Letters of Mark

Letters . . . are of several kinds. First, there are those which are not letters at all, as letters patent, letters dimissory, letters enclosing bills . . . letters of marque, and letters generally, which are in no wise letters of mark. [Lowell’s The Biglow Papers, First Series, No. VII.]

“ODD people write odd letters,” was the unanswerable assertion of that else forgotten essayist, Bishop Thorold, — forgotten, even though his Presence of Christ went through twenty editions in his lifetime. Be this as it may, it is true of all of us that the letter represents the man, odd or even. It is, indeed, more absolutely the man, in one sense, than he himself is, for the man himself is inevitably changing, beyond his own control, from moment to moment, from birth to death; but the letter, once written, is an instantaneous photograph and stays forever unchanged. Litera scripta manet. If sincere, it is irrevocable, if insincere it is equally so; and however artfully executed, it may be read between the lines, some time or other, and its hidden meaning unveiled. Let us by all means, therefore, devote a few pages to the odd letters.

The following letter is one of a class which every American journalist or magazinist, whose name becomes tolerably familiar to the public, may reasonably expect to receive every month or two. This arrived many years ago; and the daughter of this writer may well be addressing, by this time, some younger author in an equally confiding spirit. No other nationality, perhaps, would produce such a letter, and yet this obviously came from a thoroughly honest and simple soul whose frankness was its own defense.

— OHIO, 10, 27, ’84.
DEAR SIR, — I am one of your girl admirers. I am! I know you’re sedate and grandfatherly and such an announcement wont startle you a bit! . . . We have one of your books in the circulating library in town, we always have read your articles — when I wore a bib I’d read them in Our Young Folks. . . .
Oh, I did forget the object of my call — I want to be reading a good history of Ireland and Scotland this winter. Please suggest what is best. I want nothing dry nor pokey ; whatever you approve will suit me ’cause you’re so folksy! I would enjoy Irish legends and superstitions.
When my ship comes in I’m going to Europe, ah, thereby hangs a tale! my folks smile whenever the subject comes up. Once upon a time I nearly got a legacy! Why did n’t I get it ? A childless old widower in his dotage made a will giving to four girls his gilders. I was one of ’em, just as he was about to “shuffle off” — a little widow, bright and black eyed, inveigled the widdy man into a marriage and she got my “noble six hundred!”
And since he died this pesky widow, this scheming Vivian is on the track again a-trying to get into the good graces of one of my admirers!
The legacy business was a surprise to us girls and it did no harm, we all have homes and plenty, so I’ll just go on being smiling and help rheumatic-y old men in wheel chairs across rough places in pavements and will get to Europe on my own cash. . . .
Please find enclosed a stamp for reply — and don’t be shocked at my wild Western ways —
Your Girl friend.

Another letter, proceeding from a different temperament and from a much remoter source, indicates the graver and still more daring spirit which was ready, even in what was then almost wilderness, to write Gibbon’s Roman Empire or any other task demanding such a library as scarcely Washington or New York or Boston could then afford.

—DAKOTA, NOV. 13, 1886.
DEAR SIR, — In one of the Chicago papers (I have mislaid the article) I saw you quoted as saying that the field of literary work was almost, or quite, destitute of women who could write a really scholarly article on any given, or assigned subject. I may be unequal to the task, and I have not a Library of any size to consult on such subjects, but I would like to try. I am capable of study and have an easy pen. A little direction may be worth a good deal to me.
Very Resp’ly.
But from an Eastern metropolis itself came this more practical appeal with a view to business only.

NEW YORK CITY, Feb. 25, 1885.
DEAR SIR, — I am desirous of securing a humerous lecture for a lady to deliver through N. Y. State & possibly some in the West. I saw the notice of your lecture “ New England Vagabond” in the Boston Papers & write to ask you if the same can be secured. If so upon what terms. I conclude from the title that it is humerous; is it not ? Yours truly.
Then comes an appeal from the outer edge of literature, with the advantage of a foreign atmosphere and a picturesque name. Having afterwards met the author, I can testify to his fine personal appearance and to a power of gesture such as to suggest the necessity of those strictly pocketed hands demanded by his “pantomimeless friends.” Alas! what budding orator fails to find himself liable to repression by such friendship ?

—Jan. 15th, 1900.
MY DEAR SIR, — I beg of you as a stranger, that I may be the recipient of your encouragement in my efforts to pronounce the words of Shakespeare.
I am beginning the study of some of the works of the Master and that from a dramatic standpoint, and “ I see in them more than mortal knowledge.”
I write you sir as a patron of learning and as a helper of young men that I may be given the opportunity to, if possible, give a reading of one hour’s duration at your home for the sum of $10.
Although being of a Syrian origin and have the Arabic for my mother tongue, yet “ I have a mind that pressages me such thrift that I should questionless be fortunate,” and I “Do now feel the future in the instant.”
Permit me to state that I have the idea to excute after two years study six of the master-pieces of the Master word for word and to reproduce the same with the aid of illustrations upon the screen and if possible to use moving characters to be taken from casts set for the purpose. This would in itself be an atraction in making Shakespeare more popular even with the use of my voice to speak the parts of all characters as they appear on the canvas.
At present I have two plays almost assimilated and registred in my memory and from these I would use portions if privileged by you some evening in the future (near ?).
I think I am possessed with the requisits, that of voice and the dramatic instinct, coupled with a pair of strong lungs to propell the necessary atmosphere to the character living in my mind, whether it be that of Hamlet, Shylock, Portia or that of a clown.
I am told that my physical make up is very responsive to my imagination by way of movement and action, and it is so much so that I have to pocket my hands inorder to conform myself to the pantomimeless friends here.
I crave again your pardon for obtruding myself on your kindness, and with best wishes and Salaam
I am most respectfully yours.
It is more plaintive still, perhaps, when a man of genuine and simple purpose, having previously written to ask counsel as to books for his grandchildren, comes back four years later for a plan and “ Spesefacations” to aid in building him a tanyard for those same grandchildren, in which the “difrent helps” may be put in “the most conviniant placeses.” Where, but in America, one asks, are the different pursuits of literature and life brought so frankly and honestly together with compensation guaranteed in advance ?

— PA. November 19, 1886.
I am sending thus at a ventur I was so suscesful in geting Books through you so sutabel for my grandchildren in 1882.
I am bilding a tanyerd in houp that it may bi run by my grandsons. 40 by 100. intended to have atachments.
I want a plan and Spesefacations in Book pamflat or leflet form that wil gide the man that is Bidding the house in puting down the vats, and placing the difrent helps at ther levels, and most conviniant placeses.
whatever information you can help mi to I will pay for in advance, if you wish.
your Servt.
When to these elements of utter frankness in thought and freshness of words is added the fearless mixture of two distinct languages in spelling, we come upon a new ground of interest, as seen in the following letter, addressed by a young German sculptress to a lady of my household. It is to be explained that she who wrote it had been making some preliminary attempts at modeling in plaster the head of one of the family.

DEAR MADAM, — You will kindly excuse dat I take the liberty to writh to you, but my clay was ready as far as I could do it last Fryday and it is so hard to keep it moist without spoiling it dat I dont know what to do. I fully understand dat Mr —is verry bussy whit his work and so I dit not like to bodder him with my littel afairs.
So you would do me a great favor if you would find out when I could see him, if only 15 minutes. I faund it such a hard job to make the lykniss ennywhere near to south [suit] me, becous in my minds eye I had his picture . . . and the photograph dont souths [suit] me because it dont give him credit.
When I cam home from your house, I washet the littel catpiece whit soap and whater and it becum quit white and niece, so would yours, if you would just try.
I put one of my cards in for the adress in case you should be so kind to writh and oblige
Your respectfully.
For the literary man especially, the phrase “to writh” is clearly more vigorous and expressive than “to write” and often represents the same process; especially when the writer is painted at the very climax of toil, and is described as “verry bussy whit his work.” What the “littel catpiece ” was, is now lost to memory, but it is something to know that when “washet whit soap and whater” it “becum quit white and niece.” Note throughout, also, the absence of all mere illiteracy in the spelling of this letter, a document which simply lies in some zone, halfway between some other language and our own, resulting in a consistent and uniform dialect, only half spoiled into English.
As a sample of a really vigorous, but somewhat untrained American mind, with its multitude of momentous things to be said and nothing longer than a possible sentence to say them in, — this letter from an unseen correspondent in a remote Western region will suffice. We may picture her as the kind and well-to-do adviser to her neighbors, who seek her in market wagons to enquire of her how to regain supposed bequests in far-off lands; even she being unable to find for them any refuge but in what she describes as “ Carnage. ”

MY DEAR FRIEND, — This is all one letter, a part of the last, when I got to writing about that immaginary old gentleman, that would be to old to care anything about waiting if he was older than I am, I forgot what I wished to say and that is about English lawyers, do you know of one who could attend to some business for my neighbors, this place is out of the way we have no railroads and are not connected with the city only by market wagons, we do not know any thing here, I am the only one who has been abroad and they come to me for advice about their property who know nothing about lawyers. I have one a young man who manages my estate, and I told him to write for my neighbors to Mr B— who is consul to Liverpool as I know his wife, and ask for a Lawyer for my neighbors who wish to get some money from the Bank of England, the Bank having written that it was left there by their grandfather for them. Mr. B—wrote the name of a firm, and my lawyer wrote to them to see how much money there was in the bank for them as he did not think it could be as many millions as they thought, now the lawyer answered and said he had looked the chancery and there was no estate for the—there, of course there was not, he was never told to look the chancery, what would you think of a lawyer like that, you who are noted for knowledge ought to know, and then the Bank of England wrote to know the title of the old man who lived so long ago in this neighborhood, and then my young lawyer did not know what to do, and I thought of asking you for an English lawyer of sense. Some money in this neighborhood might get us a library for the High School. I have given the land and the house is built, these farmers ought to have a library, how could we get in touch with Carnage, or some other of that generous kind of people.
No really illiterate letters will ever be so dear to my heart, or even afford such suggestive studies as to the way in which written language first unfolds itself, as those received when I was in charge of a camp of nearly a thousand freed slaves, nine tenths of whom were making their early efforts toward the employment of written words. The simplicity and directness of the process, the seeming hopelessness of the result, the new suggestions conveyed as to phonetic methods of spelling, the absolute daring with which nouns and verbs were combined, made all mere common school instruction appear commonplace beside these. The writer of the following epistle, Baltimore Chaplin, was one of those picturesque vagabonds who are to be found in all regiments, white or black, and who are apt to make themselves more interesting to their senior officers than those leading lives of more monotonous virtue. He had been, it would seem, arrested for some offense, and probably with undue violence. The letter was addressed to the commander of the Department, and I believe it soon turned out that the writer had been, for once, unjustly suspected, and must be set at liberty. As I recur to the epistle after nearly forty years have passed, there is a certain fascination in tracing the successive efforts to make the untutored pen express the untrained ear, thus giving forth sounds new in their combination and sometimes more expressive than tones achieved under the full rigors of grammar and dictionary. The wildness of all peril appears thus concentrated into the word “ Somharme” and the refuge for all safety into the word " Gorhome; " while the union of these two words in one sentence seems to reach the acme of all desolation. I have ventured to elucidate the letter by translating phrases within brackets, wherever the unaided comprehension would seem hopeless, which is, indeed, quite often.

March 22 [1864].
DEAR GENRAL GILMOR I tak my [pen to] Root [write] you this to you And Do if you Plas [please] to Grant this Parden For me For God Sak Did not Now [know] that it Twas enen Harm for my Go home But I find that Twas Somharme For me to Gorhome But Do Genral Do If you Plas to Parden And forgev me
For All that Pat [is put] agant me for God Sak Do if you Plas to Relefe Me for God Sak for I Went home And the Sen [they sent] After me And I Saw the Copprol When he Com And he told me that I is His Priner [Prisoner] And But ten Sake [seconds] from after I Semet [submit] to Him as Privner he Shot Me Do if Ples [please] to Grant this for me
This is retted [written] By the hand of Baltimore Chaplin
Do by the mercy of god Grat [Grant] this for Me Do Genral for God Sak To Parden And forgiev me.
The path back to the accustomed orthography and grammar may perhaps best be traced by this letter, written by a man in the same regiment, of much higher quality, whose intellectual progress showed itself at this stage, as often happens, by an undue range of sonorous words. I am sorry that the document does not contain his more accustomed signature, which was absolutely original and of the most dignified and even stately quality. Having been the very first colored soldier enlisted in the Civil War, he had created a title as genuine and substantial as that of any mediæval baron; and usually signed himself “William Brunson, 1st Sergeant, Co. A., 1st S. C. Vols. also A: 1, African Foundations.” This is one of his letters:

AT CAMP SAXTON Feb. 20th 63
MY DEAR COLONEL I hav inform in here About so doing: According to the different in rule in wish how: I stand now: for I dont know if it is Right for me to hav one of the Armies Regulation Books: so sir that is the reason I had come to you to know: and if you think that it is right for me to have one I Like to have one: if it cost me one Month wages: for I Am withness [witness] that it will in Prove and give me A withness: in so doing: it from sergt Wm Brunson Co A.

If to his function of literary man, poor but patient, an author adds that of being constantly confounded with a relative who is always originating large enterprises and backing them up munificently, he is liable to receive such letters as the following, which came several years since through the post office from Poonah, India. This letter was addressed in a handwriting which had, so to say, an Arabic flavor, and the address ran thus: “— Hinginson, the great lord of Boston , Boston through Italy. " Straying into the Cambridge post office, it was handed to me, and no stretch of humility could be expected to preclude me from the privilege of opening it. The letter itself was very long, and after describing business calamities, the death of a wife,etc., it thus goes on: —
“To my great misfortune this genarous uncle died Since a month and my aunt soon urges me to take away my family. This is a great difficulty I ever experienced. Money requires to settle my house again, which I have none. I asked the protection of many great men of my own cast as well as Europions, but to my evil star they all have closed their ears against me. I had heard much about the kind and generous feelings of your Americans & I have read one fresh example of your own generosity & I beg from you a protection of £50 fifty to enable me to bring my family here & commence busyness honestly. Will it please God to raise me up again and make me prosperous, I will return your amount honestly, otherwise only gratify myself by ever remembering your kind generocity and pray God to grant you a long life and prosperity. Wishing you all the worldly blessings
Honored Sir,
Your most
To my perhaps too hardened ears, the gem of this whole letter is unquestionably to be found in the word “otherwise,” which occurs near the close. Never before, I think, was it my lot to read a letter asking for a loan of money and intimating one instant’s doubt as to the repayment. If there is a point at which hope springs eternal in the breast of the most lagging debtor, it is this. Had I vast sums in my pocket, yearning to be loaned, I think that the recipient whom I should prefer to all others would be the man who had the stern integrity to hint at one atom of doubt as to my seeing my money again.