I had the idea for a course on letters and the history of the post while thinking about communication. As an inveterate fan of British spy fiction, especially of John Le Carre’s convoluted capers, I had come across a book on the origins of intelligence systems in the ancient empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia. The need for communication among people is as old as civilization. What I hadn’t known was that the interest in spying and censorship is as old, emerging with the earliest communication networks.
The leap from ancient censorship of mail to present-day wiretapping, from an Assyrian emperor’s concern about rebellion to Nixon’s anti-Communist paranoia, from the earliest postmasters to CIA undercover operators, isn’t merely an imaginative fancy. Issues of privacy, or the lamentable lack of it, in the face of the desire for complete control over the flow of information on the part of rulers or ruling elites, have troubled postal delivery for 5000 years. Modern mass communication systems and sophisticated electronic surveillance techniques represent only the most recent, technological assault on our privacy. Big Brother has been around for a long time.
The history of the mail service contains all the larger social and political concerns of human history.
I was fascinated, of course. But reality asserted itself (after a few paranoid glances over my shoulders, and worries about the odd clicking in my telephone line), and habit as well. As an English teacher and fiction afficionado I have been primarily concerned with writing. I liked the idea of working with letters, both as models for students’ writing efforts, and as texts—historical and current—for critical and investigative reading. Letters, after all, range over a variety of topics, limited only by the boundaries of human imagination and interest. People communicate in them about love, sex, wars, death, natural disasters, inventions, triumphs, loneliness. They tend to be short, so that they can be read, discussed, and analyzed at one sitting. Most importantly, they represent a direct communication between the writer and his/her reader. They assume a specific, identifiable audience. Letters in fact harness the elemental human impulse to communicate from one to another, in a written mode, mirroring in embryonic structure the very process that in all likelihood led to the emergence of human language.
There have been suggestions that letters and writing are becoming a mere chapter in the history of the exchange of feelings, ideas,and information because electronic communication devices—telephones, CB radios, video cassettes—are crowding them off-stage. Yet, people still perk up when they discover a letter waiting for them in their mailbox. And the impulse behind the first letters, I believe, can be reclaimed and reexperienced, particularly when teaching writing.