Samara O'Shea

An Epistolary Inquiry

I received a lively, inspiring e-mail from a lovely young woman named Toby (yes, woman!). See what wonderful things she hopes to do with a possible fellowship year. . .

“I’m writing to you with an unusual request – an epistolary inquiry, if you will. I have the opportunity to apply for a year-long fellowship that would allow me to travel the world, pursuing my wildest dreams. The Watson Fellowship is awarded annually to forty graduating seniors from forty liberal arts institutions in the United States. I attend one of these schools, Grinnell College, where I am studying cultural Anthropology, and I am putting together an application for the fellowship.

The Watson seeks individuals who care passionately enough about something that they could spend their whole year immersed in it. One can do anything during the Watson year. Fellows have conducted projects as varied as studying regional changes in fly fishing techniques to playing marimba music around Africa to studying the politics of international film festivals (what my friend Courtney is doing at the moment).

I am most passionate about letters and the post. I have sent hundreds of letters and cards in the last six years, and I started a letter-writing club at my school that meets weekly. I am proposing to travel the world to look at the role of love letters in times of conflict, and, more generally, the importance of post in the modern world. I would like to travel to England and Italy, looking at epistolary archives from the World Wars. I hope to travel to Serbia and Bosnia to see the role letters played in the Yugoslav Wars. I would also like to visit Japan, Argentina, and Spain. I could even look at the role of the political letter, letters sent from immigrant communities, and the impact of letters sent to victims of natural disasters. My hope is to volunteer at postal museums and in philatelic societies in these countries. In order to connect with people and hear their stories, I plan to visit independent paper mills to get acquainted with paper, the origin of all letters. I would host letter-writing nights where individuals could share their experiences with the post.

Is this the type of project you could help me with? I’m looking for stories from individuals who have had unique experiences with postal services and the power of a hand-written letter. Any advice you can give me or contacts you can link me to will help my project proposal immensely. I would be overwhelmingly grateful for any help you can offer me.”

I’ll post my response to her tomorrow. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope Toby gets the fellowship.