Dogberry in Washington

Mark Twain

The Galaxy/December, 1870

 

Some of the decisions of the Post Office Department are eminently luminous. It has in times gone by been enacted that “author’s manuscript” should go through the mails for a trifling postage—newspaper postage, in fact. A calm and dispassionate mind would gather from this, that the object had in view was to facilitate and foster newspaper correspondence, magazine writing, and literature generally, by discontinuing a tax in the way of postage which had become very burdensome to gentlemen of the quill. Now by what effort of good old well-meaning, grandmotherly dullness does the reader suppose the postal authorities have rendered that wise and kindly decree utterly null and void, and solemnly funny? By deciding that “author’s manuscript” does not mean anything but “manuscript intended to be made into a BOUND BOOK”—all pamphlets, magazines, and newspapers ruled out!

Thus we are expected to believe that the original regulation was laboriously got up to save two dollars’ worth of postage to two authors in a year—for probably not more than that number of MS. books are sent by mail to publishers each year. Such property is too precious to trust to any conveyance but the author’s own carpet-sack, as a general thing.

But granting that one thousand MS. books went to the publishers in a year, and thus saved to one thousand authors a dollar apiece in postage in the twelve months, would not a law whose whole aim was to accomplish such a trifle as that be simply an irreverent pleasantry, and not proper company to thrust among grave and weighty statutes in the law-books?

The matter which suggested these remarks can be stated in a sentence. Once or twice I have sent magazine MSS. from certain cities, on newspaper rates, as “author’s MS.” But in Buffalo the postmaster requires full letter postage. He claims no authority for this save decisions of the Post Office Department. He showed me the law itself, but even the highest order of intellectual obscurity, backed by the largest cultivation (outside of a Post Office Department), could not find in it authority for the “decisions” aforementioned. And I ought to know, because I tried it myself [I say that, not to be trivially facetious when talking in earnest, but merely to take the word out of the mouths of certain cheap witlings, who always stand ready in any company to interrupt anyone whose remarks offer a chance for the exhibition of their poor wit and worse manners.]

I will not say one word about this curious decision, or utter one sarcasm or one discourteous speech about it or the well intending but misguided officer who rendered it; but if he were in California, he would fare far differently—very far differently—for there the wicked are not restrained by the gentle charities that prevail in Buffalo, and so they would deride him, and point the finger of scorn at him, and address him as “Old Smarty from Mud Springs.” Indeed they would.

(Source: Project Gutenberg Australia, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks09/0900821h.html)

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