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 Texas : Feature : Columns : "They shoe horses, don't they?"

Is There an Edna Ferber
in Your Mailbox?

or
What’s a nice girl like you
doing on a stamp like this?

by Luke Warm
They shoe horse

Face Value

Carl Sandburg once said that it was appropriate that Lincoln’s face be on the penny. Since he was a champion of the common man, Lincoln would’ve considered it an honor to be on the coin found in the pockets of everyman. But that being said, if there was a line of reasoning about assigning value to various people, then it ended right there with the one cent piece.

Scales of importance for historical figures is difficult to say the least. Sure, everyone knows Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel - but is that reason enough to have his face on a twenty while Washington is on the single?

Note to younger readers: Aaron Burr did not play Perry Mason.


No, a value system for personalities on coinage or postage makes no sensage. But when the half-baked plans of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving are compared to the U. S. Postal Service - the P&E people come off as brilliant.

For some reason there’s an insular attitude when it comes to what faces go on our stamps. Other nations regularly and routinely honor “foreigners,” but not us. Traditionally, there are two major requirements to be on a U. S. stamp. Firstly, one should be American and secondly, one should be dead.

Note: For many years there was only one exception - a living member of the Women’s Army Corps who posed in uniform for a stamp honoring women in the military.


Long ago we reached the barrel bottom when we started letting cartoon characters (but at least they were American cartoon characters). appear on stamps. So, when a write-in campaign to have a stamp for the racehorse Seabiscuit was begun - you’d think it would be a sure thing. He was both American and dead. He was, however, an animal - which might've been a sticking point.

Note to the postal people - if a Seabiscuit stamp isn’t forthcoming we’ll be forced to bring up the birthplaces of both Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny (Hungarian and Canadian, respectively) and the suspicious circumstances and possible Congressional influence in the naturalization of Yosemite Sam.


Except for a couple of poets, educator Booker T. Washington and Edgar Poe in the 1930s, writers weren’t normally gummed, perforated and stuck on envelopes - which was probably okay with them. But if politicians and patriots are difficult to assign a value to - imaging the nightmare it would create for authors.

While Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck have all been honored - as well as a recent stamp for Dr. Suess (cartoons, again), their stamps at least have been in the realm of reality postage - by that we mean denominations that are actually seen and used by the letter-sending public. So has it been with women authors Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Dorothy Parker.

Edna Ferber isn’t exactly a household word today, but she at least deserves to be seen. Does anyone deserve the ignominy of having their face on an 83-cent stamp? Does America really want one of its under-appreciated authors on a stamp that no one will see? Most importantly, do we need an 83-cent stamp in the first place? We have to say, however, that the image is a good one.

The Woman Edna

Edna Ferber (not a pen name), died in 1968. The daughter of Jewish immigrants she had a Midwestern childhood and became a prolific writer of fiction that was occassionally based on historic fact. While her plays and the movie versions of them aren’t exactly flying off the shelves today, her books did in their time. She was the “most popular woman writer in America” between the World Wars.

Her wit wasn’t as caustic as that of Dorothy Parker, but nevertheless she had a reserved seat at the famed Algonquin Round Table. Her attendance was frequent enough that some of Parker’s anecdotes are frequently attributed to Ferber (and vice versa).

Fellow table mate George S. Kaufman, who co-authored several plays with Edna, admitted publically: “I’m fond of Edna, but I don’t like her.” Edna was not only fond of Kaufman, she liked him to the point where she would've become Mrs. Kaufman, if only he had asked. Marriage wasn't in the cards for Ferber, whose very first story was called The Homely Heroine. One of her most famous quotes is: “There is no denying the fact that writers should be read but not seen. Rarely are they a winsome sight.” About her role as spinster she said: “Being an old maid is like death by drowning. It’s really a delightful sensation after you’ve ceased struggling.”


Subjects

Her interest once piqued by the words “show boat,” Ferber was surprised when her research into the subject revealed that there were a few such dinosaurs still being towed around Southern rivers and bayous in the 1920s. She tracked one down and to her surprise, she found the husband/ wife proprietors to be fans of her writing. They had been performing plays based on her characters. Her visit to the show boat developed into a long personal friendship and she accompanied the cast and (tugboat) crew for months. She even sold tickets while taking her notes and got inspiration firsthand for her famous work.

Texas was a theme in at least two of Ferber’s works. In Cimmaron, she used a thinly-disguised Temple Lea Houston as her charismatic main character and Giant became her most famous later work. She wrote not one, but two autobiographies. The first, A Particular Treasure was published in 1939 and the second, A Kind of Magic, appeared in 1963, five years before her death of cancer.
A sample of her writing follows:
from That Home Town Feeling

“The woman reeked of the city. I hope you know what I mean. She bore the stamp and seal, and imprint of it. It had ground its heel down on her face. At the front of her coat she wore a huge bunch of violets, with a fleshly tuberose rising from its center. Her furs were voluminous. Her hat was hidden beneath the cascades of a green willow plume. A green willow plume would make Edna May look sophisticated. She walked with that humping hip movement which city women acquire. She carried a jangling handful of useless gold trinkets. Her heels were too high, and her hair too yellow, and her lips too red, and her nose too white, and her cheeks too pink. Everything about her was "too," from the black stitching on her white gloves to the buckle of brilliants in her hat. The city had her, body and soul, and had fashioned her in its metallic cast. You would have sworn that she had never seen flowers growing in a field. ”
So the next time you visit your post office express your outrage at Edna Ferber being on an 83-cent stamp. Pay no attention when the clerk says, "Edna, who?" He or she probably didn't even know there was a 83-cent stamp until you brought it up. And while you're there, put in a vote for Seabiscuit.

Anyone who would like to comment on Edna Ferber, her life and times, or USPS stamp face-denomination assignment, the editor welcomes your letter.
© John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't they?" June 26, 2004 Column
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