Thursday, 29 August 2013

My Dear Son



The following heartfelt letter of fatherly advice was written in 1908 by novelist and screenwriter John D. Swain as his son began student life at Yale, the same university from which John himself had graduated. His wonderful, poignant letter was subsequently reproduced in the Yale Alumni Weekly and proved so popular amongst both students and parents that it appeared again on numerous occasions; by 1922, copies of Swain's letter were apparently being handed to the parents of Yale freshmen in pamphlet form.

(Source: The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood; Image: Yale football team, 1908, courtesy of Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.)

My Dear Son:

I am writing a few things I meant to say to you when we took our last walk together, the day before you left for Yale. l intended to say them then and I will even confess that l shamelessly inveigled you into taking a stroll on the quiet street that l might rehearse a carefully prepared bit of Chesterfield up-to-date; but somehow I could not seem to begin,—and, after all, perhaps I can write what was in my mind more freely and plainly than l could have spoken it.

I think I had never realized before that I was getting old.

Of course I have known that my hair is causing your mother much solicitude. and that l am hopelessly wedded to my pince-nez while reading my daily paper, and at the opera; but in some incomprehensible way I had forgotten to associate these trifles with the encroachments of time. It was the sudden realization that you were about to become a Freshman in the college from which, as it seems to me, l but yesterday graduated, that "froze the genial current of my soul," and spared you my paternal lecture.

Why, l can shut my eyes and still hear the Ivy Song, as we sang it that beautiful June morning; and yet but a few nights more and you will be locked in the deadly Rush on the same field where I triumphantly received two blackened eyes, and, l trust, gave many more!

Another thing, trifling in itself, opened my eyes to the fact of my advancing years. My son, my loyal and affectionate boy, some day it may be yours to know the pain, the unreasonable pain that comes over a man to know that between him and his boy, and his boy's friends, an unseen but unassailable barrier has arisen, erected by no human agency; and to feel that while they may experience a vague respect and even curiosity to know what exists on your side of the barrier, you on your part would give all—wealth, position, influence, honor—to get back to theirs! All the world, clumsily or gracefully, is crawling over this barrier; but not one ever crawls back again!

You have ever seemed happy to be with me; you have worked with me, read and smoked with me, even played golf with me; but the subtle change in your attitude, the kindling of your eye when we met young men of your age, is the keenest pain I have ever known; yet one which, God knows! I would not reproach you with.

It explains what I used to see on my father's face and did not understand.

For the tyranny of youth, my son, is the one tyranny which never has been, never can be overthrown. Nothing can displace it, nothing shake its power.

I usually beat you at golf, and occasionally at tennis; I suppose that if we were to spar together I might still make a respectable showing, and at least "save my face." It avails no thing. I am on my side of the barrier, you on yours.

It seems but a year and a day since I tucked the ball under my arm and sped down the gridiron, sustained by the yells of my partisans; and if our game lacked the machine-like precision of the mass formations you are already somewhat familiar with, it was a good game, and we were good men, and all on the right side of the barrier!

So bear with me if l pause a moment and gaze back across this inevitable gulf into the pleasant land that lies behind me,—a picture evoked by your dawning college career.

I would not have you think me regretful, or melancholy. Life has been good to me—and every age has its gifts for the man who is willing to work for them and use them temperately. And nothing is more ungraceful, more ludicrous, than the spectacle of one who attempts to linger over the pleasures of an age he had outlived, and ignore the advantages of his own time of life.

Yet, as the years bring weakness, the mind persistently drifts back to the earlier periods of life, until the aged actually enter a phase we not inaptly name "second childhood," from which Heaven forefend me!

I can still appreciate a pair of sparkling blue eyes, and I am not oblivious to the turn of a pretty shoulder; although I devoutly trust that my interest is now impersonal, and merely artistic . . .

Some fathers say to their sons upon the first home leaving,—"Beware of wine and women!" I do not.

If your home life has not taught you the virtues of a temperate, clean life, as I hope, then no words of mine can do it, and you must learn, as too many others have, from a bitter intimacy with its antithesis.

As to women, I never avoided them; I sought them out, from the time when, a red-cheeked youngster, I trudged to school beside a red-cheeked lass├Če—asleep these many years in the little village lot where lie so many with whom I fought and played these many years gone by.

I have no advice to offer you on this great subject; its ethics are not taught by letter. If I have any regrets, they are not for your ear, nor any man's. And if, of some women I have known, I cannot say that I lifted them up, at least of no woman can it be said that I thrust her down!

I ask of you no more than this and the guidance of your own heart; that, in the latter years, when you, too, pass over the barrier, you may not leave behind you shadows on the flower-decked meadows of your youth.

You will probably play cards in college; most men do,—I did. The gambling instinct in man is primordial. Kept under due bounds, if not useful, it is at least comparatively harmless. This is the very best that I or any honest man can say of it. I should be glad if you never cared to gamble; but l do not ask it. Assuming that you will, l do not insult you, and myself equally, by warning you against unfairness; to suppose you capable of cheating at cards is to suppose an impossibility. You could not do so without forfeiting the right ever to enter your home again. But some careless and insidious practices, not unknown in my day and class, savor to the upright mind of cheating, without always incurring its penalties.

To play with men whom you know cannot afford to lose, and who must either cheat or suffer privation; to play when you yourself must win your bet to square yourself; that is, when you do not reasonably see how you are going to raise the money to pay providing you lose,—this is a gambler's chance to which no gentleman will ever expose his fellow players.

There is nothing heroic about these desperate casts of the die; one risks only the other fellow's money. These practices I ask and expect you to avoid.

l ask nothing of you in the way of a declared position on religion. Your mother may have demanded more of you here,—entreated more; I cannot. I ask but this: that you will give earnest, serious consideration to the fact that we exist on this planet for a shockingly brief fraction of Eternity; that it behooves every man to diligently seek an answer to the great question,—Why am I here? And then, as best he can, to live up to the ideal enjoined by his answer. And if this carries you far, and if it leads you to embrace any of the great creeds of Christendom, this will be to your mother an unspeakable joy, and perhaps not less so to me; but it is a question which cannot be settled by the mere filial desire to please.

Last of all, while you are in college, be of it and support its every healthful activity.

I ask no academic honor your natural inclinations may not lead you to strive for; no physical supremacy your animal spirits may not instinctively reach out and grasp.

You will, I presume, make the fraternity I made, and, I hope, the societies; you will probably then learn that your father was not always a dignified, bearded man in pince-nez and frock coat, and that on his side of the barrier he cut not a few capers which, seen in the clear light of his summer, gain little grace. Yet, were he to live his life over again, he would cut the same, or worse.

Finally, if you make any of the teams, never quit. That is all the secret of success. Never quit!

Quitting, I like to believe, has not been a striking characteristic of our family, and it is not tolerated in our college.

If you can't win the scholarship, fight it out to the end of the examination.

If you can't win your race, at least finish—somewhere.

If your boat can't win, at least keep pulling on your oar, even if your eye glazes and the taste of blood comes into your throat with every heave.

If you cannot make your five yards in football, keep bucking the line—never let up—if you can't see, or hear, keep plugging ahead! Never quit! If you forget all else I have said, remember these two words, through all your life, and come success or failure, I shall proudly think of you as my own dear son.

And so, from the old home-life, farewell, and Godspeed!

Your Affectionate Father

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Seven years have now passed, my Lord



Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, published in April 1755, is one of history's most important dictionaries, written practically single-handedly by Johnson over the course of eight years having being commissioned for the fixed sum of £1,575. After writing the initial proposal, Johnson attempted to raise additional funds for the project by securing a patron, and he soon found one in Lord Chesterfield who, despite pledging £10, offered very little else in terms of support—until, that is, the book was completed seven years later, at which point Chesterfield anonymously wrote two positive reviews in which he was glowingly named as patron. Furious at what he saw as an opportunistic move after years of toil, Johnson wrote an angry but admirably restrained letter to his patron that was almost instantly, and still is, considered a classic.

Note: "Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre" translates as "The conqueror of the conqueror of the earth."

(Source: The beauties of Samuel Johnson; Image via.)

To The Right Hon. the Earl Of Chesterfield.

February, 1755.

My Lord,

I have been lately informed, by the proprietor of the World, that two papers, in which my Dictionary is recommended to the public, were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished, is an honour, which being very little accustomed to favours from the great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your Lordship, I was overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the enchantment of your address; and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre;—that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done all that I could; and no man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, my Lord, have now passed, since I waited in your outward rooms, or was repulsed from your door; during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it, at last, to the verge of publication, without one act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

The shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a native of the rocks.

Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a man struggling for life in the water, and when he has reached ground, encumbers him with help? The notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am known, and do not want it. I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligations where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far, with so little obligations to any favourer of learning, I shall not be disappointed though I shall conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for I have been long wakened from that dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation,

My Lord,
Your lordship's most humble,
most obedient servant,
SAMUEL JOHNSON.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Take your pick



In 1984, iconic advertising executive and real-life Mad Man David Ogilvy received a letter from his 18-year-old great nephew, Harry. Having just finished school, Harry was now faced with the common dilemma of whether to go to university or jump straight into full-time work, and so asked his highly respected relative for some wisdom on the matter. Ogilvy responded with the following multiple choice letter of advice.

(Source: The Unpublished David Ogilvy: A Selection of His Writings from the Files of His Partners; Image: David Ogilvy, courtesy of Ads of the World.)

June 6, 1984

Dear Harry,

You ask me whether you should spend the next three years at university, or get a job. I will give you three different answers. Take your pick.

Answer A. You are ambitious. Your sights are set on going to the top, in business or government. Today's big corporations cannot be managed by uneducated amateurs. In these high-tech times, they need top bananas who have doctorates in chemistry, physics, engineering, geology, etc.

Even the middle managers are at a disadvantage unless they boast a university degree and an MBA. In the United States, 18 percent of the population has a degree, in Britain, only 7 percent. Eight percent of Americans have graduate degrees, compared with 1 percent of Brits. That more than anything else is why American management outperforms British management.

Same thing in government. When I was your age, we had the best civil service in the world. Today, the French civil servants are better than ours because they are educated for the job in the postgraduate Ecole Nationale d'Administration, while ours go straight from Balliol to Whitehall. The French pros outperform the British amateurs.

Anyway, you are too young to decide what you want to do for the rest of your life. If you spend the next few years at university, you will get to know the world - and yourself - before the time comes to choose your career.

Answer B. Stop frittering away your time in academia. Stop subjecting yourself to the tedium of textbooks and classrooms. Stop cramming for exams before you acquire an incurable hatred for reading.

Escape from the sterile influences of dons, who are nothing more than pickled undergraduates.

The lack of a college degree will only be a slight handicap in your career. In Britain, you can still get to the top without a degree. What industry and government need at the top is not technocrats but leaders. The character traits which make people scholars in their youth are not the traits which make them leaders in later life.

You put up with education for 12 boring years. Enough is enough.

Answer C. Don't judge the value of higher education in terms of careermanship. Judge it for what it is - a priceless opportunity to furnish your mind and enrich the quality of your life. My father was a failure in business, but he read Horace in the loo until he died, poor but happy.

If you enjoy being a scholar, and like the company of scholars, go to a university. Who knows, you may end your days as a Regius Professor. And bear in mind that British universities are still the best in the world - at the undergraduate level. Lucky you. Winning a Nobel Prize is more satisfying than being elected Chairman of some large corporation or becoming a Permanent Undersecretary in Whitehall.

You have a first-class mind. Stretch it. If you have the opportunity to go to a university, don't pass it up. You would never forgive yourself.

Tons of love,
David

Thursday, 15 August 2013

My dear little grandfather



Marcel Proust was undoubtedly a gifted author, known largely for his classic multi-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, a mammoth piece of work believed by some to be one of the greatest books ever written. More importantly, he was also, it is said, obsessed with masturbation. As a teenager this caused problems for his family, not least his father, a professor of hygiene, who like many of the day believed that such a worrying habit could cause homosexuality if left unchecked. And so, in May of 1888, in an effort to cure him of this "problem" having recently walked in on him "on the job," Dr. Proust gave his 16-year-old son 10 francs and sent him off to a local brothel. As evidenced by the following letter to his grandfather, and possibly due to the fact that Marcel was in fact homosexual, the visit didn't go to plan.

(Letter and translation kindly supplied by Fabien Bonnet—huge thanks to Larst Onovich; Image above: Marcel Proust at 16, some months before he wrote this letter, via.)



Transcript

18 May 1888

Thursday evening.

My dear little grandfather,

I appeal to your kindness for the sum of 13 francs that I wished to ask Mr. Nathan for, but which Mama prefers I request from you. Here is why. I so needed to see if a woman could stop my awful masturbation habit that Papa gave me 10 francs to go to a brothel. But first, in my agitation, I broke a chamber pot: 3 francs; then, still agitated, I was unable to screw. So here I am, back to square one, waiting more and more as hours pass for 10 francs to relieve myself, plus 3 francs for the pot. But I dare not ask Papa for more money so soon and so I hoped you could come to my aid in a circumstance which, as you know, is not merely exceptional but also unique. It cannot happen twice in one lifetime that a person is too flustered to screw.

I kiss you a thousand times and dare to thank you in advance.

I will be home tomorrow morning at 11am. If you are moved by my situation and can answer my prayers, I will hopefully find you with the amount. Regardless, thank you for your decision which I know will come from a place of friendship.

Marcel.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

My husband is not a common man



In 1905, George Bernard Shaw received a piece of fan mail from an aspiring playwright initially known only as "Miss Charming" that would ultimately result in the following unique letter. Miss Charming was in fact a 24-year-old lady named Erica Cotterill, and Shaw was so intrigued by her approach that he replied with advice, thus beginning a flirtatious relationship that would see him writing often and occasionally turning down her increasingly frequent advances. Erica, however, was determined to get her man, going so far as to move house in order to be closer to the object of her desires; then, one day, 7 years after first making contacting with Shaw, she turned up at his home only for his wife, Charlotte, to open the door.

Charlotte demanded that her husband cut all ties. He attempted to do so, but in an intriguing way: he drafted the following letter to his admirer, as if written by his wife.

(Source: Collected Letters of Shaw 1898-1910; Image via Wikinut.)

[11 October 1910]

My dear Miss Cotterill,

I think I had better write to you to explain exactly why I intentionally shewed you that I strongly disapproved of your presence in my house, and that I did not—and do not—intend that your visit should be repeated. You might easily think that I was merely annoyed by your coming at an inconsiderate & unusual hour—as indeed I was—or that I disliked you. That was not it at all. I should object to your coming at tea time just as much as I do not particularly dislike you. On the contrary, it is because you are in some ways rather fine and sensitive, so that it is very difficult to be unkind to you, that I am determined to put a stop at once and for ever to any personal intimacy between us.

The matter is a very simple one. You have made a declaration of your feelings to my husband; and you have followed that up by coming to live near us with the avowed object of gratifying those feelings by seeing as much as possible of him. If you were an older and more experienced woman I should characterize that in terms which would make any further acquaintance between us impossible. As you are young and entirely taken by your own feelings, I can only tell you that when a woman makes such a declaration to a married man, or a man to a married woman, there is an end of all honourable question of their meeting one another again—intentionally at least. You do not understand this, perhaps; but you will later on, when you are married and know what loyalty men owe one another in that very delicate and difficult relation. The present case is a specially difficult and dangerous one, for my husband is not a common man; if you become at all intimate with him he would become a necessity of life to you; and then the inevitable parting would cost you more suffering that it can now. I could not trust him to keep you at a distance: he is quite friendly and sympathetic with everybody, from dogs and cats to dukes and duchesses, and none of them can imagine that his universal friendliness is not a special regard for them. He has already allowed you to become far more attached to him than he should; and I do not intend to let you drift any further into an impossible situation.

If I must end by saying that this letter does not admit of any argument or reply, and that I do not mean it to lead to any correspondence between us, do not conclude that I am writing you in an unfriendly spirit. It would be no use to discuss the matter now; and later on, when you are married and as old as I am, it will not be necessary. Meanwhile believe that my decision is quite inevitable and irrevocable.

Yours sincerely,

Charlotte F. Shaw

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Arkell v. Pressdram

"Messrs Jeffrey Benson and Michael Isaacs of Tracing Services Ltd, currently on bail on charges of conspiracy to create a public mischief, appear to have lost most of the work collecting debts and tracing absconders for the Granada group, to the considerable regret of Mr James Arkell, Granada's retail credit manager. Ever since last June, when Tracing Services got the contract, Mr Arkell has been receiving £20 every month from Tracing Services, but the payment now appears to have stopped."
On April 9th of 1971, much to the dismay of one James Arkell, the brief story quoted above was published in Private Eye, a British satirical news publication founded in 1961 which, thanks to its unflinching commitment to uncovering scandals, is no stranger to legal disputes. Indeed, a few weeks after this particular piece hit the shelves, a letter arrived from Arkell's solicitors which can be read below, as can an uncompromising reply from Private Eye which has since become famous in legal and publishing circles for reasons which will become clear.

Never ones to miss an opportunity, Private Eye published the exchange very quickly, and almost immediately Arkell withdrew his complaint. The magazine have since used the dispute as shorthand when responding to threats, e.g. "We refer you to the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram."

Note: 'Pressdram Ltd' is Private Eye's publisher. Also, there was no "case" legally, despite the name by which the dispute is now known.

(Letter taken from the More Letters of Note book. For more info and to read reviews of that book, go here.)

29th April 1971

Dear Sir,

We act for Mr Arkell who is Retail Credit Manager of Granada TV Rental Ltd. His attention has been drawn to an article appearing in the issue of Private Eye dated 9th April 1971 on page 4. The statements made about Mr Arkell are entirely untrue and clearly highly defamatory. We are therefore instructed to require from you immediately your proposals for dealing with the matter.

Mr Arkell's first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date in Private Eye and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.

Yours,
(Signed)
Goodman Derrick & Co.

------------------------------

Dear Sirs,

We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr. J. Arkell.

We note that Mr Arkell's attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.

Yours,
Private Eye

Friday, 2 August 2013

A book is a sneeze



In September of 1952,  a few weeks before the publication of Charlotte's Webthe now-classic tale of a pig, Wilbur, who becomes friends with a heroic spider named Charlotte—its author, E. B. White, was asked to explain why he wrote the book by his editor at Harper & Row, Ursula Nordstrom. On the 29th of that month, White responded with the following typewritten letter and explanation, both of which have been kindly supplied to Letters of Note by HarperCollins.

Transcript follows.





Transcript
E. B. WHITE
NORTH BROOKLIN, MAINE

29 Sept

Dear Ursula:

Thanks for your dandy letter and for the book. If I ever get time I'm going to read the book. I think it looks very nice and I agree with you that the endpaper is too bright. But on the other hand, I'm not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word "endpaper", and they are all Stevenson people.

Enclosed are some remarks that I hope will satisfy your Publicity Department.

Sorry to learn that Dr. Canby is revolted by spiders. Probably doesn't meet the right spiders. Did you know that Dr. Canby has a wife named "Lady"?

Yrs,

Andy

------------------

I have been asked to tell how I came to write "Charlotte's Web." Well, I like animals, and it would be odd if I failed to write about them. Animals are a weakness with me, and when I got a place in the country I was quite sure animals would appear, and they did.

A farm is a peculiar problem for a man who likes animals, because the fate of most livestock is that they are murdered by their benefactors. The creatures may live serenely but they end violently, and the odor of doom hangs about them always. I have kept several pigs, starting them in spring as weanlings and carrying trays to them all through summer and fall. The relationship bothered me. Day by day I became better acquainted with my pig, and he with me, and the fact that the whole adventure pointed toward an eventual piece of double-dealing on my part lent an eerie quality to the thing. I do not like to betray a person or a creature, and I tend to agree with Mr. E.M. Forster that in these times the duty of a man, above all else, is to be reliable. It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of "Charlotte's Web" is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago. Once you begin watching spiders, you haven't time for much else---the world is really loaded with them. I do not find them repulsive or revolting, any more than I find anything in nature repulsive or revolting, and I think it is too bad that children are often corrupted by their elders in this hate campaign. Spiders are skilful, amusing and useful. and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.

One cold October evening I was lucky enough to see Aranea Cavatica spin her egg sac and deposit her eggs. (I did not know her name at the time, but I admired her, and later Mr. Willis J. Gertsch of the American Museum of Natural History told me her name.) When I saw that she was fixing to become a mother, I got a stepladder and an extension light and had an excellent view of the whole business. A few days later, when it was time to return to New York, not wishing to part with my spider, I took a razor blade, cut the sac adrift from the underside of the shed roof, put spider and sac in a candy box, and carried them to town. I tossed the box on my dresser. Some weeks later I was surprised and pleased to find that Charlotte's daughters were emerging from the air holes in the cover of the box. They strung tiny lines from my comb to my brush, from my brush to my mirror, and from my mirror to my nail scissors. They were very busy and almost invisible, they were so small. We all lived together happily for a couple of weeks, and then somebody whose duty it was to dust my dresser balked, and I broke up the show.

At the present time, three of Charlotte's granddaughters are trapping at the foot of the stairs in my barn cellar, where the morning light, coming through the east window, illuminates their embroidery and makes it seem even more wonderful than it is.

I haven't told why I wrote the book, but I haven't told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.

(Signed)