These Swift Couriers: Postal Democracy and American Literature

By Thomas KarshanJune 13, 2021

These Swift Couriers: Postal Democracy and American Literature
The white marble statues in the auditorium
Are colder to the touch than the rain that falls
Past the post-office inscription about rain or snow
Or gloom of night. I think
About what these archaic meanings mean,
That unfurl like a rope ladder down through history,
To fall at our feet like crocuses.

— John Ashbery, “The Wrong Kind of Insurance”


AFTER THE CAPITOL HILL RIOTS and the failed impeachment, it’s easy to forget that moment last summer when American democracy seemed to hinge merely on the US Postal Service getting the mail through. President Trump’s heart appears not to have thrilled, as mine always has, to those sonorous words from Herodotus, inscribed on the main post office in Manhattan, that have become the unofficial motto of the USPS: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Trump, who believed that postal votes would tend Democrat, announced on August 13 that he would deny to the snowy couriers of the USPS the emergency funding they badly needed, citing the risk of fraud. Meanwhile, the recently appointed postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, a Trump megadonor, was banning overtime and extra mail delivery trips, removing mail collection boxes, and dismantling many of the DCBS sorting machines, which cannot handle the Amazon and eBay packages on which USPS business increasingly depends, but which can every hour process 35,000 pieces of slimmer mail — such as ballot papers. In the end, DeJoy backed down in the face of an outcry from the Democrats, announcing on August 18 that he would suspend his changes.

Uncannily, John Updike prophesied last year’s postal crisis in his late novel, Toward the End of Time (1997). In the story’s version of 2020, the federal state has collapsed, abandoning Washington, DC, to rioting. Even the USPS has failed, forcing the government to rely on private courier services to bring people their “spiritual meal” of bills and bonds. Asked in 1986 at a conference of international PEN, “How Does the State Imagine?” Updike answered that, in America, it is through the post office. The post office embodies the structures that make communication possible, and, Updike adds, “the tribe seeks interconnection and consolidation.” Though modern novelists and poets must make their own eccentric channels of communication, for Updike they still depend on the blue-uniformed mailman to get their letters through and on the post office to stand as the symbol of a single public sphere, a general conversation. “[T]he writer’s imagination and the imagination of the state have opposite tendencies,” but they converge in the postal system, being both concerned with the circulation of letters. “I never see a blue mailbox without a spark of warmth and wonder and gratitude that this intricate and extensive service is maintained for my benefit.” To send and receive letters by the public mails is to vote, however warily, for union, political and spiritual.

Being a lifelong expat in the United Kingdom, I’ve always voted by mail in American elections. I cling, tenuously, to Connecticut, where my family has a house near the small town of Lakeville in the woody northwest corner of the state. My first vote was for Bill Clinton’s second term, and my father went to the local town hall to arrange it, as he would always do until he died not long after Trump’s inauguration. This time my mother did it, stopping in to see our longstanding town clerk, a woman whose father had been the local mailman. After a phone call and some friendly messages, she emailed me my ballot, which I printed off and sent out via my local post office in London — a site that became, amid its COVID masks, greeting cards, and art supplies, my US polling station, a full two months before the actual election on November 3. I was among the 46 percent of Americans who voted by mail or absentee this election, up from 21 percent in 2016, for whom there was no clear moment when their vote happened. In states including North Carolina and Alaska, ballots may come in and be counted as much as a couple of weeks after the election, having been cast long before. If I had died before the election, my vote would still have been valid, Connecticut being one of 10 states that counts such votes. (The law is not clear in Georgia, where Trump in his notorious phone call to Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger alleged that thousands of dead people had voted.)

I prefer voting in person, as I can do in the United Kingdom. Over the years I’ve shown my face at various churches and civic buildings (recently, it was the Chinese Community Center), leaning into the makeshift wooden cubicle as into a confessional booth to take up the stubby pencil on a string. Sending off my vote from Finsbury Park post office, I didn’t want to let it go. My mind likes to dwell on the lonely voyages of letters I send, as they pass through the various hungry mail sacks, fluttering sorting machines, unpressurized airplane holds, and bouncing trucks. I found myself thinking of the contrast between my vote’s point of origin, the plasticky shop-front post office in Finsbury Park, and the Lakeville post office I imagined it passing through, an elegant, pillared building approached up a flight of steps.

Adam Gopnik has said that the post office is “to America what the village church is to England, what the Mairie is to France: the small institution that sums up the local faith.” The one in Lakeville is a monument of the New Deal, built in 1941 using Treasury Department funds and boasting a WPA mural of Ethan Allen at his forge making cannonballs, our region once having been a center of iron smelting. The lobby is cool, white, spacious enough to stand around and gossip in, and lined with long inviting desks bearing ballpoint pens. At the front are the black-and-white FBI wanted posters, guarding the vestibule like cathedral gargoyles, which add a cozy note of American Gothic while also testifying that American post offices are federal embassies of a kind and serve another master to the town hall — or, for that matter, the church. The American post office is a window out of the local, which is why, in Eudora Welty’s comic tale “Why I Live at the P.O.,” the storyteller, having feuded with all her relatives in her tiny Mississippi township, storms off to take up residence there.

For all its grandeur, the Lakeville post office doesn’t have its own postmaster. In 2011, it was only barely spared closure in favor of the post office a few miles down the road in Salisbury. It’s humbler than the one in Lakeville, but Salisbury has the town hall: white clapboard, with a columned portico, octagonal cupolas, and postmodern touches dating back to 1985, the old town hall having been burned down by a couple of well-known local criminals, one of whom later murdered the other beside the town lake. In the mid-18th century, it doubled as a church, until the federal government decided to insist on the separation of church and state. The Congregational Church now stands opposite, built in 1800 in the Federal style. A block over, next to the post office, is the neo-Gothic Scoville Memorial Library, which was founded back in 1803 and was the first US library open to the public free of charge. The books have now mostly been replaced by computer terminals, but they still have an excellent collection of 18th- and 19th-century poetry in the stacks, and around the corner there’s an antiquarian bookshop that stocks well-bound relics of Emerson’s New England.

The town hall, church, library, and post office together form a square. I take them, here, as a pattern for meditation, a matrix of analogies by which I can imagine voting. Each could be a ballot station. You can vote by showing up in the town hall and taking physical part in democracy, something just as important to the Anti-Federalists of the 18th century as it was to Trump and his supporters in 2020. Or you can vote by post, abandoning the letter to the slot, turning yourself into a message, a yes or a no. Or you can vote in a library, hoping that your vote will, like a poem, register in a small space all that ambivalence a message destroys, and find out an answering echo in strangers’ matching uncertainty. Or you can vote in church, imagining your vote as a prayer — speech deflected into silence, but allowing for the miracle that this might be the message that finally gets through and, like a dream tweet, makes an alteration in the invisible structure of the sayable.

Postal voting in America dates back to the Civil War. The 1864 election saw 150,000 Union soldiers register absentee votes, against strenuous Democratic objections and dark warnings in The Nation of postal voting fraud. By then the US Postal Service was internationally famous for its reach and efficiency. In his 1995 book Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse, Richard John writes that, by 1828, where France had only four post offices for every 100,000 citizens and Great Britain 17, the United States had 74. De Tocqueville, traveling by stagecoach through the distant and sparsely populated spaces of the Michigan Territory, was startled to discover that its average inhabitant received more “nonlocal information” than the average inhabitant of the Département du Nord. “There is no French province,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “in which the inhabitants knew each other as well as do the thirteen million men spread over the extent of the United States.” John writes that “in 1831 the postal system, with more than 8,700 postmasters, employed just over three-quarters of the entire federal civilian work force. […] The federal army, in contrast, consisted of a mere 6,332 men.” “It would hardly be an exaggeration,” he concludes, “to suggest that for the vast majority of Americans the postal system was the central government.” In her 2004 book Correspondence and American Literature, 1770–1865, Elizabeth Hewitt quotes a report to the Select Committee on Postage of 1841:

Our Post Office system […] is one of the most powerful of the influences which hold our Union together, and keep these States from falling apart in the agitations of faction. The system, spread through the whole land, and connecting every human habitation with every other, is everywhere the channel of a vital energy. The more we perfect the system — the more numerously letters of business, of friendship, of scientific enterprise, pass between the east and west, between the north and south — just so much the more do we strengthen the ties that make us one people.

The postmaster general is the best-paid US government official after the president. Benjamin Franklin was the first; DeJoy is the 75th. The position has traditionally been a plum given out by presidents to campaign supporters. The 54th postmaster general, Arthur Summerfield, got the post for having secured the Michigan Delegation’s support for Eisenhower. Foreseeing a golden age of near-immediate communication, he introduced the Mail-Flo Letter Processing System and the Hamper-Dumper internal mail transport system, and oversaw the launch from a naval submarine, on June 8, 1959, of the cruise missile Regulus, bearing a cargo of post — a swiftly aborted experiment whose most significant trace may lie in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), which begins with the conceit that the German rocket bomb, the V-2, is “incoming mail.”

Summerfield’s modernizing aroused the pique of the young Updike who, in a Talk of the Town piece for The New Yorker in 1956, focused not on the rocket mail or the new sorting systems, but on the “the old dip pens Postmaster General Summerfield is ousting from post offices across the nation,” in favor of the chained ballpoint pens of the kind found in banks. Updike reports on one woman he overheard unfavorably comparing the two. “The Post Office is a state-run monopoly; you take what it gives you,” she said, whereas “the banks operate in a competitive system, and have to please their customers” — which they do by providing ballpoint pens, with their easy uniform flow of ink.

Years later, Saul Bellow’s 1997 novel The Actual features a “post office socialist.” The young Updike’s indignant defense of the old post office does not quite make him that, but it does indicate his loyalty to the New Deal vision of America, including both a common public realm and the uneasy alliance of the artist with the state that the WPA embodied. When in 1958 Updike mounted another protest against Postmaster Summerfield’s improvements, he painted a bucolic picture of a “village post office,” where a “W.P.A. mural, executed with Assyrian dignity, fades above the transom,” and whose leaflets are the only free reading matter available in those benighted towns where Andrew Carnegie had not left a public library. In the post office, every citizen becomes a man of letters, wielding a pen provided by the government, and reading its literature.

Updike would often list the post as one of the great small pleasures in life, as in his long poem “Midpoint” (1969): “Adulthood has its comforts: these entail / Sermons and sex and receipt of the mail.” Those comforts all communicate: the mail is sex, and the mail is a sermon, the medium through which the seed of the word can be sent abroad. In the same poem, he literalizes the image, imagining that “letter-slots are vaginas / and stamps are semen swimming in the dark.” Updike picked up the thought in a very late poem, “Not Cancelled Yet,” imagining himself reincarnated as a postage stamp on his way in “the long dark slither out of the mailbox, / from box to pouch to hand / to bag to box to slot to hand / again.” In Rabbit, Redux (1971), Rabbit Angstrom also pictures himself slipping into the mailbox:

Wonderful service, the postal. Put yourself in one of those boxes, sorted from sack to sack, finally there you go, plop, through the right slot out of millions. A miracle that it works. Young punk revolutionaries, let them try to get the mail through, through rain and sleet and dark of night.

But Rabbit’s not much more in sympathy with his new suburban neighbors, whom he never sees posting a letter, and he finds himself longing for his old hometown of Mt. Judge, where it seemed everyone was always using the mail. As he passes his nearest mailbox, “Harry wonders if anybody ever mails a letter in it, he passes it every day and it seems mysterious as a fire hydrant, waiting for its moment that may never come.” Any message might be the one that finally counts; any post box might turn out to be the instrument of salvation, and it is, somehow, the job of the state to provide for the possibility of that.

If Rabbit were alive now, would he still be so keen on the US Postal Service? The Mt. Judge of the Rabbit books is Shillington, the town in Berks County, Pennsylvania, where Updike spent his childhood, a 90-minute drive west of Philadelphia, just beyond the ever-bluer suburbs. There are no voting statistics specific to Shillington, but Berks, which Obama won by nine percent in 2008, came out for Trump by eight percent in 2020, down just a little from 10 percent in 2016. That must have been on the strength of overwhelming support in the rural areas of Updike’s youth, sufficient to counterbalance the main city, Reading, where Rabbit and his father worked at the printing press. Already in industrial decline in Rabbit’s youth, Reading was in 2011 named by The New York Times “the poorest city in the country.” It is now predominantly Latino and, despite some Evangelical Trump voters, mainly Democrat. By contrast, Essex County, Massachusetts, the upmarket New England county where Updike spent most of his writing life, voted for Biden 63 percent to 34 percent.

Updike loved the post his whole life, but it is a fair bet that Rabbit, now, would have joined his new suburban neighbors in mistrusting it — like Mike Fallopian, the right-wing conspiracy theorist, in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), who believes that the US mail is a violent empire bent on dominating channels of communication. According to him, the entire Civil War was engineered by the USPS as a cover for stamping out private mail companies, Lincoln was a shill for his postmaster, and the federal state the mask and enforcer of mainstream media. And then there is a counter-conspiracy, a rumor of a rebel postal service called the Tristero, which came to America from Europe in 1849 and has since gathered around itself a clandestine following.

[H]ere were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by US Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private.

Two opposing media systems, each bent on achieving complete conformity within its own ranks, shadowing each other’s violence, and only dimly aware of the other’s existence: Pynchon is drawing here on ideas from early communications and cybernetics theorists, namely Marshall McLuhan and Norbert Wiener. A unified field of communication becomes a violent empire; systems of communication, like everything else in the world, are subject to entropy, heat-death. So, the Tristero’s post boxes are not media of insemination, as in Updike, but trashcans, labeled “WASTE,” coffins of a kind, through which circulate messages of perfect banality merely to affirm the implacable persistence of the medium. Pynchon’s appalling metaphor for this is a fantastical sorting machine beyond Arthur Summerfield’s wildest dreams, operated by a hypothetical demon that will effortlessly sort fast molecules from slow ones — a prediction in its own way of the social media algorithms that produce consensus and conflict in equal measure, sorting people into warring unanimities internally governed by Likes and Dislikes, Upvotes and Downvotes.

There is precedent for this view of the post as an oppressive system in Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), where the nameless protagonist, marked down as a troublemaker, is sent off to New York from his Black college with a set of closed letters of recommendation, which in fact instruct their recipients not to hire him. The last, however, is addressed to a Mr. Emerson, who is good enough to disclose the contents. Earlier in the novel, the Invisible Man has dreamt of “an official envelope stamped with the state seal; and inside the envelope I found another and another, endlessly” — and, deep inside these envelopes within envelopes, like those of postal ballots, he finds “an engraved document containing a short message in letters of gold,” on which he reads: “To Whom It May Concern … Keep This N[…]-Boy Running.” As in Pynchon, the post stands for the system that keeps its subjects enslaved through the false promise of the messages it tricks them into bearing.

If Updike sums up the American tradition that celebrates the US post and the principle of union, Pynchon and Ellison draw on another tradition, just as deeply rooted, that fears and distrusts the post, seeing it as an engine of conformity, a tyrannous system that infiltrates private life and suborns citizens as its empty vehicles. An essay of 1848, quoted by Hewitt, warns that, though the post may promote federal union, it may also go too far: “Instead of the government perishing for the want of contact with the people, this one branch is found to have mingled itself so intimately with the interests and enjoyments of the people, as to be a source of danger and a cause of alarm for the security of our liberties.” De Tocqueville, too, for all his admiration for the USPS, worried that the ease of communications in America would lead to a dangerous unanimity: “It seems at first sight as if all the minds of the Americans were formed upon one model, so accurately do they follow the same route.”

For some 19th-century writers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, the postal system promised to weave American democracy together. That may explain the irony Ralph Waldo Ellison directed at his namesake by singling out a man named Emerson as the recipient of the last false letter carried by the Invisible Man. But other 19th-century American writers saw the post more as Pynchon and Ellison later would. In Melville’s 1855 story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” a merchant discovers that the paper envelopes in which he sends out his seeds are made by young women working in wage slavery at a New England paper mill. The message is as plain as the paper on which it is written and the envelopes in which it’s sent: the media through which the writer disseminates his words are complicit in oppression. Walt Whitman seems to have taken Melville’s side more than Emerson’s: for him, American democracy, like poetry, should be face-to-face, and the post risks destroying that. As Hewitt points out, the only letters in “Song of Myself” are those God leaves as traces of himself: “I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name.” To God is reserved the mystery of letters; people should communicate physically.

Whitman is the author of a poem about voting, “Election Day, November, 1884.” But this is not the Whitman of “Song of Myself,” the yea-sayer to democracy and fraternity, to bodies squeezing up against one another, with “the press of a bashful hand” and “the float and odor of hair,” but an older Whitman, disenchanted with what had become of American politics. The 1884 election was a notoriously dirty one, in which the Democrat, Grover Cleveland, edged out the Republican, James Blaine, amid the late discovery of Cleveland’s alleged fathering of an illicit child and Blaine’s well-known corruption. Whitman, as it happens, did not vote, being too ill to make it to the polls. In “Election Day,” there are none of the vivid portraits of individual Americans that fill “Song of Myself” — “the policeman with his star quickly working his passage to the centre of the crowd,” the “trapper in the open air in the far west,” “the butcher-boy” in his “killing-clothes.” Rather than facing up to the candidates or electorate — “the darker odds, the dross” — Whitman transforms the scene of voting into a natural phenomenon, the white ballots first rendered as rain (a “ballot-shower”) and then as a fall of “snow-flakes”:

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
’Twould not be you, Niagara — nor you, ye limitless prairies […]
I’d name — the still small voice vibrating — America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen — the act itself the main, the quadriennial
The stretch of North and South arous’d — sea-board and inland — Texas to Maine —
         the Prairie States — Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West — the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling — (a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of
Or good or ill humanity — welcoming the darker odds, the dross …

Still, Whitman strains to find in the election process a nobility the candidates lacked: “The heart of it not in the chosen — the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing.” The contradiction is that something irreducibly and proudly violent (“a swordless conflict / Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s”) may be taken, outside that bracketed moment of the election, as “the peaceful choice of all.” Whitman’s poetry, with all its whims and multitudes, might seem the opposite of the electoral process, which forcibly reduces a voter’s confused opinions to a single choice of candidate, and then from all those votes conjures a single “still small voice.” This poem, though, keeps sight of those contradictions; in its way, it is itself a vote, but one to welcome the potentially violent paradoxes of democracy.


Thomas Karshan is writing a book entitled Undelivered Letters: The Life of the Message in Modern Literature. He is the editor of On Essays: Montaigne to the Present (Oxford, 2020) and the author of Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play (Oxford, 2011). He recently served as president of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society. He teaches at the University of East Anglia.

LARB Contributor

Thomas Karshan is writing a book entitled Undelivered Letters: The Life of the Message in Modern Literature. He is the editor of On Essays: Montaigne to the Present (Oxford, 2020) and the author of Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play (Oxford, 2011). He recently served as president of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society. He teaches at the University of East Anglia.


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