US Stamps

USPS to honor acclaimed author Saul Bellow Feb. 6 on 34th stamp in popular Literary Arts series

Jan 29, 2024, 8 AM

By Charles Snee

Esteemed author and playwright Saul Bellow, whose myriad accolades include the 1976 Nobel Prize in literature, will be celebrated Feb. 6 on the 34th stamp in the United States Postal Service’s Literary Arts series.

The new nondenominated ($1.16) commemorative will satisfy the rate for a domestic 3-ounce letter that went into effect Jan. 21, along with a host of other postal rate increases. That rate is indicated by the “THREE OUNCE” inscription running up the left side of the stamp.

Since 2014, with the issuance of the 91¢ Ralph Ellison stamp (Scott 4866), all Literary Arts stamps have satisfied the 3-ounce letter rate in effect at the time. The “THREE OUNCE” inscription began with the 2015 nondenominated (93¢) Flannery O’Connor stamp (5003).

Chicago, where Bellow spent most of his adult years, is the first-day city. However, an official ceremony to dedicate the new stamp is not planned, the Postal Service told Linn’s Stamp News.

New Jersey artist Joe Ciardiello created an original pen-and-ink and watercolor illustration for the stamp. Bellow is in the foreground, wearing a fedora and showing the barest trace of a smile. The Chicago scene in the background features one of the Windy City’s signature L (short for elevated) trains en route above the street.

Ciardiello’s portrait is based on photographs taken in 1962, the Postal Service said. The stamp’s design appears at the top of the homepage of his website.

In addition to the USPS, Ciardiello counts among his clients several well-known companies, organizations and publications, including American Express, the Folio Society, the Nation, The New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone and Time.

Ciardiello told Linn’s that he received the assignment for the Saul Bellow stamp four years ago.

“I believe I was sent four approved photos of Bellow by the [USPS] art director, Ethel Kessler,” Ciardiello recalled. “From those I selected two to work from and gave them two different sketch options.”

“Regarding the background, the scene needed to read as Chicago without being too specific,” Ciardiello said. “I searched for some representative images of the city. The [Postal Service’s] art department also provided some photos for me to work from.”

“The ‘L’ seemed like a natural choice and considering the horizontal format, it worked out,” he said.

Ciardiello approached his assignment in a straightforward manner. As he put it, the stamp needed to show a “portrait of Saul Bellow with an indication of Chicago in the background.”

“I didn’t know that much about his life, but did a bit of research,” Ciardiello said. “Chicago obviously played an important role.

“I’ve drawn quite a few writers over the years and my focus was primarily to get a good likeness of him that would work in the stamp format.”

According to Kessler, the stamp for Bellow “follows in the approximate format created years ago for the Literary Arts series … the writer in front of a symbolic view. The styles of the portraits have all been different and so have what the author is standing in front of.”

For each stamp, the background is intended to be suggestive of the subject’s writing, Kessler said.

Kessler found Bellow a compelling, vibrant subject for a stamp.

“There is so much that goes on before our illustrators even get to start the job,” she said. “We start asking ourselves when was the writer’s most recognized writing done and where was most of his writing based? Sometimes there are many answers.”

“Saul Bellow, to me, is a gritty Chicago writer,” Kessler said. “He often focused on unique individuals (and aren’t we all unique?). He had a quest for universal characteristics and the conversations and discussions that they struggled with.”

Kessler had high praise for Ciardiello and his work on the stamp.

“Joe Ciardiello is such a talented illustrator, mostly focused on American literature and musicians,” she said. “He has been creating fascinating illustrations for more than four decades and had not yet worked on a stamp.

“There’s so much to consider before starting work. The process is always a challenge on the front end, before the illustrator even starts the job. And it is so much fun to see their interpretation on the final art.”

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