The letter is a literary form teetering on the edge of extinction. Email and social media apps have rendered it antique. Bills and Amazon deliveries constitute the bulk of our post today. What did we lose when we stopped writing letters? There was the possibility of an intimacy unlike any other, an intimacy based on distance and the unavailability of a loved one. A love letter was a promissory note, often much less ambiguous than a lover in the room – it could be carried by the bearer, read and reread. Or it could work as a form of everyday journalism, a record of one’s life, dispatched to interested parties. And it could devastate – true feelings laid out forever on a rap sheet, never to be revoked.
In the early days of the novel, the epistolary form was one of the first and most popular formats for narrative. The letter’s relation to time was certainly a factor in this: letters are not immediate, taking days or even months to arrive. A letter can dwell on a moment or record a series of recent events but by it’s nature it is always a fragment of life lived and so much can happen between one letter and the next that it’s not surprising how important letters are during wartime.
The letter is also a form that has generated its own global delivery system: the post office remains at the heart of communities, the template of the postal service underpins the structure of internet and its delivery of ‘packets of information’. Deep within each postal service lies a particular room or building – the dead letter office where undelivered correspondence is rerouted or laid to rest, unread by its intended reader.