Americans and others/The Customary Correspondent

The Customary Correspondent

"Letters warmly sealed and coldly opened."


WHY do so many ingenious theorists give fresh reasons every year for the decline of letter writing, and why do they assume, in derision of suffering humanity, that it has declined? They lament the lack of leisure, the lack of sentiment,—Mr. Lucas adds the lack of stamps,—which chill the ardour of the correspondent; and they fail to ascertain how chilled he is, or how far he sets at naught these justly restraining influences. They talk of telegrams, and telephones, and postal cards, as if any discovery of science, any device of civilization, could eradicate from the human heart that passion for self-expression which is the impelling force of letters. They also fail to note that, side by side with telephones and telegrams, comes the baleful reduction of postage rates, which lowers our last barrier of defence. Two cents an ounce leaves us naked at the mercy of the world.

It is on record that a Liverpool tradesman once wrote to Dickens, to express the pleasure he had derived from that great Englishman's immortal novels, and enclosed, by way of testimony, a cheque for five hundred pounds. This is a phenomenon which ought to be more widely known than it is, for there is no natural law to prevent its recurrence; and while the world will never hold another Dickens, there are many deserving novelists who may like to recall the incident when they open their morning's mail. It would be pleasant to associate our morning's mail with such fair illusions; and though writing to strangers is but a parlous pastime, the Liverpool gentleman threw a new and radiant light upon its possibilities. "The gratuitous contributor is, ex vi termini, an ass," said Christopher North sourly; but then he never knew, nor ever deserved to know, this particular kind of contribution.

Generally speaking, the unknown correspondent does not write to praise. His guiding principle is the diffusion of useless knowledge, and he demands or imparts it according to the exigencies of the hour. It is strange that a burning thirst for information should be combined with such reluctance to acquire it through ordinary channels. A man who wishes to write a paper on the botanical value of Shakespeare's plays does not dream of consulting a concordance and a botany, and then going to work. The bald simplicity of such a process offends his sense of magnitude. He writes to a distinguished scholar, asking a number of burdensome questions, and is apparently under the impression that the resources of the scholar's mind, the fruits of boundless industry, should be cheerfully placed at his disposal. A woman who meditates a "literary essay" upon domestic pets is not content to track her quarry through the long library shelves. She writes to some painstaking worker, enquiring what English poets have "sung the praises of the cat," and if Cowper was the only author who ever domesticated hares? One of Huxley's most amusing letters is written in reply to a gentleman who wished to compile an article on "Home Pets of Celebrities," and who unhesitatingly applied for particulars concerning the Hodeslea cat.

These are, of course, labour-saving devices, but economy of effort is not always the ambition of the correspondent. It would seem easier, on the whole, to open a dictionary of quotations than to compose an elaborately polite letter, requesting to know who said—

"Fate cannot harm me; I have dined to-day."

It is certainly easier, and far more agreeable, to read Charles Lamb's essays than to ask a stranger in which one of them he discovered the author's heterodox views on encyclopædias. It involves no great fatigue to look up a poem of Herrick's, or a letter of Shelley's, or a novel of Peacock's (these things are accessible and repay enquiry), and it would be a rational and self-respecting thing to do, instead of endeavouring to extort information (like an intellectual footpad) from writers who are in no way called upon to furnish it.

One thing is sure. As long as there are people in this world whose guiding principle is the use of other people's brains, there can be no decline and fall of letter-writing. The correspondence which plagued our great-grandfathers a hundred years ago, plagues their descendants to-day. Readers of Lockhart's "Scott" will remember how an Edinburgh minister named Brunton, who wished to compile a hymnal, wrote to the poet Crabbe for a list of hymns; and how Crabbe (who, albeit a clergyman, knew probably as little about hymns as any man in England) wrote in turn to Scott, to please help him to help Brunton; and how Scott replied in desperation that he envied the hermit of Prague who never saw pen nor ink. How many of us have in our day thought longingly of that blessed anchorite! Surely Mr. Herbert Spencer must, consciously or unconsciously, have shared Scott's sentiments, when he wrote a letter to the public press, explaining with patient courtesy that, being old, and busy, and very tired, it was no longer possible for him to answer all the unknown correspondents who demanded information upon every variety of subject. He had tried to do this for many years, but the tax was too heavy for his strength, and he was compelled to take refuge in silence.

Ingenious authors and editors who ask for free copy form a class apart They are not pursuing knowledge for their own needs, but offering themselves as channels through which we may gratuitously enlighten the world. Their questions, though intimate to the verge of indiscretion, are put in the name of humanity; and we are bidden to confide to the public how far we indulge in the use of stimulants, what is the nature of our belief in immortality, if—being women—we should prefer to be men, and what incident of our lives has most profoundly affected our careers. Reticence on our part is met by the assurance that eminent people all over the country are hastening to answer these queries, and that the "unique nature" of the discussion will make it of permanent value to mankind. We are also told in soothing accents that our replies need not exceed a few hundred words, as the editor is nobly resolved not to infringe upon our valuable time.

Less commercial, but quite as importunate, are the correspondents who belong to literary societies, and who have undertaken to read, before these select circles, papers upon every conceivable subject, from the Bride of the Canticle to the divorce laws of France. They regret their own ignorance—as well they may—and blandly ask for aid. There is no limit to demands of this character. The young Englishwoman who wrote to Tennyson, requesting some verses which she might read as her own at a picnic, was not more intrepid than the American school-girl who recently asked a man of letters to permit her to see an unpublished address, as she had heard that it dealt with the subject of her graduation paper, and hoped it might give her some points. It is hard to believe that the timidity natural to youth—or which we used to think natural to youth—could be so easily overcome; or that the routine of school work, which makes for honest if inefficient acquirements, could leave a student still begging or borrowing her way.

We must in justice admit, however, that the unknown correspondent is as ready to volunteer assistance as to demand it. He is ingenious in criticism, and fertile in suggestions. He has inspirations in the way of plots and topics,—like that amiable baronet, Sir John Sinclair, who wanted Scott to write a poem on the adventures and intrigues of a Caithness mermaiden, and who proffered him, by way of inducement, "all the information I possess." The correspondent's tone, when writing to humbler drudges in the field, is kind and patronizing. He admits that he likes your books, or at least—here is a veiled reproach—that he "has liked the earlier ones"; he assumes, unwarrantably, that you are familiar with his favourite authors; and he believes that it would be for you "an interesting and congenial task" to trace the "curious connection" between American fiction and the stock exchange. Sometimes, with thinly veiled sarcasm, he demands that you should "enlighten his dulness," and say why you gave your book its title. If he cannot find a French word you have used in his "excellent dictionary," he thinks it worth while to write and tell you so. He fears you do not "wholly understand or appreciate the minor poets of your native land"; and he protests, more in sorrow than in anger, against certain innocent phrases with which you have disfigured "your otherwise graceful pages."

Now it must be an impulse not easily resisted which prompts people to this gratuitous expression of their opinions. They take a world of trouble which they could so easily escape; they deem it their privilege to break down the barriers which civilization has taught us to respect; and if they ever find themselves repaid, it is assuredly by something remote from the gratitude of their correspondents. Take, for example, the case of Mr. Peter Bayne, journalist, and biographer of Martin Luther, who wrote to Tennyson,—with whom he was unacquainted,—protesting earnestly against a line in "Lady Clare":—

"'If I'm a beggar born,' she said."

It was Mr. Bayne's opinion that such an expression was not only exaggerated, inasmuch as the nurse was not, and never had been, a beggar; but, coming from a child to her mother, was harsh and unfilial. "The criticism of my heart," he wrote, "tells me that Lady Clare could never have said that."

Tennyson was perhaps the last man in Christendom to have accepted the testimony of Mr. Bayne's heart-throbs. He intimated with some asperity that he knew better than any one else what Lady Clare did say, and he pointed out that she had just cause for resentment against a mother who had placed her in such an embarrassing position. The controversy is one of the drollest in literature; but what is hard to understand is the mental attitude of a man—and a reasonably busy man—who could attach so much importance to Lady Clare's remarks, and who could feel himself justified in correcting them.

Begging letters form a class apart. They represent a great and growing industry, and they are too purposeful to illustrate the abstract passion for correspondence. Yet marvellous things have been done in this field. There is an ingenuity, a freshness and fertility of device about the begging letter which lifts it often to the realms of genius. Experienced though we all are, it has surprises in store for every one of us. Seasoned though we are, we cannot read without appreciation of its more daring and fantastic flights. There was, for instance, a very imperative person who wrote to Dickens for a donkey, and who said he would call for it the next day, as though Dickens kept a herd of donkeys in Tavistock Square, and could always spare one for an emergency. There was a French gentleman who wrote to Moore, demanding a lock of Byron's hair for a young lady, who would—so he said—die if she did not get it. This was a very lamentable letter, and Moore was conjured, in the name of the young lady's distracted family, to send the lock, and save her from the grave. And there was a misanthrope who wrote to Peel that he was weary of the ways of men (as so, no doubt, was Peel), and who requested a hermitage in some nobleman's park, where he might live secluded from the world. The best begging-letter writers depend upon the element of surprise as a valuable means to their end. I knew a benevolent old lady who, in 1885, was asked to subscribe to a fund for the purchase of "moderate luxuries" for the French soldiers in Madagascar. "What did you do?" I asked, when informed of the incident. "I sent the money," was the placid reply. "I thought I might never again have an opportunity to send money to Madagascar."

It would be idle to deny that a word of praise, a word of thanks, sometimes a word of criticism, have been powerful factors in the lives of men of genius. We know how profoundly Lord Byron was affected by the letter of a consumptive girl, written simply and soberly, signed with initials only, seeking no notice and giving no address; but saying in a few candid words that the writer wished before she died to thank the poet for the rapture his poems had given her. "I look upon such a letter," wrote Byron to Moore, "as better than a diploma from Göttingen." We know, too, what a splendid impetus to Carlyle was that first letter from Goethe, a letter which he confessed seemed too wonderful to be real, and more "like a message from fairyland." It was but a brief note after all, tepid, sensible, and egotistical; but the magic sentence, "It may be I shall yet hear much of you," became for years an impelling force, the kind of prophecy which insured its own fulfilment.

Carlyle was susceptible to praise, though few readers had the temerity to offer it. We find him, after the publication of the "French Revolution," writing urbanely to a young and unknown admirer; "I do not blame your enthusiasm." But when a less happily-minded youth sent him some suggestions for the reformation of society, Carlyle, who could do all his own grumbling, returned his disciple's complaints with this laconic denial: "A pack of damned nonsense, you unfortunate fool." It sounds unkind; but we must remember that there were six posts a day in London, that "each post brought its batch of letters," and that nine tenths of these letters—so Carlyle says—were from strangers, demanding autographs, and seeking or proffering advice. One man wrote that he was distressingly ugly, and asked what should he do about it. "So profitable have my epistolary fellow creatures grown to me in these years," notes the historian in his journal, "that when the postman leaves nothing, it may well be felt as an escape."

The most patient correspondent known to fame was Sir Walter Scott, though Lord Byron surprises us at times by the fine quality of his good nature. His letters are often petulant,—especially when Murray has sent him tragedies instead of tooth-powder; but he is perhaps the only man on record who received with perfect equanimity the verses of an aspiring young poet, wrote him the cheerfullest of letters, and actually invited him to breakfast. The letter is still extant; but the verses were so little the precursor of fame that the youth's subsequent history is to this day unknown. It was with truth that Byron said of himself: "I am really a civil and polite person, and do hate pain when it can be avoided."

Scott was also civil and polite, and his heart beat kindly for every species of bore. As a consequence, the world bestowed its tediousness upon him, to the detriment of his happiness and health. Ingenious jokers translated his verses into Latin, and then wrote to accuse him of plagiarizing from Vida. Proprietors of patent medicines offered him fabulous sums to link his fame with theirs. Modest ladies proposed that he should publish their effusions as his own, and share the profits. Poets demanded that he should find publishers for their epics, and dramatists that he should find managers for their plays. Critics pointed out to him his anachronisms, and well-intentioned readers set him right on points of morality and law. When he was old, and ill, and ruined, there was yet no respite from the curse of correspondents. A year before his death he wrote dejectedly in his journal:—"A fleece of letters which must be answered, I suppose; all from persons—my zealous admirers, of course—who expect me to make up whatever losses have been their lot, raise them to a desirable rank, and stand their protector and patron. I must, they take it for granted, be astonished at having an address from a stranger. On the contrary, I should be astonished if one of these extravagant epistles came from anybody who had the least title to enter into correspondence."

And there are people who believe, or who pretend to believe, that fallen human nature can be purged and amended by half-rate telegrams, and a telephone ringing in the hall. Rather let us abandon illusions, and echo Carlyle's weary cry, when he heard the postman knocking at his door: "Just Heavens! Does literature lead to this!"