Monday, May 28, 2007

Of Mail and Stamps

One delightful benefit of teaching is the acquisition of books that one might use in a class, and that's how I came home from the C's conference in New York to find a copy of The Best American Essays 5th College Edition, edited by Robert Atwan, courtesy of Houghton Mifflin. I think I wish I were going to be using this for my upcoming WR 323 English Comp III course instead of Bartholomae's Ways of Reading, because those essays are a lot grimmer than the ones Atwan has collected here.

Fig 1: The quilt pictured above is called 'Housetop' - four-block variation, circa 1965, cotton and cotton/polyester blend, 77x82 inches, by Mary L. Bennett (b. 1942) Tinwood Alliance collection, Atlanta, Ga. © 2003 photographed by Steve Pitkin/Pitkin Studios. from NPR's feature 28 May 2007.

Fig 2. Upper Right - The nw Jamestown 41-cent stamp is now available from USPS.

Among the essays in Atwan's collection is Anne Fadiman's lovely rumination on mail "Mail" (first published in The American Scholar, perhaps c. 2000, and reprinted in Best American Essays 2001). She begins considering the snail mail kind her father (Clifton Fadiman) and then she loved and compares it to the electronic kind, and this helps me think about my purposes with this blog. Fadiman quotes William Cowper that "a Letter may be written upon any thing or Nothing" (316) and lists some of the items in the index of topics for letters: depression, dances, dentistry. (dentistry could certainly lead some readers to depression!). Continues Fadiman, "I have never recieved an e-mail on any of these topics" but this is where blogs may come in, and maybe by now Fadiman has a blog.

She quotes Lytton Strachey: "No good letter was ever written to convey information or to please its recipient: it may achieve both these results incidentally; but its fundamental purpose is to express the personality of its writer" (317).

This conveying of personality, then, may be a major reason for writing these pages. I'm always glad to hear from readers, who may be more than the comments would indicate. And I am interested in interacting with ideas of others. But I do also value the opportunity to think publically about ideas. Of course I could write this in my journal (and maybe I did), but the notion of writing for other minds is stimulating as well as comforting.

And thinking of mail requires thinking of stamps (especially now that the price has gone up, again). I love the new 41-cent triangular stamp featuring the sailing ships at the founding of Jamestown. The stamp (fig 2. above) is lovely and unusual. In fact, I may not mail any and just keep this sheet. When I do use the stamps, it is because of their aesthetics and not as an endorsement of history because the historical event they commemorate is not so lovely - as the English invaders of this New World were racist, oppressive and patriarchal and set the tone for contemporary American society.

By comparison, the 39-cent quilt stamps from the Quilts of Gee's Bend are also lovely, though again the history may be sad. NPR had a feature by Neil Conan on February 4, 2003, about the small Alabama village where descendants of slaves created these amazingly modern designs, which I greatly prefer to the classic floral quilt designs, such as the quilt at the top of this page. (I haven't yet figured out how to post pictures other that at the top of the page.) Apparently there are now books about the Gee's Bend quilts, according to And Auburn University, among others, has a research project about this art form.

And to finish thinking for a moment (lots of digression) is the new and not so elegant (I won't picture it here) "Forever Stamp" which costs 41 cents and supposedly will always be valid no matter how high the postage goes in the future. Hmmm. By contrast, Fadiman's essay describes the institution of the Penny Post in England in 1840. Of course a penny was worth a good deal more in 1840 than it is today - perhaps as much as 41-cents worth!



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