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Sealed with a Kiss: Epistolary Literature


I have received no more than one or two letters in my life that were worth the postage.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854

A letter always seemed to me like immortality 
because it is the mind alone without [the] corporeal friend. 
Indebted in our talk to attitude and accent,
there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone.

—Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s Letters, 1891

Harriet Beecher Stowe to George Eliot, November 25, 1878.  © Berg Collection, New York Public Library, NY.

Harriet Beecher Stowe to George Eliot, November 25, 1878.  © Berg Collection, New York Public Library, NY.

As Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler argue in their book, Letters of the Century: America 1900–1999, letters “witness and fasten history, catching events as they happen... They give history a voice.” This course considers the genre of the letter—the most pervasive and elastic form of communication technology in Anglo-America for at least a millennia—in light of Grunwald and Adler’s notion that the letter both observes and fixes history. Specifically, looking at America across the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, students examine how the letter functions as a primary literary genre, one that encompasses everything from forging individual relationships to creating the nation-state, from articulating private thought to fomenting public discourse, and from conveying factual information to becoming the fundamental basis of the American novel.

As such, this course looks at letters in two senses: both as a discrete literary genre as well as “letters” meaning “literate culture.” This dual focus means that students read and discuss American epistolary novels from the Enlightenment through the present day (i.e., from The Coquette to The Lacuna); that they read letters by self-proclaimed authors, with a focus on letters about authorship and/or correspondences between authors; that they also peruse letters by statespeople, especially letters that are about the creation or extension of the American nation-state; that they consider the differences among handwritten letters and other mass technologies of written communication such as telegrams, emails, and text messages; and that students write critically as well as think creatively about—and in the form of—letters.

Yet this course also covers the cultural psychology of the letter, if you will—how it captures and contains human desire. For we simply must talk about sensations such as Frank Warren’s Post Secrets books, the enduring interest humans seem to have in the love letter (a current Warren knock-off is entitled Other People’s Love Letters), our on-going fascination with purloined and lost letters, the fact that many people hold on to boxes of old letters long after the senders are dead, and why we Americans are willing to pour money into archives that house “national letters” because we see them in some vital way as constituting a material repository of country, culture, and citizenship. Letters articulate nations. Letters articulate selves. And, fundamentally, letters articulate relationships—since almost every letter is a vehicle between two parties, a writer and a reader.

In other words, this course probes the American letter in all its conundrums: private yet public, insular yet shared, fixed yet fluid, both factual and fictional, pop culture and the highest form of art, a vehicle for dissent and yet also a container of collective idea or civic will. Note that we will have one required field trip during the course of the semester to visit the Library of Congress to view and discuss actual hologram letters by some of America’s most prominent figures: Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, to name but a few.

Download a sample assignment from Sealed with a Kiss: The Literary Letter in America (PDF):