One of the reasons I enjoy collecting “historic documents,” so-called, is the way they capture tiny slices of the past.
Here’s a letter I just purchased, written by T.S. Eliot in 1960. (Remember 1960? Astonishingly, some of you don’t.) It’s anything but momentous; just a brief note to a woman at The League of Dramatists in London. But here’s the part I like: “I’m very glad that the videotape (that’s a new word to me) matter is settled, and that I have your support.”
Isn’t that great? Men were already making plans to walk on the moon, but here was videotape, a new word to a writer who surely knew them all. Our modern techno-age has just come rushing along so fast.
And here is a letter from William Howard Taft of Ohio, August 26, 1908, responding from Hot Springs, Virginia, to a lawyer in Boston. The lawyer had apparently advising presidential-candidate Taft that it might appear unseemly for him to make speeches. “The question of my making speeches or not,” he writes back, “is a question that I must submit to the National Committee, whose advice in matters of this sort I may properly follow.” And then goes on to dispute “the English criticisms” some Brit must have made. (“Certainly it would be very remarkable for an Englishman to criticize the making of speeches in a campaign when we have had such great exhibitions of campaign discussion as were made by Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli and other English leaders, without detracting in the slightest from the dignity of the office to which they were aspiring, to wit, that of the Premiership of England.”)
Can you imagine — a presidential campaign without speeches? Taft went on to beat William Jennings Bryan by a landslide, speechifying all the way. (Four years later, his mentor Teddy Roosevelt would run against him as a third-party candidate, splitting the Republican vote and throwing the prize to Woodrow Wilson. In 1921, Taft was appointed Chief Justice.)
Lest you think I’ve lost my mind, I should say that minor letters like these cost just a few hundred dollars. (I know, I know — you still think I’ve still lost my mind. But, please! Williams-Sonoma is selling a toaster for $375 with delivery and tax . . . albeit a very classy toaster . . . so every time I buy a letter I just pretend to buy a $12 toaster, as well, applying the putative $363 saving to the cost of the letter. I have a lot of letters and a roomful of imaginary toasters.) And think about it. For at least a couple of minutes on a hot Virginia August day, Taft must have been annoyed or bemused but, in any event, occupied answering the Boston lawyer’s letter. In a sense, I own those two minutes.