Comparative Literature Studies 40.3 (2003) 329-333
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Ancient Epistolary Fictions: The Letter in Greek Literature. By Patricia A. Rosenmeyer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. x + 370 pp. $64.95.
Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System. By Bernhard Siegert. Trans. Kevin Repp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. ix + 325 pp. $60.00/$22.95
The body of scholarship devoted to the cultural and literary practice of epistolarity continues to grow, as evidenced by the new arrivals under review here. Both of them widen our perspective of the field. Rosenmeyer takes her readers back to the origins of the genre in Western literature, while Siegert looks at its transformations and dispersals through the technological and commerical developments of the late-eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, focusing mainly on the German-speaking countries.
To begin at the end: Siegert ties his thesis closely to the book's subtitle--however, the term "postal" includes related communications technologies such as telegraphy, typewriting, and telephony. The author restates his thesis in the form of a question: "What was the postal principle that allowed the letter's transformation into literature to make its appearance?" (53). Siegert moves back and forth between discussions of economic and technological changes in the postal system, to analysis of how the post structures the writings or authorial positions of C. F. Gellert, J. W. von Goethe, Heinrich von Kleist, Gottfried Keller, August Stramm, Franz Kafka, and others. Siegert divides his postal history of literature into three main sections: "the Logistics of the Poet's Dream" that moves through the early modern period up to Romanticism; "On the Way to New Empires 1840-1900"; and "Mail Beyond Human Communication," devoted almost exclusively to Kafka.
The "poet's dream" is of unfettered human communication, letters that arrive and take the place of the confessional as a medium of subjectivity. The greater subjectivities tend to become the nodes in this postal network. [End Page 329] Siegert uses the fact that Goethe had franking privileges to posit him as the hub of the new literary postal empire, himself the author of the epistolary novel, Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (1774), and inspiring Bettina von Arnim's Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (1804). "Under a postal dominion that promised communication with Goethe by writing letters, all writing--insofar as it involved letters to one's Self--was held captive by the form of being of the discursive group containing the function 'author'" (69). This is not really a new phenomenon--to become part of the epistolary circuit of literati was part of Renaissance self-fashioning as well. What made it different in the modern period was the generalized accessibility of postal service and its promise of confidentiality. Literature was produced in the circuit of interpretations and reinterpretations. Private mail from women readers was translated into state mail by male poets. Gender was thus "an effect of interpretations that circulated in the postal regulatory circuit, or of the positions they assigned" (80). Siegert uses Heinrich von Kleist's five letters based on the same dream, to five different recipients, as his study example for this claim.
The central innovations for Siegert's second phase are Rowland Hill's postal reform of 1840 (unitary fees regardless of distance, sender pays the postage), envelopes, mailboxes, postcards, and the founding (in Bern) of the World Postal Union. The effect on literature? "[O]nce there are stamps [not to mention postcards, T. B.], the very existence of which implies media of reproduction, it seems that sending love letters by mail is possible only at the price of their misuse. Because letters still could be posted only on the a priori historical condition of their misuse, they did not serve for the construction of subject matter in either psychology or pedagogy. They ceased to exist as media technologies of the soul or the individual" (134). Indeed, letter fiction disappears about this time, killed (in part) by the efficiency of the postal service. Literary examples take a...