This thesis takes as its subject the interactions between letter writing, queerness, and literary modernism. Against traditions of both queer and epistolary research that locate modernity as a time of new and expanding relation, this project asks what it might mean to conceptualise letter writing in the twentieth century as a way of being textually and erotically alone with oneself. While much has been written about the sociability of letters in this period—about the way correspondence brought queer subjects together in a variety of romantic, sexual, and social configurations—I am interested in those forms of epistolary writing that register as solitary and self-interested productions. Examining personal papers that range from the fin de siècle through to the late 1970s, I consider how a number of queer modernist writers and thinkers—among them Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, Radclyffe Hall, Una Troubridge, and Djuna Barnes—encountered the epistolary form not primarily as a tool of intimacy or community-building, but as a method of autonomous, often autoerotic self-expression. Accordingly, the central trope of this thesis is the unanswered, or unanswerable letter, an object that conjugates various forms of impossible, failed, or disavowed epistolary communication.
The thesis is built around four primary archives of modernist letters, drawing extensively from both published and unpublished collections of correspondence. The chapters that emerge from them do not offer a consistent or coherent model of thinking, but instead multiply the kinds of sexual, political, and literary attachments that can be properly attributed to queer modernist writing. While each chapter addresses a different form of “one-sided” correspondence, the modes of queer experience and textual practice they evince are enormously varied. They speak to questions about autoerotic compulsion and indulgence, auto-archival fantasy, apostrophe and omnipotence, as well as autobiography and confession. The thesis argues that the auto-identificatory impulses of letter writing were indivisible from the emergence of sexual modernity in Europe and America; that those impulses both produced and responded to the broader patterns of queer modernism; and that the archives of modernist correspondence offer uniquely productive material for tracing those developments.