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American Authors on United States Stamps

The USPS has now issued over 4,000 stamps; of these, almost two per cent depict American authors. One third of these writers published from 1800 to 1899; two thirds since 1900. These numbers do not include XVIII century founders of the Republic; men like Thomas Jefferson, (Declaration of Independence), Benjamin Franklin, (Autobiography) or Thomas Paine, (Common Sense) who wrote very well but who is remembered primarily as patriots, not as literary figures.

Men outnumbered women by more than two to one because there were so few recognized women writers in the XIXth century. Since then, there has been much more parity, especially in the field of fiction. A small table at the end classifies the writers as men or women, by the century in which the bulk of their work was published and by four categories, (fiction, poetry, journalism and other).

Almost half of the authors on stamps are classified as novelists; eighteen as poets. Some double counting is unavoidable when listing categories because so many of the writers were accomplished in more than one genre. A few examples are Edgar Allen Poe, highly regarded as a poet, The Raven, Annabel Lee, and the first American writer of mystery and psychological horror stories, (a more questionable claim to fame), and the refined Bostonian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet and essayist who defended intellectual freedom against the materialism, conformity and rigid Calvinism of his day, The American Scholar, Self Reliance.

More recently considered Carl Sandburg, not only a journalist and the poet laureate of industrial America, Chicago, Fog, Smoke and Steel, but also the author of a memorable, multi-volume biography of Lincoln. Finally, Steven Vincent Benet as poet and novelist and Thornton Wilder and William Saroyan as playwrights and storytellers should be mentioned, Figure 1.

In addition to novelists and poets, eleven authors are remembered for their work as journalists. Among them are Ida Tarbell whose "muckraking" investigations of Standard Oil of N.J. led to that company’s anti-trust break-up, William Allen White, the "sage of Emporia, Kansas" and Edward R. Murrow, renowned for his live reportings of the bombing of London and his CBS face-off against Senator McCarthy in the early days of TV, (his was oral rather than written authorship), Figure 2.

To round out the total number of authors, there is a miscellany of playwrights like Eugene O’Neil, Emperor Jones, Ah Wilderness, essayists like Henry Thoreau, Walden, educator John Dewey, Democracy and Education, Figure 3 and scientists such as biologist/naturalist, Rachel Carson, whose highly controversial Silent Spring shook the pesticide industry and inspired generations of environmentalists, Figure 4. Check your copy of the Carson stamp for the fairly common uncatalogued error.

To date nine black authors have been honored on stamps, four of them as part of the on-going Black Heritage series. Booker T. Washington, author of Up From Slavery and famed educator is recognized on two stamps, the first his portrait and the second a picture of the slave cabin where he was born, see Scott 1074. Others are three poets, Paul Dunbar, James W. Johnson and Langston Hughes; two novelists, Zora N. Hurston and James Baldwin and reformer, W.E.B. DuBois. Three pioneers in the struggle for African-American equality, all journalists, are Ida Wells, anti-lynching crusader for women’s rights, Carter C. Woodson, historian and founder of Black History Month and Ethel L. Payne, known as the "first lady of the Black Press", Figure 5.

Although the focus of this two-part survey is on novelists already on stamps, a few names which are conspicuously missing deserve mention. Where is Harriet B. Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whom President Lincoln called "the little lady who started the Civil War"? Why has Wm. S. Porter, penname O. Henry, been forgotten? Or Theodore Dreiser, (perhaps passed over for converting to communism in his late years)? Or Henry James, (snubbed for moving to England and becoming a British citizen)? Finally it should be mentioned that a lag of three or four decades in honoring authors accounts for the omission of many, recently famous names.

The focus of the rest of this part will be on the novelists and their stories from the XIXth century, most of whom are still widely read today. What seems to distinguish these works are their uniquely American characters and episodes. Almost all are tales of the early days of the nation and the frontier.

The earliest of these storytellers is the urbane Washington Irving, who was a scholarly dilettante, a world traveler, historian and the author of the classic short stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, (remember poor Icha-bod Crane). Equally famous but much more serious, even grim, are Nathaniel Hawthorne, creator of noble-hearted Hester Prynne condemned in Puritanical Boston to wear the letter "A" for adulteress and Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, the ferocious whale pursued by the obsessed Captain Ahab, Figure 6.

Most prominent of all is Samuel Clemens, better known by his pseudonym, Mark Twain, and treasured for so many stories such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, etc. Clemens enjoys the special distinction of also having two stamps devoted to his young heroes, Tom and Huck, Figure 7.

In the last twenty years, literature has been under attack from opposite directions. For many ordinary citizens supported by too many politicians, admiration of classic literature is dismissed as elitist and "egg-headed". From a completely different quarter, academics of "deconstruction" persuasion have argued there is little to learn from the great thinkers of the past, (often only fifty or a hundred years past), and that the analysis of comic books can be just as educational as reading Shakespeare.

So, unfortunately, probably fewer young readers in our schools today are being introduced to The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, to The Call of the Wild by Jack London, or to The Outcasts of Poker Flats and The Luck of Roaring Camp by Bret Harte, Figure 8.

In special categories of their own are Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus Stories and Horatio Alger’s scores of dime novels, like Ragged Dick and Tattered Tom, which inspired underprivileged boys to win fame and fortune by hard work and virtue. Instead of a portrait of Alger, the journalist turned Unitarian minister; there is the illustrated frontispiece of another of his dime novels, Fame and Fortune.

Finally Louisa May Alcott, who’s Little Women is still beloved today, is the only woman novelist for that century. As was done for Twain’s boy heroes, a separate stamp has been devoted to Alcott’s girls, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, Figure 9. Look at Scott 2788 and decide, "Is that Mrs. March and three daughters, or is that Jo reading a letter from her father and her three sisters?"

A second article deals with the many men and women novelists of the first half of the XXth century.


Contact's: Dr. Rene P. Manes