Monday, May 02, 2016

`The Moral Equivalent of Knighthood"

“A postage stamp with us is the moral equivalent of knighthood.”

And thirty-three years later, William James remains unknighted. The image of his brother Henry, we’re told, will soon appear on a U.S. postage stamp, a century after his death. The gesture is grudging and ambivalent at best. “It discharges a debt at small expense; the honor is posthumous, anonymous, and capricious,” writes Jacques Barzun in A Stroll with William James (1983). If a postage stamp is our measure of all-American worth, we must suffer from that all-purpose diagnosis, poor self-esteem. Among the Americans honored by the U.S. Postal Service are Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck and Andy Warhol. Barzun gives a list of figures who had been honored with stamps as of 1983, along with the face value of each. He comments:

“Kudos is not measured by the denomination as such, but by its being the first-class rate at the time of issue, so that one dollar for Eugene O’Neill amounts to a thinly veiled insult—up to now. But seriously, where are Prescott and Ives, Willard Gibbs and Louis Sullivan and Mary Cassatt—all outstanding in their domains? And where are the Jameses?”

Josiah Willard Gibbs was knighted in 2005, and Charles Ives in 1997. But what about Henry Adams? Vladimir Nabokov? Art Tatum? Whittaker Chambers? Fairfield Porter? A.J. Liebling? Lester Young? Yvor Winters? Guy Davenport? Eudora Welty? But as Barzun reminds us: “Not that William and Henry need to be stamped as great. The `honor’ is not an indication about the recipient but about the culture.”

1 comment:

Dick Cornflour said...

It's now possible to make stamps of your own design. Here's a link

As a small child, my brothers and I played a card game call "Authors." Now that I'm old, maybe I should put authors on stamps, then write and send paper letters. Taking pleasure in nostalgic anachronisms is a vice, and I know there's a word for that, but can't remember it. Any help?