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The Customary Correspondent
by [?]

“Letters warmly sealed and coldly opened.”–RICHTER.

Why do so many ingenious theorists give fresh reasons every year for the decline of letter writing, and why do they assume, in derision of suffering humanity, that it has declined? They lament the lack of leisure, the lack of sentiment,–Mr. Lucas adds the lack of stamps,–which chill the ardour of the correspondent; and they fail to ascertain how chilled he is, or how far he sets at naught these justly restraining influences. They talk of telegrams, and telephones, and postal cards, as if any discovery of science, any device of civilization, could eradicate from the human heart that passion for self-expression which is the impelling force of letters. They also fail to note that, side by side with telephones and telegrams, comes the baleful reduction of postage rates, which lowers our last barrier of defence. Two cents an ounce leaves us naked at the mercy of the world.

It is on record that a Liverpool tradesman once wrote to Dickens, to express the pleasure he had derived from that great Englishman’s immortal novels, and enclosed, by way of testimony, a cheque for five hundred pounds. This is a phenomenon which ought to be more widely known than it is, for there is no natural law to prevent its recurrence; and while the world will never hold another Dickens, there are many deserving novelists who may like to recall the incident when they open their morning’s mail. It would be pleasant to associate our morning’s mail with such fair illusions; and though writing to strangers is but a parlous pastime, the Liverpool gentleman threw a new and radiant light upon its possibilities. “The gratuitous contributor is, ex vi termini, an ass,” said Christopher North sourly; but then he never knew, nor ever deserved to know, this particular kind of contribution.

Generally speaking, the unknown correspondent does not write to praise. His guiding principle is the diffusion of useless knowledge, and he demands or imparts it according to the exigencies of the hour. It is strange that a burning thirst for information should be combined with such reluctance to acquire it through ordinary channels. A man who wishes to write a paper on the botanical value of Shakespeare’s plays does not dream of consulting a concordance and a botany, and then going to work. The bald simplicity of such a process offends his sense of magnitude. He writes to a distinguished scholar, asking a number of burdensome questions, and is apparently under the impression that the resources of the scholar’s mind, the fruits of boundless industry, should be cheerfully placed at his disposal. A woman who meditates a “literary essay” upon domestic pets is not content to track her quarry through the long library shelves. She writes to some painstaking worker, enquiring what English poets have “sung the praises of the cat,” and if Cowper was the only author who ever domesticated hares? One of Huxley’s most amusing letters is written in reply to a gentleman who wished to compile an article on “Home Pets of Celebrities,” and who unhesitatingly applied for particulars concerning the Hodeslea cat.

These are, of course, labour-saving devices, but economy of effort is not always the ambition of the correspondent. It would seem easier, on the whole, to open a dictionary of quotations than to compose an elaborately polite letter, requesting to know who said–

“Fate cannot harm me; I have dined to-day.”

It is certainly easier, and far more agreeable, to read Charles Lamb’s essays than to ask a stranger in which one of them he discovered the author’s heterodox views on encyclopaedias. It involves no great fatigue to look up a poem of Herrick’s, or a letter of Shelley’s, or a novel of Peacock’s (these things are accessible and repay enquiry), and it would be a rational and self-respecting thing to do, instead of endeavouring to extort information (like an intellectual footpad) from writers who are in no way called upon to furnish it.