Greil Marcus

“The 1940s” were in the post office today. “There’s Jackson Pollock without the cigarette,” the postal clerk said disdainfully. I ran my eyes over the sheet: Citizen Kane, teenagers jitterbugging, Uncle Sam rising like God over a company of GIs with bayonets fixed, Jackie Robinson sliding into home, the Slinky …

If you remember the controversy in 1992 over the Postal Service’s putting out an Elvis stamp–how could they honor this moral degenerate? etc.–then you have to realize that Elvis moved on in death to spread the message of democracy wherever its call might have yet to be heard. Without the Elvis stamp, no Slinky stamp: “80 feet of coiled wire that can ‘walk’ down stairs,” and then, around 11 on Christmas morning, got tangled up and never walked again. You could say Elvis brought everything–so much of the country, as it responded to him in the 1950s, and our official culture, as it shows up on our stamps–down to his level; you could say that today as from the start he made it possible for us to accept the stuff of our everyday culture as real culture, to accept the design of drugstores and the noise of movie posters, the discourse of commercials, and the humiliation of bureaucratic forms as the means by which we explain ourselves to ourselves. No Slinky stamp without Elvis, but also, I think, no Jackson Pollock stamp, and not just because Pollock was the Elvis of American painting. (Well, really, he was the Steve McQueen of American painting–the suspicious, taciturn, wiry, jittery, pissed-off guy who would do anything if the moment called for it and when it didn’t work knew just what to say: Fuck it.)

What the Postal Service discovered when people of all description lined up early at post offices around the land on Jan. 8, 1992, was that stamps with pictures that in some degree are pictures of the people who might buy them sell. Thus, in short order, sheets of blues singers, comedians, Popular Front folk singers, country musicians, and then the decade series. Starting with the 1900s, you might not recognize every image; as the century moved on you sensed some great visual DJ spinning the pictures, and you knew more and more of the tunes. The problem is in that recognizability. I like the 1940s stamps–especially the killer one, Harry Truman holding up the Chicago Tribune on Election Night 1948–because as a white person in his 50s who went to good public schools, I see myself in the greater picture they draw. The culture I cobbled together out of my parents’ New Deal politics, Life magazine, classroom decorations, and the pop marketplace is precisely where the culture drawn in the sheets of decade stamps is taken from. But by now, by the 1940s, there is nothing present someone like me would not recognize: no surprise, no booby trap, no bad news and, weirdly, no future. The decade as the new stamps describe it seems frozen in place, complete, with no room for doubt, nowhere to go, no need to hear any voice but its own. And that is the ‘40s talking: the smiling, resolute, terrified, frozen attempt to maintain normal life during the war and then somehow paste it back together when the war was over, always saying, It’s OK, this is right, this is enough, don’t ask, don’t tell. I can’t wait to see what happens next.