It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency

It’s strange to think of it now, but the Post Office Department was a major federal law enforcement agency. On the eve of World War I, the FBI (then called the Bureau of Investigation) was a fledgling subsidiary of the Justice Department. When the Espionage Act was signed in 1917, there were only three hundred Bureau of Investigation agents, and the Secret Service had only eleven counterespionage agents in New York. But the Post Office (an executive branch department in those days) was well established. It had 300,000 employees, including 422 inspectors and 56,000 postmasters overseeing the circulation of fourteen billion pieces of mail every year. The Post Office reached the far corners of the country, and it had been that way for decades. Long before there were highways and telephones there were postal roads and mail couriers. Small towns had post offices before they had cemeteries.

So when the United States entered World War I and the government wanted to censor dangerous words with a nationwide mechanism that had a long history of constitutional authority, it turned to the Post Office. The government gained the power to censor words by mastering the ability to circulate them, and warfare—the other foundation of big government— justified more censorship. This was how the government found James Joyce. The censorship of Ulysses began not because vigilantes were searching for pornography but because censors in the Post Office were searching for foreign spies, radicals and anarchists, and it made no difference if they were political or philosophical or if they considered themselves artists.

The growth of the federal government is largely the story of the growth of the Post Office, and a powerful Post Office was the cornerstone of the U.S. censorship regime. Since its establishment in 1782, the Post Office had a legal monopoly over mail circulation, but the government didn’t exercise that power until 1844, when Congress declared that the system’s purpose was “elevating our people in the scale of civilization and bringing them together in patriotic affection.”Out of a diverse population sprawling across the continent, the mail would make Americans. The policy began a half-century expansion during which the Post Office build roads, slashed postage rates and stiffened penalties for private carriers violating the government’s monopoly. From 1845 to 1890, mail volume increased one hundred times over.

The Post Office garnered most of its strength by slashing postal rates. In 1844, it charged twenty-five cents to carry a letter four hundred miles, and if the letter had two sheets, the postage doubled (envelopes counted as another sheet). Seven years later, that same letter could be delivered nearly across the continent for only three cents. Newspapers and magazines enjoyed reduced rates since before the days of Ben Franklin, and yet periodical postage also plummeted. By 1879, newspapers and magazines were grouped as “second-class mail” and delivered anywhere for two cents per pound. If the recipient lived in the same county as the sender, delivery was free. Rates didn’t hit rock bottom until 1885, when periodicals were delivered anywhere in the country for one cent per pound, and it remained that way until 1918.

World War I dramatically expanded postage censorship. Postmaster General Albert Burleson claimed the Espionage Act gave him the authority to judge mailed material without court approval or congressional oversight. When Congress asked Burleson to disclose his surveillance instructions to the nation’s postmasters, he simply refused. The Post Office decided who broke the law, who deserved the rate increases or outright bans and deserved criminal prosecution. Burleson was a man to be reckoned with. He wore a black coat to match the black umbrella he carried at all times, and one of the president’s advisers called him “the most belligerent member of the cabinet,” which was saying a lot in 1918. He once complained about a socialist newspaper’s “insidious attempt to keep within the letter of the law.”

The most dangerous book: the battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Kevin Birmingham (pp 109-110) (The Penguin Press, 2014).

It acts as a Conduit for what we call Sha

“Terrible Feng Shui here. Worst I ever saw. You two crazy?”

“Because of…?” Dixon indicating behind them, in thickening dusk, the Visto sweeping away.

“It acts as a Conduit for what we call Sha, or, as they say in Spanish California, Bad Energy.— Imagine a Wind, a truly ill wind, bringing failure, poverty, disgrace, betrayal,— every kind of bad luck there is,— all blowing through, night and day, with many times the force of the worst storm you were ever in.”

“No one intends to live directly upon the Visto,” Mason speaking as to a Child. “The object being, that the people shall set their homes to one side or another. That it be a Boundary, nothing more.”

“Boundry!” The Chinaman begins to pull upon his hair and paw the earth with brocade-slipper’d feet. “Ev’rywhere else on earth, Boundaries follow Nature,— coast-lines, ridge-tops, river-banks,— so honoring the Dragon or Shan within, from which Land-Scape ever takes its form. To mark a right Line upon the Earth is to inflict upon the Dragon’s very Flesh, a sword-slash, a long, perfect scar, impossible for any who live out here the year ‘round to see as other than hateful Assault. How can it pass unanswer’d?”

Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon (p542).

at present, owing to the pernicious Cult of Feng Shui,

“Mr. Dixon,” declares the Jesuit, “at present, owing to the pernicious Cult of Feng Shui, you would find it a Surveyor’s Bad Dream, — nowhere may a Geometer encounter an honest 360-Degree Circle,— rather, incomprehensibly and perversely, in wilful denial of God’s Disposition of Time and Space, preferring 365 and a Quarter.”

“That being the number of Days in a year, what Human Surveyor, down here upon Earth, would reject thah’,— each Day a single, perfect Chinese Degree,— were 360 not vastly more convenient, of course, to figure with? Surely God, being Omniscient, has little trouble with either…? all the Log Tables right there in His Nob, doesn’t he,—” Dixon, having been out tramping over the Fields and Fells for the past few weeks, with Table and Circumferentor, still enjoying a certain orthogonal Momentum, “and 365 and a quarter seems the sort of Division Jesuits might embrace,— the discomfort of all that extra calculation…? sort of mental Cilice, perhaps…?”

“Oh dear,” Emerson’s voice echoing within his Ale-can.

Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon (p230).

Aye, they go on living, but without dear old Grandam

“This is about Family, sure as the History of England. Inside any one Tribe of Indians, they’re all related, see? Kill you one Delaware, you affront the Family at large. Out there, if it’s Blood of mine, of course I must go out and seek redress,— tho’ I’ll have far less company.”

“Each alone lacking the Numbers, our sole Recourse is to band together.”

“These were said to be harmless, helpless people,” Dixon points out in some miraculous way that does not draw challenge or insult in return. Apprehensive among these Folk, Mason, who would have perhaps us’d one Adjective fewer, regards his Georgie Partner with a strange Gaze, bordering upon Respect.

“They were blood relations of men who slew blood relations of ours.” Jabez explains.

“Then if You know who did it, for the Lord’s sake why did You not go after them?”

“This hurt them more,” smiles a certain Oily Leon, fingering his Frizzen and Flint.

“Aye, they go on living, but without dear old Grandam,— puts a big Hole in the Blanket, don’t it?”

“You must hate them exceedingly,” Mason pretending to a philosophikal interest actually far more faint than his interest in getting out of here alive.

“No,” looking about as if puzzl’d, “not any more. That debt is paid. I’ll live in peace with them,— happy to.”

Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon (pp 343-44).

it is known as the Sterloop

When they see what is upon the Tavern Sign, Mason and Dixon exchange a look,— the Weapon depicted, Black upon White, is notable for the Device upon its Stock, a Silver Star of five Points, revers’d so that two point up and one down,— a sure sign of evil at work, universally recogniz’d as the Horns of the D——l. No-one would adorn a Firearm with it, who was not wittingly in the service of that Prince. This is not the first Time the Surveyors have seen it,— at the Cape, usually right-side-up, it is known as the Sterloop,— a sort of good-luck charm, out in the Bush. But ev’ry now and then, mostly on days of treacherous Wind or Ill-Spirits, one or both had spied upon a Rifle an inverted Star, much like what they observe now, against the Sky, plumb in the windless Forenoon.

Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon (p342).

Believe I’ll have another of those… ? Would tha join me?

“— aye then here they come! How canny, with these greeaht Foahm Tops on ‘em, what do tha call thah’?”

“That is a ‘Head,’” Blackie quizzickal. “They don’t have that, back wherever you’re from? What kind o’ Ale-Drinker are you then, Sir?”

“Shall we quarrel, after all?”

“Innocent question,” Blackie looking about for support.

“Very well, as tha did ask,— I’m a faithful and traditional Ale-Drinker, Sir, who does thee a courtesy in even swallowing this pale, hopp’d-up, water’d-down imitation of Small Beer.”

“Far preferable,” replies Blackie, “— even if slanderously and vilely untrue,— to that black, sluggish, treacly substitute for Naval Tar, Sir, no offense meant, that they swill down over in England?” with a look that would have been meaningful, could it get much beyond a common Glower.

Dixon sighs, Ale Loyalty is important to him, as part of a pact with the Youth he wish’d to remain connected to. He lifts and drinks, as calmly as possible, the entire Pint of American Ale, without pausing for any Breath. Having then taken one at last, “O Error!” he cries, “How could I’ve so misjudg’d this?”

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?

Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?— in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow’d Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever ’tis not yet mapp’d, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen,— serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true,— Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ’s Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe till the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measured and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,— winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon