Saturday, March 24th, 2012...9:30 am

You’ve Got Mail: The Lilliput Edition

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One thinks of Houghton Library as a repository of the very old and the very special but it is also — in its association with Harvard Review — a publisher of the very new. For more than a decade, Houghton has been the home of Harvard’s only professional literary journal, publishing the likes of Seamus Heaney and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as rising stars like Nam Le or the recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Harding.

One of the ways that unknown writers — the Paul Hardings of tomorrow — find their way to Harvard Review is by sending their stories and poems to us in the mail. So while in the rest of Houghton Library mail may be a largely archival matter, at Harvard Review it’s pretty much what we do.

We get a bin full of mail every day: catalogs and press releases and books for review and, above all, unsolicited submissions.

mail at Harvard Review

Usually these manuscripts arrive in ordinary envelopes, white or manila — large ones for stories, small ones for poems — with a row of  American flag or Liberty Bell Forever stamps. But every once in a while something unusual turns up.

Sometimes it’s an envelope from far away, like this one from Papua New Guinea.

Sometimes the address is handwritten (usually this means it’s from a prisoner) or, what is even more rare, typewritten on a real typewriter. Sometimes there’s a witticism in the address; we’re not exactly sure what was meant by the author of this one — but either way we thought it was funny.

Sometimes we’re just impressed by the amount of effort that has gone into decorating the envelopes. These three are all the work of the same artist, whose artwork (if not the writing) we have been carefully saving.

In the last few years many journals have switched over to online submission systems. They’re greener and they make it easier to manage the work flow. But they also have an oddly homogenizing effect: all the manuscripts in the system look alike, and with no envelope there’s no place for collage or glitter. There aren’t even any stamps.

At Harvard Review, we have only just started to take this in. At first it seemed like it was going to be great to reduce the number of manuscripts coming “over the transom.” But it turns out that — although we complain endlessly about how much we receive — opening the mail and seeing what weird new things are in there is still one of the high points of our day.

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Christina Thompson, Editor of Harvard Review, contributed this post.]

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