Citizen Technologies: The U.S. Post Office and the Transformation of Early American Literature

Christy Lee Pottroff, Fordham University


Citizen Technologies: The U.S. Post Office and the Transformation of Early American Literature demonstrates the surprising extent to which postal infrastructure determined the kinds of literary works that could emerge from and circulate within early America. Authors used postal networks not only as a means to distribute their works, but also as thematic and formal inspiration for new ideas of nation and citizenship. Turning to four genres of popular narrative published between 1791 and 1861—the autobiography, the travel sketch, the sentimental novel, and the slave narrative— Citizen Technologies shows how these texts absorb and elaborate particular expectations of privacy, agency, and local and national affiliation from the postal system in which they circulated. To do so, each chapter considers a new technology of mail delivery alongside a literary text and shows how these seemingly mundane details (postal registers, stagecoaches, and mail locks) can reveal unexpected insights into the formal and thematic development of early American literature. Benjamin Franklin, as Postmaster General, established the infrastructure for the continental postal system just as he began defining national subjectivity in his Autobiography. Similarly, in The Coquette, Hannah Webster Foster portrayed letters as technologies that could create trans-local forms of community overlaying the insular world of Hartford, Connecticut. The post office also proved particularly useful to authors unsupported by traditional publishers. Anne Royall, for one, rode the mail stagecoaches to find subject matter for her travel sketches and to distribute her books. Moreover, for Harriet Jacobs, post office technologies made literary production the province of all Americans, even before their rights had been fully recognized by the state. This dissertation refines our understanding of the material circulation of texts and ideas. Scholars often take for granted that printed words circulated, but my research engages the meticulously preserved U.S. postal archive in order to demonstrate concretely how the systematization of mail delivery influenced early America’s emerging national literature and culture. Building on recent work in studies of print culture, Citizen Technologies uses its findings about the precise geographical and temporal details of early American mail delivery to address some of the theoretical challenges in American literary studies. My project thereby provides a material basis for theoretical claims, and, in doing so, bridges the fields of book history and early American literature.

Subject Area

American literature

Recommended Citation

Pottroff, Christy Lee, "Citizen Technologies: The U.S. Post Office and the Transformation of Early American Literature" (2017). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI10617012.