My Conversation with Hollis Robbins

By Tyler Cowen

Here is the audio and video, here is part of the CWT summary:

Now a dean at Sonoma State University, Robbins joined Tyler to discuss 19th-century life and literature and more, including why the 1840s were a turning point in US history, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Calvinism, whether 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained are appropriate portraits of slavery, the best argument for reparations, how prepaid postage changed America, the second best Herman Melville book, why Ayn Rand and Margaret Mitchell are ignored by English departments, growing up the daughter of a tech entrepreneur, and why teachers should be like quarterbacks.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You’ve written a good deal on the history of the postal service. How did the growth of the postal service change romance in America?

ROBBINS: Well, everybody could write a letter. [laughs] In 1844 — this was the other exciting thing that happened in the 1840s. Rowland Hill in England changed the postal service by inventing the idea of prepaid postage. Anybody could buy a stamp, and then you’d put the stamp on the letter and send the letter.

Prior to that, you had to go to the post office. You had to engage with the clerk. After the 1840s and after prepaid postage, you could just get your stamps, and anybody could send a letter. In fact, Frederick Douglass loved the idea of prepaid post for the ability for the enslaved to write and send letters. After that, people wrote letters to each other, letters home, letters to their lovers, letters to —

COWEN: When should you send a sealed letter? Because it’s also drawing attention to itself, right?

ROBBINS: Well, envelopes — it’s interesting that envelopes, sealed envelopes, came about 50 years after the post office became popular, so you didn’t really have self-sealing envelopes until the end of the 19th century.

COWEN: That was technology? Or people didn’t see the need for it?

ROBBINS: Technology, the idea of folding the envelope and then having it be gummed and self-sealing. There were a number of patents, but they kept breaking down. But technology finally resolved it at the end of the 19th century.

Prior to that, you would write in code. Also, paper was expensive, so you often wrote across the page horizontally and then turned it to the side and crossed the page, writing in the other direction. If somebody was really going to snoop on your letters, they had to work for it.

COWEN: On net, what were the social effects of the postal service?

ROBBINS: Well, communication. The post office and the need for the post office is in our Constitution.

COWEN: It was egalitarian? It was winner take all? It liberated women? It helped slaves? Or what?

ROBBINS: All those things.

COWEN: All those things.

ROBBINS: But yeah, de Tocqueville mentioned this in his great book in the 1830s that anybody — some farmer in Michigan — could be as informed as somebody in New York City.


COWEN: Margaret Mitchell or Ayn Rand?

ROBBINS: Well, it’s interesting that two of the best-selling novelists of the 20th-century women are both equally ignored by English departments in universities. Margaret Mitchell and Gone with the Wind is paid attention to a little bit just because, as I said, it’s something that literature and film worked against, but not Ayn Rand at all.


COWEN: What’s a paradigmatic example of a movie made better by a good soundtrack?

ROBBINS: The Pink Panther — Henry Mancini’s score. The movie is ridiculous, but Henry Mancini’s score — you’re going to be humming it now the rest of the day.


COWEN: What is the Straussian reading of Babar the Elephant?

ROBBINS: When’s the last time you read it?

COWEN: Not long ago.

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