Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Great historical letters (just not the ones you are thinking about)

Email schmemail. I resisted it as long as I could. When I started teaching a class of 45-75 students it became the only rational way to communicate with them all in a rapid fashion, which has become what everyone expects these days. Of course, I got used to it and use it many times most days. And, like all digital devices, it has many advantages over old fashioned pen and paper or even typing on paper. But, it has some disadvantages too.

Two of them are important to the historian (and historians are important to me). One is authenticity. It is hard enough to identify a written document, which may be signed, and also has can be evaluated for handwriting not to mention forensic evaluation of the ink and paper. How do you do that with a digital letter, where the font can be changed as much as you like, and even the text altered? You can’t tell if the purported sender sent it even a few seconds after sent is hit.

Another problem is survivability. Email is so new, we don’t even know how long we can preserve it before it is is lost through the inevitable human errors and rapid changes in technology. You can’t dig a database out of cave in 2000 years. The nature of the digital world makes it highly unlikely those electrons and bits are going to be available in the same form in a couple of millennia, never mind 200 years. Perhaps there is a way to more permanently preserve certain documents, but who knows if the right things will be preserved. One of the things people like about technology is its disposability.

Historical letters, which have their own problems (like crumbling to dust or burning up, etc.) are wonderful to me. When I first started reading history as an adult, I tended to like history books that covered a subject the author had researched and didn’t really care where they got the information. Very quickly I began to get more interested in the original documentation and hankered for first hand material (I don’t mean the original docs in a museum, but republished as memoirs, letters or even just reprinted in the historian’s work).

Below are quotes from some of my favorite letters reprinted in volumes in my own library. As I often say, these might be a little more interesting than you might think:

This first one is my favorite two lines from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson in one of their approximately 14 year correspondence after they patched up their differences in 1812, thanks to an intervention by their mutual friend, physician and politician Dr. Benjamin Rush. Both Adams and Jefferson understood well that they were writing to each other for the sake of posterity, but it seems here that Adams sort of forgot himself when he wrote and you can see him in all his nerdy glory:

“I cannot be serious! I am about to write you the most frivolous letter, you ever read.

Would you back to your cradle and live over again your 70 years?”

Doesn’t that strike you as a little strange from cantankerous, jealous and crotchety old Adams? Was life really so miserable? Sure, he didn’t have much fun in his presidency, to some extent thanks to the behind the scenes machinations of his less than loyal vice president, Jefferson, and the previous eight years of vice presidency to Washington was a waste of his skills. But, he still had quite the amazing career as a lawyer, a revolutionary and a diplomat, not to mention what seemed like long successful marriage. Not live it over again? Why not? Who gets to do what he did? Actually, after Jefferson wrote he would do so, Adams fell over himself to write – me too.

Here’s another strange one from a former president that tickled me a little:

“Dear Harry-

Good boy! Teacher says you have gained 2 pounds.

2 Lbs. = 2$

Keep on gaining and put the reward into your little Savings Bank. But you must not gain more than 50 lbs. because Popper has not got more than 50$”

That was a letter from FDR to his great friend and counselor, Harry Hopkins, while Hopkins was wasting away with one of his many illnesses not too long before WWII broke out in Europe. The baby talk in FDR’s letters brings to mind a Marx Brothers movie, Horse Feathers, where Groucho (if this name is meaningless to you, please rent one of their movies) says to the zaftig Margaret Dumont, who won’t stop speaking in an annoyingly cloying and babyish voice, “If icky girl keep on talking that way, big stwong man's gonna kick all of her teef wight down her fwoat. “

Here a longer letter about the powerful forces of nature that will remind us that Mother Nature has always roared whenever she liked:

“It began at dusk, at North, and raged very violently ‘till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting ‘round of the southwest. . . it returned with redoubled fury and continued so ‘till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! What horror and destruction. It’s impossible for me to describe or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind, fiery meteors flying about in the air, the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning, the crash of the falling houses, and the ear piercing shrieks of the distressed were sufficient to strike astonishment into angels.

A great part of the buildings throughout the island are leveled to the ground, almost all the rest very much shattered, several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined, whole families running about the streets unknowing where to find a place of shelter; the sick exposed to the keenness of the water and air without a bed to lie upon or a dry covering to their bodies and our harbors entirely bare. In a word, misery, in all its hideous shapes, spread over the whole face of the country. . . ."

That’s from Alexander Hamilton, either 15 or 17, depending who you believe, writing about the hurricane on St. Croix in 1772, published in a paper by his mentor, Hugh Knox. Hamilton was a brilliant prodigy, however old he might have been, and was a prolific and exacting, but not a great writer. His most celebrated line, written while still a young man, about the rights of mankind – “They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of Divinity itself” was really eloquence lifted by him from Knox, who had earlier written “Our duty is written, as it were, with sun beams”. Who knows if Knox got it elsewhere himself? Not me.

I like this one from William Rockhill, the diplomat who was the “author” of the Open Door Policy for China, to the wife of Henry Cabot Lodge:

"From Taku to Peking the whole country is in a beautiful state of anarchy thanks to the presence of foreign troops sent there to restore order. The “disciplined” armies of Europe” are everywhere conducting operations much as the Mongols must have done in the 13th century. Hardly a house remains from the seacoast to Peking which has not been looted of every moveable object it contained, and in half the cases the houses have been burned. Peking has been pillaged in the most approved manner, and from the General down to the lowest camp follower, from the Ministers of the Powers to the last attachĂ©, from the Bishops to the smallest missionary everyone has stolen, sacked, pillaged, blackmailed and generally disgraced themselves—and it is still going on. Yesterday my wife and I walked to the Observatory on the wall, the magnificent bronze instruments, some dating probably from the 13th century, were being taken to pieces by French and German soldiers to be sent to Paris and Berlin. These instruments had been left, unharmed, untouched for seven centuries, but they could not escape the civilized westerners—French and German could bury the hatchet for once and rob in the most fraternal manner. Though General Chaffee has done and is doing all in his power to keep our good name clean, and our soldiers are said by the Chinese to be the best disciplined, still our men have committed many excesses—we are in such bad company. The other day I was telling Chaffee of the wounding of one of our men—probably by some other foreigner. He replied “I can take but little interest in the wounding of our men, when there are so many who should be shot.”

Here’s a grateful letter from an aspiring young artist:

“Herewith, esteemed and gracious lady, I wish to express my sincerest gratitude for your efforts in obtaining access for me to the great master of stage decoration, Prof Roller. It was no doubt somewhat overbold of me, Madam, to make such excessive demands upon your kindness, since you after all had to act in behalf of a perfect stranger. All the more, therefore, must I ask you to accept my sincerest thanks for your undertakings, which were accompanied by such success, as well as for the card which you so kindly placed at my disposal. I shall at once make use of this fortunate opportunity. Once again my deepest gratitude. I respectfully, kiss your hand.”

I love quoting Hitler, mostly for the shock value. Here’s one more right after an assassination attempt in ’44 to his future bride, Eva Braun:

“Don’t worry about me. I’m fine though perhaps a little tired. I hope to come home soon and then I can rest in your arms. I have a great longing for rest, but m duty to the German people comes before everything else. Don’t forget that the dangers I encounter don’t compare with those of our soldiers at the Front. I thank you for the proof of your affection and ask you also to thank your esteemed father and your most gracious mother for their greetings and good wishes. I am very proud of the honor—please tell them that—to possess the love of a girl who comes from such a distinguished family. I have sent to you the uniform I was wearing during the unfortunate day. It is proof that Providence has protected me and that we have nothing more to fear from our enemies.”

She wrote back too:

“I am beside myself. I am dying of anxiety now that I know you are in danger. Come back as soon as possible. I feel as if I am going insane.

The weather is beautiful here and everything seems so peaceful that I am almost ashamed of myself . . . You know I have always told you that I would die if anything happened to you. From our first meeting on, I have promised myself to follow you wherever you go, even to death. You know that I live only for your love.”

Awww. Wait, it's Hitler. Weird isn’t it? Sounds like two crazy kids in love if you can remove the monster image from your head for a few seconds. But, even monsters are human in some ways and I think it is important for us to understand it, as tyrants rarely come in the guise of a Grendel, but more often as a Siegfried or strong man and savior.

And, if we are going to cover Hitler in love, why not Winnie too. In 1936 while he struggled in Parliament, his wife, Clementine, already in her 50s, went on a long trip without him. She wrote him a letter from the South Pacific thanking him for the things he brought to her life and he replied, if not so ringing as he would summon to rouse the country and much of the free world a few years later, but with passion still. He acknowledged her:

“. . . words vy dear to me about my having enriched yr life. I cannot tell you what pleasure this gave me, because I always feel so overwhelmingly in yr debt, if there can be accounts in love. It was sweet of you to write this to me, & I hope & pray I shall be able to make you happy & secure during my remaining years, and cherish you my darling one as you deserve, & leave you in comfort when my race is run. What it has been to me to live all these years in yr heart & companionship no phrases can convey. Time passes swiftly, but is it not joyous to see how great and growing is the treasure we have gathered together, amid the storms & stresses of so many eventful & to millions tragic & terrible years?”

It is a bittersweet message not just in words, but because we know that during that long trip, the younger Clemmie had an affair with a younger man, who she remembered until the end as making her feel like Cinderella for three short months.

Here is a most bizarre letter from the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II of Austria, brother of Marie Antoinette who lost her head in France during their revolution. Joseph wrote a letter in 1777 to his brother Leopold, the Archduke of Tuscany, after a visit with Louis XVI and Marie, where he speaks a bit about his brother-in-law. You will see why it is one of my favorites:

“He is a little weak but not an imbecile; he has definite ideas and sound judgment, but in body and spirit he is apathetic. He talks sensibly but has no taste for learning, no curiosity. In short the fiat lux has not occurred, matter is still shapeless.”

Okay, could be someone describing George W. Bush, and he is a little hard on Louis. Fiat lux is Latin for “Let there be light,” but I really don’t know to what he is referring. Yet, it is the next bit that cracks me up and I can only attribute it to the royal mania for producing heirs:

“In the conjugal bed, here is the secret. He has excellent erections, inserts his organ, remains there without stirring for perhaps two minutes, then withdraws without ever discharging and, still erect, he bids his wife goodnight. It is incomprehensible, all the more so since he sometimes has wet dreams. He is quite satisfied and frankly admits he only performs the act from duty alone and takes no pleasure in it. Ah, if only I could have been there once, I should have put things right. He ought to be whipped, to make him ejaculate, as one whips donkeys. As for my sister, she is not amorously inclined and together they are a couple of awkward suffers.”

You really have to wonder if they told him this or if he made it up. Sounds like the former, but we can’t be sure. “If only I could have been there once . . . .” Wow. Ironically, he never had a child himself.

Speaking of Frenchmen, here is a paragraph from a letter of Louis Marie Turreau, the French ambassador America, to Talleyrand, the French foreign minister in 1805, which is really quite insightful:

“They especially lack trained officers. The Americans are to-day the boldest and the most ignorant navigators in the universe. In brief, it seems to me that, considering the weakness of the military constitution, the federal government, which makes no concealment of this weakness, will avoid every serious difference which might lead to aggression, and will constantly show itself an enemy to war. But does the system of encroachment which prevails here agree with a temper so pacific? Certainly not, at first sight; and yet unless circumstances change, the United States will succeed in reconciling the contradiction. To conquer without war is the first fact in their politics.”

That was, in fact, Jefferson’s plan. You can judge for yourself whether it was successful, but I believe it led in part to the War of 1812, which we declared, having too long been bullied by Britain and France. Not that the war really got us anywhere with Britain, but the Battle of New Orleans after the settlement made us feel victorious (my own ancestors being serfs in Russia and Hungary, and not really having a dog in the fight) and made the chastised Madison a sudden hero.

A little change of pace. During WWII a sergeant wrote a letter to the publisher of the Wonder Woman comic, addressing it to Charles Moulton, who was supposedly the creator:

“I am one of those odd, perhaps unfortunate men who derive an extreme erotic pleasure from the mere thought of a beautiful girl chained or bound. I hope you’ll forgive my apparently very poor manners, but the subject is a vital one to me, and you can always tear up your fan mail and throw it away if you want to. Have you the same interest in bonds and fetters that I have?”

It was a good question. William Marston, the actual creator (and who arguably also invented the lie detector) was obsessed with bondage and submission himself, although seemingly as much with men being being dominated by women as visa versa. His publisher, William Gaines sent him the letter with the admonition, “This is one of the things I’ve been afraid of, (without quite being able to put my finger on it) in my discussions with you regarding Miss Frank’s suggestions to eliminate chains." Marston, a psychologist, was not impressed by the letter and had no patience for Miss Josette Franks, who he had already written Gaines was “an avowed enemy of the Wonder Woman strip”. He wrote back:

“I have the good sergeant’s letter in which he expresses his enthusiasm over chains for women—so what? Some day I’ll make you a list of all the items about women that different people have been known to get passionate over. You can’t have a real woman character in any form of fiction without touch of many readers’ erotic fantasies.”

Did he say “a real woman?” Was Wonder Woman real back then? That explains a lot.

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .