Letters of Introduction
EXCEPTING in those rare cases when the person who gives me a letter of introduction is rude enough to seal it, I make a regular practice of reading the letter before presenting it. The morality of such an act is unquestionably low; its practical value, on the other hand, is almost as unquestionably high. There are times, indeed, when such a reading is an indispensable precautionary measure. The necessity of caution in these matters was profoundly impressed upon me early in my experience with such letters. It was at the end of my term as a student at Oxford; before going down I was desirous of selling what remained of my Ford, and this fact was generally known among the other Americans. One morning in the front hall of my ‘digs’ I met two fellow countrymen who seemed to be inquiring for me. It appeared that they had just come to England for the summer. They extended a note on which I recognized the handwriting of one of the Rhodes scholars of my year. It read:—
Here are two suckers for the Ford, Try thirty pounds.
I sold them the car, but I felt that the thirty pounds was not the only profit I gained from the transaction, and since becoming a foreign correspondent I have come to regard this as perhaps the most important incident in my education.
There is really everything to be said for reading such letters, even when they are less pointed than that Oxford one. To begin with, it is wise to know what one is being introduced as, especially if a tendency to be a Jack-ofall-trades has been somewhat pronounced in one’s immediate past. For example, think of the rapid inner adjustment which must be effected if the person to whom you have been introduced looks sternly at you and says, ‘I understand that your previous work has dealt primarily with statistical research,’ when what you wanted to talk to him about was certain aspects of foreign literature.
The purpose of letters of introduction is after all to facilitate a first meeting. It is consequently necessary to inspect them in order to see whether they are so written as to fulfill their end. Take the all-too-common kind that reads somewhat as follows: —
DEAR N. —
This is to introduce to you my dear friend H. Blank, who is going to spend the next three weeks in Berlin. I am delighted to have the opportunity of bringing you two together, for I am sure you will find it a pleasure to know each other.
Now there is no real reason why N. should stare at me with the doubtful offishness that such a letter patently demands. If B. is fundamentally a nice person, why is it not better to drop the letter into the wastebasket and write N., saying that B. has given me a letter, which I unfortunately seem to have misplaced, but could he perhaps find time to have lunch with me on Thursday ? Then we can meet like human beings, with at least fifty-fifty chances of congeniality.
When in foreign lands, I have found it wise to be sure that a letter really reaches its destination. I recently had a letter to an important Herr Geheimrat in a German city. I sent it and was asked to confirm the appointment given me in writing. I promptly mailed a note, and appeared, bright and expectant, the second morning after. The concierge took my name. Three quarters of an hour passed, during the last twenty minutes of which I carried on a struggle between my personal dignity and my desire for the information which the Herr Geheimrat could give me. Finally I went back to the concierge to tell him I was leaving. There on his desk I saw my note, unopened. I inquired. Aha, was that mine? he asked with a gleam of triumph . ‘Ich habe ihm nicht abgeliefert — I have not delivered it because there was insufficient postage.’ And then I discovered that in the dark of the pension the maid had given me a fivepfennig stamp instead of an eight.
On the whole, it seems to me that the modem method of long-distance introductions compares unfavorably with that of the past. When the Florentine merchant slipped a ring from his finger and placed it upon yours, one of two things happened. Either the ring contained poison and you died, or the ring embodied all of the intangibles of the situation from which you came, and you entered into the life of the city to which you journeyed fully and without explanations. The written word is not nearly as adequate as the ring for achieving either of these ends. If its purpose is to poison you, death by interview is certainly a more long-drawn-out and public agony than the swift pang and subsequent oblivion of Borgian days. And if its purpose is to create an understanding between you and the person to whom you go, its incompleteness is equally pronounced.
Under the ring system you clattered in on horseback, asked the question which theownerof the ring directed you to ask, or delivered the message you brought, and were gone. Everything was assumed in order to expedite the essential. The letter system, on the contrary, assures a preliminary fifteen minutes of utter tediousness for everyone concerned. If you are meeting as friend to friend, it is necessary to compare notes on the circumstances under which each of you met Tommy; if you are meeting as representatives of firms, you must feel each other out by studiously discussing the irrelevancies of the market . At least a quarter of an hour must go by before you can say, ‘Well, the point on which I hoped you could tell me something is this.’ We who talk of the directness of modern methods might do well to reflect upon this waste.
The mediæval ring seems to me better in every respect than the modern letter; compare the two even from the standpoint of one who gathers introductions without presenting them — who would not rather have a collection of signets than one of autographs? Yet I would not have us revert too far to the methods of antiquity. I have recently heard of the Assyrian system of long-distance introductions, which seems to have been the most highly developed of all, but which appears to me to contain obvious dangers. The Assyrians had little cylinders cut out of semiprecious stones. Each of these was strung on a stout string; the merchant selected one and sent you with it to his friend, just as his Italian successor sent you with the ring. But the cylinder had this peculiarity — the inscriptions cut into its surface served not only to identify the merchant, but to describe you by means of a private code. Now this may have been desirable from the standpoint of the sender, but what of the bearer of such missives? If that had been my Assyrian calling, what would have become of my rule to read twice before presenting? I can picture myself sitting in the desert under the single available palm, turning the cylinder round and round, and trying to decipher whether the figure describing me was the sun shining brightly on one segment of the polished surface or the four-legged animal with an arrow in its heart on the other. In the face of such implications, the modern situation becomes suddenly bearable.