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The Autograph Hunter
by [?]

One that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
King Lear.

THE material for this paper on the autograph hunter, his ways and his manners, has been drawn chiefly from experiences not my own. My personal relations with him have been comparatively restricted, a circumstance to which I owe the privilege of treating the subject with a freedom that might otherwise not seem becoming.

No author is insensible to the compliment involved in a request for his autograph, assuming the request to come from some sincere lover of books and bookmen. It is an affair of different complection when he is importuned to give time and attention to the innumerable unknown who “collect” autographs as they would collect postage stamps, with no interest in the matter beyond the desire to accumulate as many as possible. The average autograph hunter, with his purposeless insistence, reminds one of the queen in Stockton’s story whose fad was “the buttonholes of all nations.”

In our population of eighty millions and upward there are probably two hundred thousand persons interested more or less in what is termed the literary world. This estimate is absurdly low, but it serves to cast a sufficient side-light upon the situation. Now, any unit of these two hundred thousand is likely at any moment to indite a letter to some favorite novelist, historian, poet, or what not. It will be seen, then, that the autograph hunter is no inconsiderable person. He has made it embarrassing work for the author fortunate or unfortunate enough to be regarded as worth while. Every mail adds to his reproachful pile of unanswered letters. If he have a conscience, and no amanuensis, he quickly finds himself tangled in the meshes of endless and futile correspondence. Through policy, good nature, or vanity he is apt to become facile prey.

A certain literary collector once confessed in print that he always studied the idiosyncrasies of his “subject” as carefully as another sort of collector studies the plan of the house to which he meditates a midnight visit. We were assured that with skillful preparation and adroit approach an autograph could be extracted from anybody. According to the revelations of the writer, Bismarck, Queen Victoria, and Mr. Gladstone had their respective point of easy access–their one unfastened door or window, metaphorically speaking. The strongest man has his weak side.

Dr. Holmes’s affability in replying to every one who wrote to him was perhaps not a trait characteristic of the elder group. Mr. Lowell, for instance, was harder-hearted and rather difficult to reach. I recall one day in the library at Elmwood. As I was taking down a volume from the shelf a sealed letter escaped from the pages and fluttered to my feet. I handed it to Mr. Lowell, who glanced incuriously at the superscription. “Oh, yes,” he said, smiling, “I know ’em by instinct.” Relieved of its envelope, the missive turned out to be eighteen months old, and began with the usual amusing solecism: “As one of the most famous of American authors I would like to possess your autograph.”

Each recipient of such requests has of course his own way of responding. Mr. Whittier used to be obliging; Mr. Longfellow politic; Mr. Emerson, always philosophical, dreamily confiscated the postage stamps.

Time was when the collector contented himself with a signature on a card; but that, I am told, no longer satisfies. He must have a letter addressed to him personally–“on any subject you please,” as an immature scribe lately suggested to an acquaintance of mine. The ingenuous youth purposed to flourish a letter in the faces of his less fortunate competitors, in order to show them that he was on familiar terms with the celebrated So-and-So. This or a kindred motive is the spur to many a collector. The stratagems he employs to compass his end are inexhaustible. He drops you an off-hand note to inquire in what year you first published your beautiful poem entitled “A Psalm of Life.” If you are a simple soul, you hasten to assure him that you are not the author of that poem, which he must have confused with your “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”–and there you are. Another expedient is to ask if your father’s middle name was not Hierophilus. Now, your father has probably been dead many years, and as perhaps he was not a public man in his day, you are naturally touched that any one should have interest in him after this long flight of time. In the innocence of your heart you reply by the next mail that your father’s middle name was not Hierophilus, but Epaminondas–and there you are again. It is humiliating to be caught swinging, like a simian ancestor, on a branch of one’s genealogical tree.