact they’d ever have with their government. So here’s the thing: if the post office is the government, then all correspondence, including private letters, must be routed through the government. All individual correspondence, then, (assuming a letter can be individual—it’s addressed to someone else, yes?), is a part of one correspondence, which we call the government, which, to a Federalist, anyway, or maybe a contemporary idealist, is our various selves unified into a single us. Whitman: “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

Which is good and all and which, on my good days, I want to believe. But I’ve also been reading a lot lately about American prisons and what we can learn about ourselves by the way we treat our prisoners. In prison, it seems the closest parallel to the civilian post office would be the censor, who not only can but does open and read, examine, and explore every piece of mail. In no uncertain terms, the private is the public. A single us. Yesyes, a single us.