My Sunday column described the contrast between the government's lawful ability to snoop in our email, and how hard the government makes it for us to read its email. It also provided me an opportunity to write about the dead letter office, old and new.
In Herman Melville's classic 1853 story "Bartleby the Scrivener," we learn (spoiler alert!) that it was the title character's previous job in the dead letter office that plunged him into existential despair.
Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
These days, dead letters are shredded, not burned. The St. Paul "mail recovery center," seen above in 1992 in a Star Tribune photo by Charles Bjorgen, was once the recipient of 13 million orphan letters each year. "Blood, urine samples, stool samples, body parts, pornography - we get everything," Greg Hawthorne, supervisor of the undeliverable-mails unit, told my (now retired) colleague Bill McAuliffe in February 1992. Our local dead letter office closed in 2009, and I couldn't find any announcement or news story about it. The last one operates in Atlanta. Indeed, if someone mails a wedding ring or anything of apparent value, the post office hangs onto it. Otherwise, if their sleuths cannot determine the recipient, the letter is obliterated.
Dead emails don't have the same resonance as Melville's dead letters, since most of them were likely pitches for organ enlargement and mythical windfalls from the widows of foreign dictators. I'd like to think that at least a few of them were heartfelt communications that attempted to bridge the yawning chasm of alienation. The only eyes likely to see them, though, are those looking for malevolence.
P.S. Fittingly, the post office's URL for the mail recovery office is a dead link.