A Postcard For Your Thoughts
Imagine you have just received a postcard in the mail: one specifically addressed to you, but without a return address, containing only the provocatively cryptic missive "U.P.:up." Or perhaps in collecting the mail, you find a postcard addressed to someone else: one that you cannot help but read, containing the profound-sounding message, "Once you stumble, human nature is on you." These modernist postcards, the first sent to James Joyce's Denis Breen (Ulysses) and the second inscribed by Virginia Woolf's Septimus Smith (Mrs. Dalloway), foreground not only the discreet ubiquity of postcard exchange during the period of literary modernism (1890-1939), but also what is at stake (conventions and expectations) in the cultural practice of such communicative exchange.
It is my contention that postcard reading and writing not only played a shaping role in the formal aesthetic practices of modernist writers, while itself being influenced by such literary developments, but that the popularity of postcard correspondence—often via highly fragmented, abbreviated, and ungrammatical language—confirms that the formal difficulties of modernist literature were not isolated from, but rather coextensive with, the everyday practices of early twentieth-century life. In addition to supplying artists with a popularly recognizable subject matter for their works, the postcard initiated a silent revolution in the reading and writing practices of the general public and consequently shaped the conditions of possibility for the reception of innovative literary poetics.
The origins of the postcard date back to the 1860s, and even though this form of modern communication has been surpassed by more technologically efficient means, the postcard persists. It retains its cultural currency as an easy and inexpensive communication medium and continues to evolve as a cultural touchstone and historical register. The postcard evokes a host of connotations associated with vacation and travel, fragmented glimpses of the exotic, and cultural kitsch; it is at once a valued collectible and a tacky piece of ephemera, a vehicle for abbreviated and informal correspondence that is paradoxically private and public; it is a mediator of modern experiences that at its height was considered, according to one cultural critic, a "sign of the times" for "a generation that has not many minutes to spare for writing to friends, what with express trains going at a rate of a mile a minute, telegrams and telephones."
My investigation began, like most, with a passing observation; I kept noticing references to postcards and postcard use in the literary works of various modernist writers. After studying the correspondence of figures like Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway, E. E. Cummings, Tennessee Williams, and Ezra Pound, held in the Ransom Center's archives, it became clear these modernists were not only incorporating cultural references to postcard exchange into the thematic content of their works and corresponding via postcards in their daily lives, but many were also exploiting the formal affinities between postcard writing and defamiliarizing modernist poetics. E. E. Cummings's postcards, for example, employ the same typographical and syntactical destabilizations of language use that are characteristic of his best-known poetry. Even figures like Wilfred Owen, whose poetry is arguably not radically experimental, wrote postcard missives that rival the most innovative Imagist works of the day. In James Joyce's Ulysses alone there are over 10 allusions to postcard experiences. Some instances appear simply as background naturalistic detail, while others function complexly as allegorical textual cruxes ("U.P.:up" postcard). By presenting vernacular modernist poetics at work in the everyday cultural practice of postcard exchange, I hope to highlight literary modernism's practical contingency and provide access routes into some of its most challenging formal experimentation. And the Ransom Center's preservation of postcard correspondence helps to redress the scholarly bias against postcards that considers them, in Richard Ellmann's words, the letter's "brazen sister," a disposition that often results in their exclusion from published collections of author correspondence, or, worse, their publication in highly edited versions that remove the inventive shorthand and phonetic spellings characteristic of this new communication medium.
Bradley D. Clissold is Assistant Professor of Modern British Literature and Film Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He is currently working on a monograph entitled Exchanging Postcards: Vernacular Modernism and the Field of Cultural Reception, in which he explores the cultural impact of sent postcards on twentieth-century literature and popular culture. Clissold's work at the Ransom Center was funded by a Mellon Fellowship.