Personality Letters: The Americanization of Edward Bok Chapter 19

Edward Bok was always interested in the manner in which personality was expressed in letters. For this reason he adopted, as a boy, the method of collecting not mere autographs, but letters characteristic of their writers which should give interesting insight into the most famous men and women of the day. He secured what were really personality letters.

One of these writers was Mark Twain. The humorist was not kindly disposed toward autograph collectors, and the fact that in this case the collector aimed to raise the standard of the hobby did not appease him. Still, it brought forth a characteristic letter:

“I hope I shall not offend you; I shall certainly say nothing with the intention to offend you. I must explain myself, however, and I will do it as kindly as I can. What you ask me to do, I am asked to do as often as one-half dozen times a week. Three hundred letters a year! One’s impulse is to freely consent, but one’s time and necessary occupations will not permit it. There is no way but to decline in all cases, making no exceptions, and I wish to call your attention to a thing which has probably not occurred to you, and that is this: that no man takes pleasure in exercising his trade as a pastime. Writing is my trade, and I exercise it only when I am obliged to. You might make your request of a doctor, or a builder, or a sculptor, and there would be no impropriety in it, but if you asked either of those for a specimen of his trade, his handiwork, he would be justified in rising to a point of order. It would never be fair to ask a doctor for one of his corpses to remember him by.


At another time, after an interesting talk with Mark Twain, Bok wrote an account of the interview, with the humorist’s permission. Desirous that the published account should be in every respect accurate, the manuscript was forwarded to Mark Twain for his approval. This resulted in the following interesting letter:


“No, no—it is like most interviews, pure twaddle, and valueless.

“For several quite plain and simple reasons, an ‘interview’ must, as a rule, be an absurdity. And chiefly for this reason: it is an attempt to use a boat on land, or a wagon on water, to speak figuratively. Spoken speech is one thing, written speech is quite another. Print is a proper vehicle for the latter, but it isn’t for the former. The moment ‘talk’ is put into print you recognize that it is not what it was when you heard it; you perceive that an immense something has disappeared from it. That is its soul. You have nothing but a dead carcass left on your hands. Color, play of feature, the varying modulations of voice, the laugh, the smile, the informing inflections, everything that gave that body warmth, grace, friendliness, and charm, and commended it to your affection, or at least to your tolerance, is gone, and nothing is left, but a pallid, stiff and repulsive cadaver.

“Such is ‘talk,’ almost invariably, as you see it lying in state in an ‘interview.’ The interviewer seldom tries to tell one how a thing was said; he merely puts in the naked remark, and stops there. When one writes for print, his methods are very different. He follows forms which have but little resemblance to conversation, but they make the reader understand what the writer is trying to convey. And when the writer is making a story, and finds it necessary to report some of the talk of his characters, observe how cautiously and anxiously he goes at that risky and difficult thing:

“‘If he had dared to say that thing in my presence,’ said Alfred, taking a mock heroic attitude, and casting an arch glance upon the company, ‘blood would have flowed.’

“‘If he had dared to say that thing in my presence,’ said Hawkwood, with that in his eye which caused more than one heart in that guilty assemblage to quake, ‘blood would have flowed.’

“‘If he had dared to say that thing in my presence,’ said the paltry blusterer, with valor on his tongue and pallor on his lips, ‘blood would have flowed.’

“So painfully aware is the novelist that naked talk in print conveys no meaning, that he loads, and often overloads, almost every utterance of his characters with explanations and interpretations. It is a loud confession that print is a poor vehicle for ‘talk,’ it is a recognition that uninterpreted talk in print would result in confusion to the reader, not instruction.

“Now, in your interview you have certainly been most accurate, you have set down the sentences I uttered as I said them. But you have not a word of explanation; what my manner was at several points is not indicated. Therefore, no reader can possibly know where I was in earnest and where I was joking; or whether I was joking altogether or in earnest altogether. Such a report of a conversation has no value. It can convey many meanings to the reader, but never the right one. To add interpretations which would convey the right meaning is a something which would require—what? An art so high and fine and difficult that no possessor of it would ever be allowed to waste it on interviews.

“No; spare the reader and spare me; leave the whole interview out; it is rubbish. I wouldn’t talk in my sleep if I couldn’t talk better than that.

“If you wish to print anything, print this letter; it may have some value, for it may explain to a reader here and there why it is that in interviews as a rule men seem to talk like anybody but themselves.

“Sincerely yours,


The Harpers had asked Bok to write a book descriptive of his autograph-letter collection, and he had consented. The propitious moment, however, never came in his busy life. One day he mentioned the fact to Doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes and the poet said: “Let me write the introduction for it.” Bok, of course, eagerly accepted, and within a few days he received the following, which, with the book, never reached publication:

“How many autograph writers have had occasion to say with the Scotch trespasser climbing his neighbor’s wall, when asked where he was going

Bok again!’

“Edward Bok has persevered like the widow in scripture, and the most obdurate subjects of his quest have found it for their interest to give in, lest by his continual coming he should weary them. We forgive him; almost admire him for his pertinacity; only let him have no imitators. The tax he has levied must not be imposed a second time.

“An autograph of a distinguished personage means more to an imaginative person than a prosaic looker-on dreams of. Along these lines ran the consciousness and the guiding will of Napoleon, or Washington, of Milton or Goethe.

“His breath warmed the sheet of paper which you have before you. The microscope will show you the trail of flattened particles left by the tesselated epidermis of his hand as it swept along the manuscript. Nay, if we had but the right developing fluid to flow over it, the surface of the sheet would offer you his photograph as the light pictured it at the instant of writing.

“Look at Mr. Bok’s collection with such thoughts, …and you will cease to wonder at his pertinacity and applaud the conquests of his enthusiasm.

“Oliver Wendell Holmes.”

Whenever biographers of the New England school of writers have come to write of John Greenleaf Whittier, they have been puzzled as to the scanty number of letters and private papers left by the poet. This letter, written to Bok, in comment upon a report that the poet had burned all his letters, is illuminating:

“Dear Friend:

“The report concerning the burning of my letters is only true so far as this: some years ago I destroyed a large collection of letters I had received not from any regard to my own reputation, but from the fear that to leave them liable to publicity might be injurious or unpleasant to the writers or their friends. They covered much of the anti-slavery period and the War of the Rebellion, and many of them I knew were strictly private and confidential. I was not able at the time to look over the MS. and thought it safest to make a bonfire of it all. I have always regarded a private and confidential letter as sacred and its publicity in any shape a shameful breach of trust, unless authorized by the writer. I only wish my own letters to thousands of correspondents may be as carefully disposed of.

“You may use this letter as you think wise and best.

“Very truly thy friend,

“John G. Whittier.”

Once in a while a bit of untold history crept into a letter sent to Bok; as for example in the letter, referred to in a previous chapter from General Jubal A. Early, the Confederate general, in which he gave an explanation, never before fully given, of his reasons for the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania:

“The town of Chambersburg was burned on the same day on which the demand on it was made by McCausland and refused. It was ascertained that a force of the enemy’s cavalry was approaching, and there was no time for delay. Moreover, the refusal was peremptory, and there was no reason for delay unless the demand was a mere idle threat.

“I had no knowledge of what amount of money there might be in Chambersburg. I knew that it was a town of some twelve thousand inhabitants. The town of Frederick, in Maryland, which was a much smaller town than Chambersburg, had in June very promptly responded to my demand on it for $200,000, some of the inhabitants, who were friendly to me, expressing a regret that I had not made it $500,000. There were one or more National Banks at Chambersburg, and the town ought to have been able to raise the sum I demanded. I never heard that the refusal was based on the inability to pay such a sum, and there was no offer to pay any sum. The value of the houses destroyed by Hunter, with their contents, was fully $100,000 in gold, and at the time I made the demand the price of gold in greenbacks had very nearly reached $3.00 and was going up rapidly. Hence it was that I required the $500,000 in greenbacks, if the gold was not paid, to provide against any further depreciation of the paper money.

“I would have been fully justified by the laws of retaliation in war in burning the town without giving the inhabitants the opportunity of redeeming it.

“J. A. Early.”

Bok wrote to Eugene Field, once, asking him why in all his verse he had never written any love-songs, and suggesting that the story of Jacob and Rachel would have made a theme for a beautiful love-poem. Field’s reply is interesting and characteristic, and throws a light on an omission in his works at which many have wondered:

“Dear Bok:

“I’ll see what I can do with the suggestion as to Jacob and Rachel. Several have asked me why I have never written any love-songs. That is hard to answer. I presume it is because I married so young. I was married at twenty-three, and did not begin to write until I was twenty-nine. Most of my lullabies are, in a sense, love-songs; so is ‘To a Usurper,’ ‘A Valentine,’ ‘The Little Bit of a Woman,’ ‘Lovers’ Lane,’ etc., but not the kind commonly called love-songs. I am sending you herewith my first love-song, and even into it has crept a cadence that makes it a love-song of maturity rather than of youth. I do not know that you will care to have it, but it will interest you as the first….

“Ever sincerely yours,

“Eugene Field.”

During the last years of his life, Bok tried to interest Benjamin Harrison, former President of the United States, in golf, since his physician had ordered “moderate outdoor exercise.” Bok offered to equip him with the necessary clubs and balls. When he received the balls, the ex-president wrote:

“Thanks. But does not a bottle of liniment go with each ball?”

When William Howard Taft became President of the United States, the impression was given out that journalists would not be so welcome at the White House as they had been during the administration of President Roosevelt. Mr. Taft, writing to Bok about another matter, asked why he had not called and talked it over while in Washington. Bok explained the impression that was current; whereupon came the answer, swift and definite!

“There are no _persona non grata_ at the White House. I long ago learned the waste of time in maintaining such a class.”

There was in circulation during Henry Ward Beecher‘s lifetime a story, which is still revived every now and then, that on a hot Sunday morning in early summer, he began his sermon in Plymouth Church by declaring that “It is too damned hot to preach.” Bok wrote to the great preacher, asked him the truth of this report, and received this definite denial:

“My Dear Friend:

“No, I never did begin a sermon with the remark that “it is d—d hot,” etc. It is a story a hundred years old, revamped every few years to suit some new man. When I am dead and gone, it will be told to the rising generation respecting some other man, and then, as now, there will be fools who will swear that they heard it!

“Henry Ward Beecher.”

When Bok’s father passed away, he left, among his effects, a large number of Confederate bonds. Bok wrote to Jefferson Davis, asking if they had any value, and received this characteristic answer:

“I regret my inability to give an opinion. The theory of the Confederate Government, like that of the United States, was to separate the sword from the purse. Therefore, the Confederate States Treasury was under the control not of the Chief Executive, but of the Congress and the Secretary of the Treasury. This may explain my want of special information in regard to the Confederate States Bonds. Generally, I may state that the Confederate Government cannot have preserved a fund for the redemption of its Bonds other than the cotton subscribed by our citizens for that purpose. At the termination of the War, the United States Government, claiming to be the successor of the Confederate Government, seized all its property which could be found, both at home and abroad. I have not heard of any purpose to apply these assets to the payment of the liabilities of the Confederacy, and, therefore, have been at a loss to account for the demand which has lately been made for the Confederate Bonds.

“Jefferson Davis.”

Always the soul of courtesy itself, and most obliging in granting the numerous requests which came to him for his autograph, William Dean Howells finally turned; and Bok always considered himself fortunate that the novelist announced his decision to him in the following characteristic letter:

“The requests for my autograph have of late become so burdensome that I am obliged either to refuse all or to make some sort of limitation. Every author must have an uneasy fear that his signature is ‘collected’ at times like postage-stamps, and at times ‘traded’ among the collectors for other signatures. That would not matter so much if the applicants were always able to spell his name, or were apparently acquainted with his work or interested in it.

“I propose, therefore, to give my name hereafter only to such askers as can furnish me proof by intelligent comment upon it that they have read some book of mine. If they can inclose a bookseller’s certificate that they have bought the book, their case will be very much strengthened; but I do not insist upon this. In all instances a card and a stamped and directed envelope must be inclosed. I will never ‘add a sentiment’ except in the case of applicants who can give me proof that they have read all my books, now some thirty or forty in number.

“W. D. Howells.”

It need hardly be added that Mr. Howells’s good nature prevented his adherence to his rule!

Rudyard Kipling is another whose letters fairly vibrate with personality; few men can write more interestingly, or, incidentally, considering his microscopic handwriting, say more on a letter page.

Bok was telling Kipling one day about the scrapple so dear to the heart of the Philadelphian as a breakfast dish. The author had never heard of it or tasted it, and wished for a sample. So, upon his return home, Bok had a Philadelphia market-man send some of the Philadelphia-made article, packed in ice, to Kipling in his English home. There were several pounds of it and Kipling wrote:

“By the way, that scrapple—which by token is a dish for the Gods—arrived in perfect condition, and I ate it all, or as much as I could get hold of. I am extremely grateful for it. It’s all nonsense about pig being unwholesome. There isn’t a Mary-ache in a barrel of scrapple.”

Then later came this afterthought:

“A noble dish is that scrapple, but don’t eat three slices and go to work straight on top of ’em. That’s the way to dyspepsia!

“P. S. I wish to goodness you’d give another look at England before long. It’s quite a country; really it is. Old, too, I believe.”

It was Kipling who suggested that Bok should name his Merion home “Swastika.” Bok asked what the author knew about the mystic sign:

“There is a huge book (I’ve forgotten the name, but the Smithsonian will know),” he wrote back, “about the Swastika (pronounced Swas-ti-ka to rhyme with ‘car’s ticker’), in literature, art, religion, dogma, etc. I believe there are two sorts of Swastikas, one [figure] and one [figure]; one is bad, the other is good, but which is which I know not for sure. The Hindu trader opens his yearly account-books with a Swastika as ‘an auspicious beginning,’ and all the races of the earth have used it. It’s an inexhaustible subject, and some man in the Smithsonian ought to be full of it. Anyhow, the sign on the door or the hearth should protect you against fire and water and thieves.

“By this time should have reached you a Swastika door-knocker, which I hope may fit in with the new house and the new name. It was made by a village-smith; and you will see that it has my initials, to which I hope you will add yours, that the story may be complete.

“We are settled out here in Cape Town, eating strawberries in January and complaining of the heat, which for the last two days has been a little more than we pampered folk are used to; say 70° at night. But what a lovely land it is, and how superb are the hydrangeas! Figure to yourself four acres of ’em, all in bloom on the hillside near our home!”

Bok had visited the Panama Canal before its completion and had talked with the men, high and low, working on it, asking them how they felt about President Roosevelt’s action in “digging the Canal first and talking about it afterwards.” He wrote the result of his talks to Colonel Roosevelt, and received this reply:

“I shall always keep your letter, for I shall want my children and grandchildren to see it after I am gone. I feel just as you do about the Canal. It is the greatest contribution I was able to make to my country; and while I do not believe my countrymen appreciate this at the moment, I am extremely pleased to know that the men on the Canal do, for they are the men who have done and are doing the great job. I am awfully pleased that you feel the way you do.

“Theodore Roosevelt.”

In 1887, General William Tecumseh Sherman was much talked about as a candidate for the presidency, until his famous declaration came out: “I will not run if nominated, and will not serve if elected.” During the weeks of talk, however, much was said of General Sherman’s religious views, some contending that he was a Roman Catholic; others that he was a Protestant.

Bok wrote to General Sherman and asked him. His answer was direct:

“My family is strongly Roman Catholic, but I am not. Until I ask some favor the public has no claim to question me further.”

When Mrs. Sherman passed away, Doctor T. DeWitt Talmage wrote General Sherman a note of condolence, and what is perhaps one of the fullest expositions of his religious faith to which he ever gave expression came from him in a most remarkable letter, which Doctor Talmage gave to Bok.

“New York, December 12, 1886.

“My Dear Friend:

“Your most tender epistle from Mansfield, Ohio, of December 9 brought here last night by your son awakens in my brain a flood of memories. Mrs. Sherman was by nature and inheritance an Irish Catholic. Her grandfather, Hugh Boyle, was a highly educated classical scholar, whom I remember well,—married the half sister of the mother of James G. Blaine at Brownsville, Pa., settled in our native town Lancaster, Fairfield County, Ohio, and became the Clerk of the County Court. He had two daughters, Maria and Susan. Maria became the wife of Thomas Ewing, about 1819, and was the mother of my wife, Ellen Boyle Ewing. She was so staunch to what she believed the true Faith that I am sure that though she loved her children better than herself, she would have seen them die with less pang, than to depart from the “Faith.” Mr. Ewing was a great big man, an intellectual giant, and looked down on religion as something domestic, something consoling which ought to be encouraged; and to him it made little difference whether the religion was Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Catholic, provided the acts were ‘half as good’ as their professions.

“In 1829 my father, a Judge of the Supreme Court of Ohio, died at Lebanon away from home, leaving his widow, Mary Hoyt of Norwalk, Conn. (sister to Charles and James Hoyt of Brooklyn) with a frame house in Lancaster, an income of $200 a year and eleven as hungry, rough, and uncouth children as ever existed on earth. But father had been kind, generous, manly with a big heart; and when it ceased to beat friends turned up—Our Uncle Stoddard took Charles, the oldest; W. I. married the next, Elisabeth (still living); Amelia was soon married to a merchant in Mansfield, McCorab; I, the third son, was adopted by Thomas Ewing, a neighbor, and John fell to his namesake in Mt. Vernon, a merchant.

“Surely ‘Man proposes and God disposes.’ I could fill a hundred pages, but will not bore you. A half century has passed and you, a Protestant minister, write me a kind, affectionate letter about my Catholic wife from Mansfield, one of my family homes, where my mother, Mary Hoyt, died, and where our Grandmother, Betsey Stoddard, lies buried. Oh, what a flood of memories come up at the name of Betsey Stoddard,—daughter of the Revd. Mr. Stoddard, who preached three times every Sunday, and as often in between as he could cajole a congregation at ancient Woodbury, Conn.,—who came down from Mansfield to Lancaster, three days’ hard journey to regulate the family of her son Judge Sherman, whose gentle wife was as afraid of Grandma as any of us boys. She never spared the rod or broom, but she had more square solid sense to the yard than any woman I ever saw. From her Charles, John, and I inherit what little sense we possess.

“Lancaster, Fairfield County, was our paternal home, Mansfield that of Grandmother Stoddard and her daughter, Betsey Parker. There Charles and John settled, and when in 1846 I went to California Mother also went there, and there died in 1851.

“When a boy, once a year I had to drive my mother in an old ‘dandy wagon’ on her annual visit. The distance was 75 miles, further than Omaha is from San Francisco. We always took three days and stopped at every house to gossip with the woman folks, and dispense medicines and syrups to the sick, for in those days all had the chills or ague. If I could I would not awaken Grandmother Betsey Stoddard because she would be horrified at the backsliding of the servants of Christ,—but oh! how I would like to take my mother, Mary Hoyt, in a railroad car out to California, to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, among the vineyards of grapes, the groves of oranges, lemons and pomegranates. How clearly recurs to me the memory of her exclamation when I told her I had been ordered around Cape Horn to California. Her idea was about as definite as mine or yours as to, Where is Stanley? but she saw me return with some nuggets to make her life more comfortable.

“She was a strong Presbyterian to the end, but she loved my Ellen, and the love was mutual. All my children have inherited their mother’s faith, and she would have given anything if I would have simply said Amen; but it is simply impossible.

“But I am sure that you know that the God who created the minnow, and who has moulded the rose and carnation, given each its sweet fragrance, will provide for those mortal men who strive to do right in the world which he himself has stocked with birds, animals, and men;—at all events, I will trust Him with absolute confidence.

“With great respect and affection,

“Yours truly,

“W. T. Sherman.”

Did you happen to miss the previous chapter? Read Chapter 18