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Monday, November 26, 2018

When Genius Remained Your Humble Servant

Guest Blogger Dept.: Here’s Robert Benchley, back to set us straight about the travails of correspondence, which clearly was in a parlous state even in those dark old pre-e-mail days.


OF COURSE, I REALLY KNOW NOTHING ABOUT IT, but I would be willing to wager that the last words of Penelope, as Odysseus bounced down the front steps, bag in hand, were: “Now, don't forget to write, Odie. You'll find some papyrus rolled up in your clean peplum, and just drop me a line on it whenever you get a chance.”

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
And ever since that time people have been promising to write, and then explaining why they haven’t written. Most personal correspondence of to-day consists of letters the first half of which are given over to an indexed statement of reasons why the writer hasn’t written before, followed by one paragraph of small talk, with the remainder devoted to reasons why it is imperative that the letter be brought to a close. So many people begin their letters by saying that they have been rushed to death during the last month, and therefore haven’t found time to write, that one wonders where all the grown persons come from who attend movies at eleven in the morning. There has been a misunderstanding of the word “busy” somewhere.

So explanatory has the method of letter writing become that it is probable that if Odysseus were a modern traveler his letters home to Penelope would average something like this:

Friday afternoon.

DEAR PEN:—I have been so tied up with work during the last week that I haven’t had a chance to get near a desk to write to you. I have been trying to every day, but something would come up just at the last minute that would prevent me. Last Monday I got the papyrus all unrolled, and then I had to tend to Scylla and Charybdis (I may have written you about them before), and by the time I got through with them it was bedtime, and, believe me, I am snatching every bit of sleep I can get these days. And so it went, first the Læstrygones, and then something else, and here it is Friday. Well, there isn’t much news to write about. Things are going along here about as usual. There is a young nymph here who seems to own the place, but I haven’t had any chance to meet her socially. Well, there goes the ship’s bell. I guess I had better be bringing this to a close. I have got a lot of work to do before I get dressed to go to a dinner of that nymph I was telling you about. I have met her brother, and he and I are interested in the same line of goods. He was at Troy with me. Well, I guess I must be closing. Will try to get off a longer letter in a day or two.

Your loving husband,

P.S.—You haven’t got that bunch of sports hanging round the palace still, have you? Tell Telemachus I’ll take him out of school if I hear of his playing around with any of them.

BUT THERE WAS A TIME when letter writing was such a fad, especially among the young girls, that if they had had to choose between eating three meals a day and writing a letter they wouldn’t have given the meals even a consideration. In fact, they couldn’t do both, for the length of maidenly letters in those days precluded any time out for meals. They may have knocked off for a few minutes during the heat of the day for a whiff at a bottle of salts, but to nibble at anything heartier than lettuce would have cramped their style.

Take Miss Clarissa Harlowe, for instance. In Richardson’s book (which, in spite of my personal aversion to it, has been hailed by every great writer, from Pope to Stevenson, as being perfectly bully) she is given the opportunity of telling 2,400 closely printed pages full of story by means of letters to her female friend, Miss Howe (who plays a part similar to the orchestra leader in Frank Tinney’s act). And 2,400 pages is nothing to her. When the book closes she is just beginning to get her stride. As soon as she got through with that she probably sat down and wrote a series of letters to the London papers about the need for conscription to fight the Indians in America.

To a girl like Clarissa, in the middle of the eighteenth century, no day was too full of horrors, no hour was too crowded with terrific happenings to prevent her from seating herself at a desk (she must have carried the desk about with her, strapped over her shoulder) and tearing off twenty or thirty pages to Friend Anna, telling her all about it. The only way that I can see in which she could accomplish this so efficiently would be to have a copy boy standing at her elbow, who took the letter, sheet by sheet, as she wrote it, and dashed with it to the printer.

It is hard to tell just which a girl of that period considered more important, the experiences she was writing of or the letter itself. She certainly never slighted the letter. If the experience wanted to overtake her, and jump up on the desk beside her, all right, but, experience or no experience, she was going to get that letter in the next post or die in the attempt. Unfortunately, she never died in the attempt.

Thus, an attack on a young lady’s house by a band of cutthroats, resulting in the burning of the structure and her abduction, might have been told of in the eighteenth century letter system as follows:

Monday night.

SWEET ANNA:—At this writing I find myself in the most horrible circumstance imaginable. Picture to yourself, if you can, my dear Anna, a party of villainous brigands, veritable cutthroats, all of them, led by a surly fellow in green alpaca with white insertion, breaking their way, by very force, through the side of your domicile, like so many ugly intruders, and threatening you with vile imprecations to make you disclose the hiding place of the family jewels. If the mere thought of such a contingency is painful to you, my beloved Anna, consider what it means to me, your delicate friend, to whom it is actually happening at this very minute! For such is in very truth the situation which is disclosing itself in my room as I write. Not three feet away from me is the odious person before described. Now he is threatening me with renewed vigor! Now he has placed his coarse hands on my throat, completely hiding the pearl necklace which papa brought me from Epsom last summer, and which you, and also young Pindleson (whose very name I mention with a blush), have so often admired. But more of this later, and until then, believe me, my dear Anna, to be

Your ever distressed and affectionate

Monday night. Later.

DEAREST ANNA:—Now, indeed, it is evident, my best, my only friend, that I am face to face with the bitterest of fates. You will remember that in my last letter I spoke to you of a party of unprincipled knaves who were invading my apartment. And now do I find that they have, in furtherance of their inexcusable plans, set fire to that portion of the house which lies directly behind this, so that as I put my pen to paper the flames are creeping, like hungry creatures of some sort, through the partitions and into this very room, so that did I esteem my safety more than my correspondence with you, my precious companion, I should at once be making preparation for immediate departure. O my dear! To be thus seized, as I am at this very instant, by the unscrupulous leader of the band and carried, by brute force, down the stairway through the butler’s pantry and into the servants’ hall, writing as I go, resting my poor paper on the shoulder of my detested abductor, is truly, you will agree, my sweet Anna, a pitiable episode.

Adieu, my intimate friend.

Your obt. s’v’t,

ONE WONDERS (or, at least, I wonder, and that is sufficient for the purposes of this article) what the letter writing young lady of that period would have done had she lived in this day of postcards showing the rocks at Scipawisset or the Free Public Library in East Tarvia. She might have used them for some of her shorter messages, but I rather doubt it. The foregoing scene could hardly have been done justice to on a card bearing the picture of the Main Street of the town, looking north from the Soldiers’ Monument, with the following legend:

“Our house is the third on the left with the lilac bush. Cross marks window where gang of rough-necks have just broken in and are robbing and burning the house. Looks like a bad night. Wish you were here. C.H.”

Drawing by Gluyas Williams
No; that would never have done, but it would have been a big relief for the postilion, or whoever it was that had to carry Miss Clarissa’s effusions to their destination. The mail on Monday morning, after a springlike Sunday, must have been something in the nature of a wagon load of rolls of news print that used to be seen standing in front of newspaper offices in the good old days when newspapers were printed on paper stock. Of course, the postilion had the opportunity of whiling away the time between stations by reading some of the spicier bits in the assortment, but even a postilion must have had his feelings, and a man can’t read that kind of stuff all of the time, and still keep his health.

Of course, there are a great many people now who write letters because they like to. Also, there are some who do it because they feel that they owe it to posterity and to their publishers to do so. As soon as a man begins to sniff a chance that he may become moderately famous he is apt to brush up on his letter writing and never send anything out that has not been polished and proof-read, with the idea in mind that some day some one is going to get all of his letters together and make a book of them. Apparently, most great men whose letters have been published have had premonition of their greatness when quite young, as their childish letters bear the marks of careful and studied attention to publicity values. One can almost imagine the budding genius, aged eight, sitting at his desk and saying to himself:

I must not forget that I am now going through the ‘Sturm und Drang’ period.

“In this spontaneous letter to my father I must not forget that I am now going through the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) period of my youth and that this letter will have to be grouped by the compiler under the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) section in my collected letters. I must therefore keep in the key and quote only such of my favorite authors as will contribute to the effect. I think I will use Werther to-day.... My dear Father”—etc.

I have not known many geniuses in their youth, but I have had several youths pointed out to me by their parents as geniuses, and I must confess that I have never seen a letter from any one of them that differed greatly from the letters of a normal boy, unless perhaps they were spelled less accurately. Given certain uninteresting conditions, let us say, at boarding school, and I believe that the average bright boy’s letter home would read something in this fashion:

Exeter, N.H.,
Wed., April 25.


I have been working pretty hard this week, studying for a history examination, and so haven’t had much of a chance to write to you. Everything is about the same as usual here, and there doesn’t seem to be much news to write to you about. The box came all right, and thank you very much. All the fellows liked it, especially the little apple pies. Thank you very much for sending it. There hasn’t much been happening here since I wrote you last week. I had to buy a new pair of running drawers, which cost me fifty cents. Does that come out of my allowance? Or will you pay for it? There doesn’t seem to be any other news. Well, there goes the bell, so I guess I will be closing.

Your loving son,

GIVEN THE SAME, even less interesting conditions, and a boy such as Stevenson must have been (judging from his letters) could probably have delivered himself of this, and more, too:

The Tenth.

DEAR PATER:—To-day has been unbelievably exquisite! Great, undulating clouds, rolling in serried formation across a sky of pure lapis lazuli. I feel like what Updike calls a “myrmidon of unhesitating amplitude.” And a perfect gem of a letter from Toto completed the felicitous experience. You would hardly believe, and yet you must, in your cœur des cœurs, know, that the brown, esoteric hills of this Oriental retreat affect me like the red wine of Russilon, and, indigent as I am in these matters, I cannot but feel that you have, as Herbert says:

“Carve or discourse; do not a famine fear.
Who carves is kind to two, who talks to all.”

Yesterday I saw a little native boy, a veritable boy of the streets, playing at a game at once so naïve and so resplendent that I was irresistibly drawn to its contemplation. You will doubtless jeer when I tell you. He was tossing a small blatch, such as grow in great profusion here, to and fro between himself and the wall of the limple. I was stunned for the moment, and then I realized that I was looking into the very soul of the peasantry, the open stigma of the nation. How queer it all seemed! Did it not?

You doubtless think me an ungrateful fellow for not mentioning the delicious assortment of goodies which came, like melons to Artemis, to this benighted gesellschaft on Thursday last. They were devoured to the last crumb, and I was reminded as we ate, like so many wurras, of those lines of that gorgeous Herbert, of whom I am so fond:

“Must all be veiled, while he that reads divines,
Catching the sense at two removes?”

The breeze is springing up, and it brings to me messages of the open meadows of Litzel, deep festooned with the riot of gloriannas. How quiet they seem to me as I think of them now! How emblematic! Do you know, my dear Parent, that I sometimes wonder if, after all, it were not better to dream, and dream ... and dream.

Your affectionate son,

SO DON’T WORRY about your boy if he writes home like that. He may simply have an eye for fame and future compilation.

– Robert Benchley, New York Tribune, 29 April 1917, part V, pg. 2.

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