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THE GALAXY, February 1871




I suppose that if there is one thing in the world more hateful than another to all of us, it is to have to write a letter. A private letter especially. And business letters, to my thinking, are very little pleasanter. Nearly all the enjoyment is taken out of every letter I get by the reflection that it must be answered. And I do so dread the affliction of writing those answers, that often my first and gladdest impulse is to burn my mail before it is opened. For ten years I never felt that sort of dread at all because I was moving about constantly, from city to city, from State to State, and from country to country, and so I could leave all letters unanswered if I chose, and the writers of them would naturally suppose that I had changed my post office and missed receiving my correspondence. But I am "cornered" now. I cannot use that form of deception any more. I am anchored, and letters of all kinds come straight to me with deadly precision.

They are letters of all sorts and descriptions, and they treat of everything. I generally read them at breakfast, and right often they kill a day's work by diverting my thoughts and fancies into some new channel, thus breaking up and making confusion of the programme of scribbling I had arranged for my working hours. After breakfast I clear for action, and for an hour try hard to write; but there is no getting back into the old train of thought after such an interruption, and so at last I give it up and put off further effort till next day. One would suppose that I would now answer those letters and get them out of the way; and I suppose one of those model young men we read about, who enter New York barefoot and live to become insolent millionaires, would be sure to do that; but I don't. I never shall be a millionaire, and so I disdain to copy the ways of those men. I did not start right. I made a fatal mistake to begin with, and entered New York with boots on and above forty cents in my pocket. With such an unpropitious beginning, any efforts of mine to acquire great wealth would be frowned upon as illegitimate, and I should be ruthlessly put down as an impostor. And so, as I said before, I decline to follow the lead of those chrysalis Croesuses and answer my correspondents with commercial promptness. I stop work for the day, and leave the new letters stacked up along with those that came the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, and so on. And by-and-by the pile grows so large that it begins to distress me, and then I attack it and give full five and sometimes six hours to the assault. And how many of the letters do I answer in that time? Never more than nine; usually only five or six. The correspondence clerk in a great mercantile house would answer a hundred in that many hours. But a man who has spent years in writing for the press cannot reasonably be expected to have such facility with a pen. From old habit he gets to thinking and thinking, patiently puzzling for minutes together over the proper turning of a sentence in an answer to some unimportant private letter, and so the precious time slips away.

It comes natural to me in these latter years to do all manner of composition laboriously and ploddingly, private letters included. Consequently, I do fervently hate letter-writing, and so do all the newspaper and magazine men I am acquainted with.

The above remarks are by way of explanation and apology to parties who have written me about various matters, and whose letters I have neglected to answer. I tried in good faith to answer them -- tried every now and then, and always succeeded in clearing off several, but always as surely left the majority of those received each week to lie over till the next. The result was always the same, to wit: the unanswered letters would shortly begin to have a reproachful look about them, next an upbraiding look, and by-and-by an aggressive and insolent aspect; and when it came to that, I always opened the stove door and made an example of them. The return of cheerfulness and the flight of every feeling of distress on account of neglected duty, was immediate and thorough.

I did not answer the letter of the Wisconsin gentleman, who inquired whether imported brads were better than domestic ones, because I did not know what brads were, and did not choose to "let on" to a stranger. I thought it would have looked much better in him, anyhow, to have asked somebody who he knew was in the habit of eating brads, or wearing them, whichever is the proper way of utilizing them.

I did manage to answer the little Kentucky boy who wished to send me his wildcat. I thanked him very kindly and cordially for his donation, and said I was very fond of cats of all descriptions, and told him to do like the little Indiana boy and forward it to Rev. Mr. Beecher, and I would call and get it some time. I could not bear to check the warm young tide of his generosity, and yet I had no (immediate) use for the insect myself.

I did not answer the young man who wrote me from Tennessee, inquiring "how to become a good reporter and acceptable journalist," chiefly because if one marks out the nice easy method which he knows these kind of inquirers have in their mind's eye, they straightway begin to afflict him with semi-weekly specimens of what they can do, under the thin disguise of a friendly correspondence; and if he marks out the unromantic and unattractive method which he believes in his heart to be the absolutely necessary one, they always write back and call him a "nigger" or a "thief." These people are so illogical.

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