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Stamps of Mystery and the Imagination


Stamps of Mystery and the Imagination

Edgar Allan Poe

Stamp image © USPS

I imagine if Edgar Allan Poe were alive he might have celebrated his birthday in January in a favorite bar in Baltimore. But he might have a little problem when he tried to go home, as the city just closed down the Poe house due to budgetary concerns.

It's just another example of our historical and cultural past being shut down because of lack of money. Even the noble Old Corner Bookstore in Boston, publisher of Emerson, Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes and other writers of the classic era via the Ticknor and Fields imprint, now trades in tacos, not tomes, as it is currently home to a Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurant.

These examples are the result of a lack of money combined with disinterest in writers and literature. The transition from book learnin to the instant information of the Internet has left much of literary merit behind. But with the growing popularity of the Kindle and other digital readers, there will surely be some catch-up played by classic works by writers who have taken a back seat to the immediate experience of online information.

Postal Services Among Few Who Honor Literature

Poe has been honored with two stamps, including the 42 cent one illustrated here released in 2009 for his 200th birthday anniversary and a 3¢ that is designed like the Famous Americans series of 1940, though the Poe stamp wasn't released until the 100th anniversary of his death in 1949.

Although Poe's popular fiction works, including the first detective stories and even some science fiction would seem to overshadow his poetry, the frame around his portrait on the stamp indicates that the postal service considered him a poet (indicated by Pegasus and the flight of imagination) and not an author. His poetic renown rests mostly on the The Raven, an international success at the time that made his reputation. Imagine a poet attaining such success today; you'll need an imagination on a par with Poe's to do that.

One wonders what H.G. Wells, a writer honored on stamps from the U.K. would have thought about life in the Internet age. Many passages in his unusual memoir Experiment In Autobiography read much like blog posts and retain their immediacy even after the passage of more than a half century's time. In 1995 Britain honored Wells on the 100th anniversary of The Time Machine and the 50th of his death with four stamps honoring the man who saw the future in works including The War of the Worlds and The Shape of Things to Come.

Stamps of the Future

Will any of the writers on the USPS's forthcoming -- unrevealed as of this writing -- science fiction stamps be masters of extrapolation (romantically referred to as predicting the future), looking into that future and finding things that we take for granted? Wells had a great power of extrapolation, seeing to the core of his own day and deducting how current events would affect and become the future.

In 1891 Jules Verne, commemorated on numerous stamps, foresaw the podcast revolution in his future tale The Day of an American Journalist in 2889 where print media is overtaken by telephonic journalism: "Every morning, instead of being printed as in antiquity, the Earth Herald is 'spoken'. It is by means of a brisk conversation with a reporter, a political figure, or a scientist, that the subscribers can learn whatever happens to interest them. As for those who buy an odd number for a few cents, they know that they can get acquainted with the day's issue through the countless phonographic cabinets."

I am not aware of any classic science fiction writer who foresaw our current digital media and electronic communications bringing the world's postal systems to their knees, as has occurred with the Internet and email. A great science fiction/fantasy novel by Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow, et al) is The Crying of Lot 49. In it Pynchon posits a conflict between the Thurn and Taxis postal system, which once existed, and the postal system of his imagination, Tristero.

The action is set off when the heroine of the story, Oedipa Maas discovers mysterious stamps in the collection of her recently deceased lover. Apparently from an old and shadowy postal system that the legitimate postal system of Thurn and Taxis had forced underground, Oedipa spends the novella trying to get to the bottom of a philatelic mystery.

The title of the novel refers to an auction of the mysterious Tristero stamps, as auctioneers cry out for bids on lots.

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