The New Portfolio: A Cry From the Study

I TRUST that I may from time to time have an opportunity to open this New Portfolio of mine. There are papers which have come to me from the Secretary of the Pansophian Society, which I hope hereafter to lay before the readers of this magazine. There are poems which lie hidden among its leaves, and are only waiting to be carefully extracted ; for although the eye of the owner sees them, they are invisible to all others, and to get them out of the Portfolio is as nice a process as lifting a sheet of gold-leaf out of the book in which its gossamer tenuity is held and protected.

But at the present moment I am not going to open the Portfolio at all. I am going to write on the back of it, as I have done before, in my individual capacity, as personally known to my readers, and on such terms with them that I can speak freely, as if they were sitting with me by my fireside. I have often spoken in the disguise of fiction of the matter which I propose to bring before them, — so often that I can hardly help repeating some things which they may have had enough of already. There is really no great difference in talking to the public through the lips of a fictitious personage and in one’s own voice, for the sheath of assumed personality does not commonly more than half cover the blade it pretends to conceal. Besides, in returning to an old subject, I am doing no more than all the preachers, all the orators, all the public men, politicians, philanthropists, reformers, are constantly doing.

One should be shy of bringing his private affairs, his individual joys and griefs, before the public, unless he is assured that there are others who have had similar experiences, or who are at least in a position to understand and to sympathize with him. In speaking of my own conditions, though I am forced to use the first person singular, I feel that I am very far from being alone or representing only individual interests.

I am overburdened with a correspondence which I find almost unmanageable. It has reached such a point that I feel as if it would not be unreasonable for me to put out a sign bearing my name with the following additions : —

* * * Professional Correspondent, attends to letters on all subjects, from all persons and all quarters. Autographs in quantity at short notice. The Correspondent will furnish stationery without charge to all applicants, in the form of envelopes addressed to himself, and stamped, containing a blank sheet of paper for the letter or message he is to receive. All communications, long or short, all manuscripts, legible or illegible, all books and pamphlets, readable or unreadable, thankfully received and immediately read and criticised. The Correspondent expects no pecuniary return for the few daily hours consumed in this labor of love. It is more than enough to be told that his well-known kindness and universally recognized genial nature have emboldened the writer to venture on what he (with superfluous modesty) calls his “unauthorized intrusion.” The Correspondent would add that, if any sentence or any fragment of a sentence can be found in any letter of his which can be made use of so as to add commercial value to any publication, it cannot be expected that the word Private prefixed to that letter should be considered as preventing the recipient from giving it publicity in such form as may best promote his interests.

“ How many letters do you receive in the course of a day or a year?” said my neighbor, who writes a letter once in a while to a relation or a friend, and who gets one so rarely that his handmaiden looks at it all over and tries to peep into it, thinking something must have happened.

“ I don’t know,” I answered. “ I never counted how many I receive in a day. I never measured how many pecks I get in a month. I never weighed how many pounds I get in a year. But come, I will call up Seraphina, and take her evidence as to the number that come by the four daily mails.”

“ How many letters do I get in a day, Seraphina, on an average, — as nearly as you can tell ? ”

A pause for deliberation. “ Twinty, sir, I think; some days more.”

Seraphina ought to know, for nearly all my letters pass through her hands. That is what she said. But to draw from her answer, which I report honestly, the inference that I get six thousand letters a year, — letters, that expect answers,— would be rash. Thousands, if you will, but hardly six thousand. A business man or a politician may receive six or sixty or six hundred thousand, for aught that I know, but for a private individual six thousand would be an exorbitant number. We can afford to leave out statistics, and compromise on the fact of a very large number.

It must be remembered that I have a reading constituency which includes three generations of my own contemporaries. My reckoning is not in years, but in fractions of a century. It is longer in a retrograde direction from this day when I am writing to the time when I first began to print than it is from that time backwards to the battle of Bunker’s Hill. Half a century with half a decade to spare is a long time to be before the public. Too long, it may be, but that is not the point I wish to make just now. I am thinking of the wide range in the ages of the great procession of my fellow-mortals who have been or are with me among the living. Many young persons, as they glance along these pages, looking for the story they are in eager search of, will hardly believe that they are older than their grandfathers were when they read my earlier productions. I get letters from septuagenarians and octogenarians who were at school in the same years with myself, and from boys and girls to whom the war of the rebellion is as much a matter of old history as the siege of Troy.

Now before saying another word I wish to make the fullest acknowledgments to the kind friends, personally unknown to me, who have expressed themselves by letter with perfect freedom and unmistakable sincerity with reference to my writings and myself. I could not have believed it possible that any printed pages could have brought me so many hundreds of letters, — I will stop at hundreds, — which went to the heart because they came from the heart. It would be a shame to pass out from human companionship without the most grateful recognition of the good feeling that has prompted such numbers of men and women to address me in words which could not fail to move the sensibilities of the least susceptible lover of his kind. It is an experience I never dreamed of, encouraging in the midst of doubts, soothing after the rough handling of the antagonistic elements which none can wholly escape. It is hard for a rose to blow in a field of thistles; and to every author, great or humble, his gift is the rose which he is trying to nourish into such bloom as nature meant for it. Blessings on those who have helped it with a ray of sunshine !

I have hitherto made it a point to answer all letters of the kind I have referred to. There may be authors who receive so many that it is out of the question to take any special notice of them. It is a matter of feeling, and not of obligation, but the writers would like at least to know that their letters have reached the object of their affection or homage. If one should live to see the days when the grasshopper becomes a burden, it might be impossible even to acknowledge the receipt of letters which deserved a grateful reply. The writers of such letters may be assured that they always give pleasure, even if they bring no other response than the tears which are the luxury of worn-out poets and other sensitive natures in their days of weakness.

I have fully recognized the privilege of all persons who have an honest love and admiration for an author to tell him so by letter, and to hope for an acknowledgment without insisting upon it as a right. But there is a large and everincreasing class of persons who make demands upon one’s time and patience by no means so honestly entitled to respect. I have known so much of their exactions that I was on the point of issuing a pronunciamento defining the rights of an author in this matter, when I happened to fall upon this passage in a recent volume of Mr. Hamerton’s, entitled Human Intercourse: —

“ If a man asked me the way in the street, it would be rudeness on my part not to answer him, because the answer is easily given, and costs no appreciable time; but in written correspondence the case is essentially different. I am burdened with work; every hour, every minute, of my day is apportioned to some definite duty or necessary rest, and three strangers make use of the post to ask me questions. To answer them I must make references ; however brief the letters may be, they will still take time, — altogether, the three will consume an hour. Have these correspondents any right to expect me to work an hour for them ? Would a cabman drive them about the streets of London during an hour for nothing ? Would a waterman pull them an hour on the Thames for nothing? Would a shoe - black brush their boots and trousers an hour for nothing ? And why am I to serve these men gratuitously, and be called an ill-bred, discourteous person if I tacitly decline to he their servant ? We owe sacrifices — occasional sacrifices — of this kind to friends and relations, and we can afford them to a few, but we are under no obligation to answer everybody. Those whom we do answer may be thankful for a word on a post-card in Gladstone’s brief but sufficient fashion. I am very much of the opinion of Rudolphe in Ponsard’s L’Honneur et L’Argent. A friend asks what he does about letters: —

“ ‘ Rudolphe. Je les mets
Soigneusement en poche et ne reponds jamais.
Premier Ami. Oh, vous railliez.
Rudolphe. Non pas. Je ne puis pas admettre
Qu’un importun m’oblige à répondre à sa lettre,
Et paree qu’il lui plait de noircir du papier
Me condamne moi-même à ce facheux métier.’ ”

The commonest letters are those asking for autographs. A simple request accompanying a stamped envelope directed to the applicant, and containing the card or slip of paper to be written on, will often bring an answer. If the applicant will not take the trouble to make everything as easy as possible to the respondent, but contents himself with sending a stamp, his letter should go into the waste-basket, and the stamp be appropriated as the person thus imposed upon sees fit. The request should always be brief; the best I ever received had no length at all, being simply a blank card in a stamped and directed envelope. The number of words sometimes used to convey the applicant’s request is truly astonishing. A really important message may be expressed very briefly.

“ Master Barnardine, you must rise and be hanged, Master Barnardine, You must be so good, sir, to rise and be put to death.” This is to the point; no apologies, explanations, circumlocutions, but a plain statement of just what was wanted. Autograph letters very commonly begin, —

“DEAR SIR,I suppose you are constantly receiving ” —

Of course I am, idiot! Why don’t you say what you want, and not pester me with your proem and all the palliations of your petition? Three or four pages of note paper are not an uncommon allowance for a request of this kind. One ought not to read them, but one does not feel quite sure that there may not be some redeeming sentence.

Here is another pattern : —

“ DEAR SIR, — I am making a collection of the autographs of all the noted people of the day, and would be glad to include yours among them. I have already those of several members of the state government and other notorieties, and feel that my list is incomplete without — etc., etc. Would you kindly add to your signature the first, seventh, and twelfth verses of your poem about —” ? etc., etc.

Another formula has made its appearance of late : —

“ DEAR SIR, — As at your advanced period of life you will not, of course, write autographs much longer, I hasten to beg your immediate attention to my request.”

When my honored ancestor, Governor Thomas Dudley, was getting well on in years, some ingenious person sent him, — so Cotton Mather tells us, —the following anagram on his name : —

Thomas Dudley,

Ah, old must dye.

This was an entirely unnecessary piece of information to the old gentleman, who was fully aware of the incapacities, infirmities, and limited prospects of his over-ripe period of life without being reminded of the facts, as was shown by the poetry found in his pocket after his death. I do not know whether or not he winced under his anagram, which was probably meant to annoy him. For myself, I have answered the writers of these monitory letters like any others. I have a compassionate and kindly interest in semi-barbarians, but it is not my special business to teach them the decencies of civilized life.

The most oppressive letters one can receive are those in which young persons, evidently simple-hearted, in real need of advice, throw the whole burden of their perplexities on the individual whom, from his writings, they suppose willing and able to advise them. My experience in that line has been extensive. I am requested to lay out a whole course of literary study for persons of whom I know nothing, except the Little their letters tell me. I am frequently asked by young persons whether they had better or not devote themselves to authorship, my means of judgment being a few copies of indifferent verses or a few pages of commonplace prose. I am occasionally asked a still more important question, namely, whether my unknown friend, male or female, shall or shall not venture into the state of matrimony. I confess that I am sometimes tempted to refer my correspondent to the dialogue on the subject between Panurge and his skeptical counsellor. The idea of addressing such a question to one who is utterly unacquainted with either party is sufficiently absurd. The state of mind it induces may be illustrated by that of Panurge at the close of the following extract: —

Panurge. Shall I marry ?

Trouillogan. I have no hand in it.

Pan. Then I shall not marry ?

Trouil. I cannot help it.

Pan. Will she be discreet and virtuous ?

Trouil. I question it.

Pan. You never saw her.

Trouil. Not that I know of.

Pan. Why do you doubt of that which you know not ?

Trouil. For a cause.

Pan. And if you should know her?

Trouil. Yet more.”

At this point of the dialogue Panurge feels very much as I have felt after some of the letters I have received on the question of matrimony from candidates shivering on the brink of that condition, and doubting whether to make the plunge or not. He finds an ingenious mode of relief : —

Panurge. Page, my little pretty darling, take here my cap, — I give it to thee. Have a care you do not break the spectacles that are in it. Go down to the lower court. Swear there half an hour for me, and I shall in compensation of that favor swear hereafter for thee as much as thou wilt.”

I had no page to swear for me, so I have not indulged in that luxury, even by proxy. In fact, I have generally given the best advice I could, and may have helped to make more than one couple happy, — or miserable. But it was a question they had no right to ask, and I think I shall refer the next questioners to the dialogue between Panurge and Trouillogan.

One of my troubles is that I am often taken for an editor. Here I am at a great disadvantage, for every well-conditioned editor has under him a subordinate, sometimes called a “ taster,” or even more expressively a “ smeller,” who stands between him and the mob of candidates for admission into his pages. This intermediate personage is like the buffer that breaks the shock of meeting trains, like the breakwater that keeps the waves from the piers. I am not equipped with this and other editorial conveniences. Authors not infrequently send me their manuscripts, as if it were my business to see that they were accepted for this or that periodical.

Editors have very hard and trying work, with all the aids and safeguards which are set around them for protection. See what James Payn has to say about it; read Anthony Trollope’s tender-hearted stories of his experience with authoresses. Poor Mary Gresley, — how well I know her ! Josephine de Montmorency, — is she not an old acquaintance of mine ? How often have I found myself in the position which made dear sunny-souled and moon-faced Anthony exclaim, —

“Unfortunate man of letters, in having thrust upon him so terrible a task ! In such circumstances, what is the candid, honest, soft-hearted man of letters to do ? ' Go, girl, and mend your stockings. Learn to make a pie. If you work hard, it may be that some day your intellect will suffice you to read a book and understand it. For the writing of a book that shall either interest or instruct a brother human being many gifts are required. Have you just reason to believe that they have been given to you ? ’ ”

Mary Gresley was not treated so, nor have I ever so treated my Mary Gresleys and Josephine de Montmorencys. Too many beetles who thought themselves butterflies, blind to their own incapacity, horny-shelled in their conceit, have crossed my path or butted unceremoniously against my features. I never set my foot upon one of them so hard as to crush out all hope. But it has been a cruel test, and if some of them got a little flattened under my pressure, so as to crawl away humbled in their own self-estimate, it has cost me a pang as well as the poor beetle that I never quite trod upon. That pang I should have been spared, for I am not and never was an editor, and it is more than can be expected of me to undertake an editor’s painful duties.

Let me mention several lesser grievances. No little trouble has been given me by illegible signatures appended to letters I was ready and pleased to answer. It is rather hard, after doing one’s best to assist some unknown person who appeals for advice or aid, — after casting one’s bread upon the waters, so to speak, hoping it would reach a hungry mouth, —to have it returned, toasted brown by the clerks of the General Post-Office at Washington. Will the reader be good-natured enough to let me give him an average specimen of one of my letters of advice? Its genuineness to every syllable will speak for itself. I never expected to see it again, but after an absence of two months it came back to me, never having reached my correspondent, who was a young man at a certain number in a certain avenue of a flourishing Western city. The name of the sender was so nearly illegible that I made a facsimile of it as nearly as I could, hoping that it would be deciphered by the postmaster of the place to which it was destined. I am willing to print the letter for two reasons: first, it will show my readers that to write “twinty " letters a day on this scale would take several hours ; and secondly, because it may in this way reach the person for whom it was intended.


July 6, 1885.

MY DEAR SIR, — Your letter belongs to a class of which I receive a large number from all parts of the country. They cause me many painful feelings, for the reason that I feel kindly to the writers and am unable to help them as they wish, and, I fear too often expect.

You give me an interesting account of your struggles, which are like those of many other young men in a country where every avenue to success is crowded. You have ambition, and you find yourself in a crowd of young men just as ambitious as yourself. Many of them in former days would have taken to preaching, but in these times so much knowledge is demanded of the preacher that without a good deal of education they stand but a poor chance.

Literature is, for all but a few, a beggarly calling — hard brain-work and small pay when it brings any. I advise all my unknown friends — at least all who do not give evidence of extraordinary gifts to pursue some regular business — profession — trade or mechanical work—something to give them regular employment and regular compensation.

As to your main question, I say frankly that a man of twenty-five years old “ with a few hundred dollars and a willingness to work” might after some years of study “ win a diploma from — College. But his chance is small unless he has remarkable gifts or can devote several years to preparation, which will use up a good many hundred dollars. I dare not counsel you to make the attempt.

But — mark my words! You ask me for advice which I am no competent to give, and to which, therefore, I attach small value. The only persons fit to give you advice are those who have known and know all about you personally.

Sincerely yours,

* * *

I have not corrected this hasty letter, which was signed with my name in full, but printed it with its careless punctuation, its italics, and its blemishes, whatever they may be. It is provoking, after taking the trouble to write one of these letters of counsel, to find the signature of the person it is meant for a hieroglyph, and to have to cut it out and paste it on the envelope, or imitate it as one best may. Then to have it returned through the post-office department is decidedly annoying.

Little matters make a deal of trouble, sometimes, for busy people. There is an epidemic of pale ink raging just now, which has caused me much vexation, and made me wish I had Panurge’s little pretty darling page to give expression to my sentiments.

And now while I am unbosoming myself to the sympathetic reader, why should I not mention some of the other trials which add variety to a life that would perhaps be too pleasant without them ?

Misquotation with all its consequences is one of these lesser misfortunes. I must blame myself for the following. In copying some lines read at our last Harvard Commencement, writing them at the table, in pencil, hastily, because a newspaper reporter was pressing me, I accidentally left out half of one couplet, which was thus widowed of its rhyme, and stood alone in single unblessedness. The mutilated passage was extensively copied, and of course was stigmatized as containing a halting verse. To make it more presentable, some improver left out another line, and in this way brought two terminal words together which did not rhyme. Again I was held up to the public ; this time for my false rhyme. The Publishers’ Circular, which goes everywhere, and my good friend Punch, who is everywhere welcome, showed me up to their readers as a careless workman. The poem, which I reserved for this magazine, was there correctly printed.

Far worse than this is attributing to an author words and thoughts which he would hold himself disgraced if he had ever uttered. There is a little book called “ Don’t,” — No. 2. of the “ Parchment Paper Series,” published by the Appletons, in which, upon the 29th page, my name is mentioned in connection with a disgusting allusion which no Irish scullion would venture to make without the apologetic phrase “ saving your presence.” Who can be guilty of such shameful fabrications ? The same kind of individual as the one who wrote of me, “ * * * carries a horse-chestnut in his pocket, in full faith that it prevents rheumatism.” If I were a homœpathist, there might be some probability in such a statement, but as related of me it is not only utterly untrue, but absurdly ridiculous.

And now I am going to reproduce an article which I take from a very well printed newspaper, apparently a religious daily or weekly ; I have kept only the extract. I think it worth printing and presenting to my readers, not merely for its personal bearings, nor for the sake of contradicting it. It has a much more general and important significance. If stories like this, false in every particular, so far as I am concerned, can obtain currency, and become accepted as authentic, upon what a diet of lies the newspaper-reading American public must be fed ! I will not blush nor mince matters, but print the whole as I find it.


After men become famous as authors, we are interested to learn about their early writings. Probably all the children know that Mr. Longfellow’s first poem was about the turnip that grew behind Mr. Finney’s barn, and here is what Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes says about his first literary effort: —

“ The first article of mine that ever saw the light was a little poem of four stanzas, entitled James’s Tree. A little lad, son of the late Judge Dewey, of Massachusetts, stuck a willow twig into the ground of his father’s garden, which took root after the manner of such twigs, and grew into a tree.

“ The boy lived long euough to call this tree his own, and to secure its protection as such, and then he died. After his death I wrote the poem, and it was published in the Youth’s Companion, a publication still prosperous. I was then seventeen years old, and that was fortyfour years ago. I took the printed copy containing it from the post-office, peeped in, and then walked home on air. I shall probably never be so absorbingly happy as I was then. Earth has nothing like it — earth never had anything like it — for me. I have seen my work in type since then until I have been tired of the sight of it, but I can never forget the great joy of that occasion. Smith College, in Northampton, now stands on the site of the old Dewey place, and when they cleared things away for the new buildings they found an old gnarled willow-tree. On learning the history of the tree and the nature of my own association with it, President Seelye had a book-rack, elegantly mounted, made of it, and sent it to me. Of course it was installed among my household goods.”

Not a single word of all this bears the slightest resemblance to anything in the history of my life. The author of this account could give lessons to Baron Munchausen, whose acquaintance he is likely to make hereafter in the place already made congenial by the presence of Ananias and Sapphira. How circumstantial, how realistic, how trustworthy, it all sounds! and yet the whole story, names, places, incidents, all a mere figment ! And this is what we are all liable to, — imaginary stories of our lives sprung upon us, it may be after we are dead and gone, and nobody is left who can or will contradict the mendacious fabrication. The account above given may be true of some other person, and have been transferred to me as a matter of convenience to the writer, who had taken me as his subject for an article. It is a mighty handy way of writing a memoir, but a dangerous one. If the biographer of Saint John is at liberty to help out his manuscript by the use of incidents from the life of Saint Judas applied to the Evangelist, it tends to throw discredit on that class of literary performances.

Just as I am writing these last sentences the morning mail brings me a second letter from a well-known London publisher, urging me to write my autobiography. I do not threaten anything of the kind at present, but if I should live through my threescore-and-teens into the next round number, I might be tempted to do it, seeing how terribly other people lie about myself and the rest of us.

Oliver Wendell Holmes.