Main Contents & Search
Contents: Uncollected Essays
The Autograph Fiend
by Sarah Orne Jewett
On 4 December, 1895, Sarah Orne Jewett responded to a letter from Mr. J. S. Lee. Lee had apparently solicited her signature and had indicated that he was preparing for publication a "paper" for young readers on the topic of collecting autographs. Jewett's response, therefore, includes some quite pointed remarks conveying her opinions about autograph seekers:
I suppose that you mean by 'an autograph fiend' a person who troubles a busy person unnecessarily -- for his own profit. I must say, that since there are dealers in autographs in all our large cities who can supply specimens of writing at small cost, I believe that it is much more considerate, not to say dignified, for collectors to deal with them directly.
Letters are like questions which one delights ^to answer^ if they show real interest and hates if they are simply urged by curiosity; I am afraid that I must confess to a belief that most requests for autographs come under the latter ignoble heading. Certainly the time taken up in asking for them and in replying on the author's part does not seem very well spent ^on either side^ -- and you would do well in your paper to remind young people to think seriously what it means to gather a collection of autographs from strangers: whether they should think it quite courteous to ask for time ^+ trouble^ or their equivalent, on any other grounds.
In haste yours very truly
S. O. Jewett
Whether an essay of the sort Jewett suggests ever was published is unknown, but nine years later, in 1904, a revised version of her letter appeared in "Confessions of an Autographomaniac," by "the Maniac" in the New York Independent:
The author, presumably John or Jonathan S. Lee, writes humorously about the responses he has received to autograph requests addressed to prominent people, mainly authors. Whether this is the case with all the letters he quotes, clearly in Jewett's instance, he goes to some length to disguise her, identifying her as male. He also suggests that he merely asked her for her signature, omitting mention of his intending to write an article and soliciting her comments. In a piece that humorously skewers several of his respondents, Jewett is among those receiving favorable treatment. However, he does not follow her advice, which he has omitted in his revision of her letter. His essay may persuade considerate people to think twice before troubling an author for an autograph, but his main purpose seems to be to entertain readers with the more interesting responses he has received and to encourage readers to seek similar reactions.One of our foremost novelists generously gave me his opinion of autograph collectors. I was delighted to receive the letter, for I did not expect more than a signature:
Dear Sir: You are one of those who trouble a busy person unnecessarily. I must say that since there are dealers in autographs in all large cities who can supply specimens of writing at small cost, I believe it is much more considerate, not to say dignified, for collectors to deal with them directly, Letters are like questions, which one delights to answer if they show real interest, and hates if they are simply urged by curiosity. I am afraid that I must confess to a belief that your request for an autograph comes under the latter ignoble heading. Certainly the time taken up in asking for it and in replying on my part does not seem very well spent on either side; and I would remind you and others to think seriously what it means to gather a collection of autographs. Go and sin no more. (1196)
Following is the full text of "Confessions of an Autographomaniac."
Dear Sir: The manuscript of this letter is held in the Sarah Orne Jewett Collection, 1801-1997, of the University of New England's Maine Women Writers Collection: II. Correspondence, item 134. For some discussion of this letter, see Kelsey Squire, Professional Correspondence of Sarah Orne Jewett (2013).
Confessions of an Autographomaniac
The Independent (New York) 55 (26 May 1904) pp. 1195-8.
BY THE MANIAC
I AM of humble but highly respectable parentage, and wish it understood that I hold no one responsible for the mania which possesses me. It was not inherited, nor caught as an infectious disease from some other maniac -- it sprung up in a night, like a mushroom. I take the whole responsibility on my own not too broad shoulders. At times I might feel ashamed of myself were I not strengthened by the thought that this is the age of the survival of the fittest, and I am certainly inclined to the belief that I am a fit person to reside in this " vale of tears," for only the fittest could survive what I have gone through. The patronizing airs, the sharp words and stony silences of many of the celebrities I have approached should constitute a proper test.
I am also convinced that, if not a man of iron, I am at least composed of some hard substance. Two and twenty was my age when I wrote for my first autograph, and a young man made of less sturdy material would have been squelched beyond possibility of rising by the reply I received. The books of a well-known author (he is still living, by the way, and I hope very happy) had given me genuine pleasure, and I thought it would be quite decorous to write and tell him so, and also to add a request for his autograph. Will you say that I am a weakling when I tell you I survived the answer ? Here it is:
My Dear Sir: I Have your letter of the 8th in which yon frankly avow yourself an "autograph fiend," say my work has given you pleasure, and ask for a sample of my chirography. I presume that you are correct in your statement, but may I give you a little friendly advice so that this letter shall not be merely a sample of chirography? Your letter reads too much like a circular; you are not specific enough; you do not go into details; you do not compare the different characters of my novels and state your preferences. The next time you make such an application to ask author it would be well to be more explicit, lest he think that you have only seen his name in a catalogue, and never have read any of his books, I observe, also, that your parents appear to have named you for the beloved disciple, but you write it "Jno." Suppose you should open your Bible to-morrow and read: "I, Jno, who am also your brother," etc. "Jno" spells nothing, and as an abbreviation it worth nothing, for by the time you have put in the period your pen has made as many motions as are required to write the full name. It is abominable and inexcusable. Write it no more.
I carefully filed the letter away -- surely an interesting nucleus for my collection -- and altho it unnerved me for a time, I was not compelled to take to my bed or call in the family physician. If I remember aright (it was many years ago) I wrote an impudent reply, but I am sorry for it now.
My manner is still rather unfortunate -- it seem to lack humor and tact -- but it must have been much more so in the first years of my collecting. It did not seem to inspire confidence, Every one, and especially the "rising young author" who had one or two novels to his credit, seemed suspicious and arrogant, and said enough hard things to kill a hypersensitive person. But, fortunately, such am not I! I remember writing what I deemed a clever and "fetching" application to an author of charming stories, who resided in a small Illinois town, Imagine my chagrin when I received a reply like this:
What is the ordinary autograph fiend -- kind amiable soul! -- compared to the man who goes out and sets questions traps for autographs! The man, in short, who stirs up the animal's combativeness and sits grinning to see it perform He shall bag nothing but initials from F. E. M.
I do not like to be accused of resorting to subterfuge, and this retort hurt me somewhat; but I assure the indulgent reader that F. E, M. did me a great injustice. I had no intention of deceiving her. I was as innocent as a lamb.
It is a terrible confession, but I have become about impervious to cutting words and shabby treatment. However, there is one thing that will lash me into a fury and that is to be taken for a small boy. An antiquated maiden lady, of some considerable fame, who affects a liking for children, answered me in this manner:
My Dear Young Friend: It always gives me pleasure to write my name for byys and girls, but I usually decline to comply with similar requests from grown-ups. You write a very good letter for a boy of -- shall I say? -- fourteen, and I am sure you do not idle away your time at school, Your mother must be proud of you … I shall soon publish a new book, entitled "_____," and I think you will like it. Perhaps your papa would be glad to buy it for you. Price $1.50, net.
And I twenty-four years of age! The parsimonious old maid had an eye to business.
There are many celebrities, especially among authors, who ask the autographomaniac to do things in return for an autograph. A distinguished American historian replied to my request in the following words:
I was glad to receive your letter, for it gives me an opportunity to ask you to do something for me. If possible, I should like you to send me (I had written to him on the letter head of lumber firm with which I was then connected) ten or a dozen photographs of scenes in lumber camps. By doing this you will greatly oblige, etc.
Very brief, but very explicit. No mention was made of postage, much less the cost of the photographs. Out of the generosity of my heart I complied with the historian's request, and never received an acknowledgment!
But it takes a woman to cap the climax. The writer of the letter given below is very well known in the literary world, and has at least thirty novels for which she will some day be called upon to answer:
Mr Dear Mr. _____ : Be assured that I was very pleased indeed to receive your letter of the eighth, and I thank you very much for your kind words about my books. The mere name-seekers, who know nothing about one's work and care less are past endurance. They should be thrust forth from the congregation of the righteous into outer and nethermost darkness, but autograph collectors who really know and care for an author's work should be tolerated by all means. Of course. I place you in the latter category. If I have given you pleasure, would you not also take pleasure in doing me a favor? My new novel will be upon the market in a few days, and I wish you would do all in your power to increase its sale. I am sending you by express a few hundred circulars, which kindly distribute carefully where they will do the most good. If you can, my dear Mr. ____, you might write your friends who live out of town recommending the book to them. If I have not sent you enough circulars, kindly advise me and I will forward more. Believe me, sincerely your friend, etc.
"Sincerely your friend"! How the words rang in my ears! I was pleased, for I was young. To be the "friend" of a well-known writer of novels seemed to me to be something of quite commanding proportions. I went to work in earnest. I distributed the circulars, sent for more, and wrote letters to all my friends telling them it was the greatest book of the year. I do not know whether or not this author is still "sincerely my friend." I hope so, for I certainly did enough to earn her lasting friendship. The sale of the novel referred to must have been increased something less than one thousand copies by my efforts.
The New England poets have always been favorites of mine, but I never suspected that they amounted to much as business men until I received the following response from one of them, written on the margin of a circular advertising three volumes of poems
Here's my autograph
Writ as a favor to thee;
Now buy these three books
As a favor to me.
I bought them, of course. What else could I do?
One of our foremost novelists generously gave me his opinion of autograph collectors. I was delighted to receive the letter, for I did not expect more than a signature:
Dear Sir: You are one of those who trouble a busy person unnecessarily. I must say that since there are dealers in autographs in all large cities who can supply specimens of writing at small cost, I believe it is much more considerate, not to say dignified, for collectors to deal with them directly, Letters are like questions, which one delights to answer if they show real interest, and hates if they are simply urged by curiosity. I am afraid that I must confess to a belief that your request for an autograph comes under the latter ignoble heading. Certainly the time taken up in asking for it and in replying on my part does not seem very well spent on either side; and I would remind you and others to think seriously what it means to gather a collection of autographs. Go and sin no more.
It is seldom that one is willing to say he is glad that he is ignorant on matters he ought to know. But I'm very glad that I know little of postal laws. If I had known that it was illegal to inclose coin in a letter addressed to England I should not have received a delicious little letter which I prize highly. It is from one of the cleverest (and, I venture to say, most egotistical) of living English writers, who would, I doubt not, rather say a clever thing any day than a true one—a gentleman whom, nevertheless, I greatly admire for his brilliant essays and charming novels. He reprimands me very sharply; but I appeal to you, how was I, an ignorant, irresponsible autographomaniac, to know that I was violating the English postal regulations by inclosing a ten-cent piece to pay the return postage? I had tried unsuccessfully to procure foreign stamps at the local post office and elsewhere, so was reduced to the necessity of inclosing coin, which I did innocently enough and without malice in my heart. Here is the letter:
Dear Sir: I have your letter in which you give me a great deal of twaddle; and I beg to say that you are the worst fiend of all because your enclosure of coin might have subjected me to a heavy fee, It would be only justice if I sent it back to yon instead of my signature. Your tribe is shameless and should be annihilated, but the task is too large for me to undertake. . . .
A great American humorist was making a prolonged stay in Europe when it occurred to me that a letter of his would do much to adorn my collection, I wished to be discreet and make no mistakes, so I took the precaution to write to a friend across the water asking him to send me some stamps that I might inclose the proper postage when sending my application to the distinguished humorist. This particular "funny man " is never happier than when he is pointing out the offenses and weaknesses of his fellow men; in short, he loves to have fun at the expense of other people. My ill-luck pursued me. It was another case of being "damned if you do and damned if you don't." I was amazed when the humorist rather made game of my considerateness in inclosing stamps, but I suspect (perhaps in this I am wrong) that it was nothing more than a peg upon which to hang his little joke on the American postmaster. The reply ran as follows:
Why, certainly; I do it with pleasure You will find it at the bottom of this. But you did not need to enclose stamps. You only needed to tell me not to prepay this answer, but leave you to pay at your end of the line. In no part of the world do letters to foreign countries need to be prepaid Perhaps tome American post masters know this, but in fifteen years I have not come across one that knew it.
The next letter is from the pen of a statesman, who is a very serious person indeed. He hasn't much sense of humor and cannot treat any subject with " playful fancy' unless it be fishing and fishermen. It was the fashion, twenty years ago, in certain circles, to ridicule this gentleman. He was not thought to be a very big man intellectually, and sportive persons of the opposite party delighted in cheap talk at his expense. But fair-minded men of all parties have now come to look upon him with respect and even admiration. His ability, independence of spirit, and devotion to duty as he sees it have won for him a high place in our political annals. In a quiet home he is now spending his last years as every gentleman and scholar should, a kind Providence permitting. I inadvertently omitted to inclose a stamped and addressed envelope, and I take this opportunity of extending an apology to the great man:
If you are an autograph fiend, you are a very mild and pleasant one. But I wish that particular kind of fiend would recognize the fact that, in their favor-asking business, the least they can do is to make compliance with their requests as easy as possible….
It is balm to the soul of the autographomaniac when he can himself escape rebuke and at the same time call forth a little sermon on the wrongdoing of his brothers. As you may imagine, it is no easy thing to accomplish this feat of letters. It requires mental agility, subtle reasoning and elasticity of conscience such as an ignorant person who like myself may command only once or twice in a lifetime. Therefore, it is with pardonable pride that I print the letter that is to follow. It us from a lady who is remarkable for her versatility and whose charm is perennial. Her name is known to every reader in the land, young and old, for she has written for all of them. Pray consider how hard it was for me to restrain my "flattering tongue " in writing to her, But was not this delightful letter sufficient recompense? Unhappy thought! Did she intend, after all, to include me in her rebuke? The reader must judge:
My Dear Mr. _____: I should think that nothing would be so likely to obtain an autograph as an unaffected, courteous request If I had time I could write yon a rather interesting article on the subject. It is not a small one, and involves good breeding, knowledge of the world, and an intelligent perception of the singular and painful fact that there are only twenty-four hours in a day, and that a man or woman who writes books has the same sordid need of a few of them as a washerwoman or a bricklayer. One of the curious scientific discoveries future ages will make will be that books are not written while authors are lying on beds of roses, fanned by the wandering breezes of heaven. I am one of those who "resent profuse flattery." In the first place, it is an impertinence, as it argues that one is at once unused to hearing amiable things, and weak enough of mind to be immediately elated and spurred to lavishness by them. Then, also, letters containing it always recall to me those oilier letters beginning: "Madam, having heard of your charitable deeds and reputation for noble generosity, I take my pen in hand to ask you to . . . 'support my family' to . , . 'buy me a piano,' to . . 'pay my debts," etc. Thank you that your letter confined itself to a statement plain and frank enough to be accepted with a sense of pleasure. Appreciation which is real and simple one would be a poor thing not to value.
I had read a volume of pungent essays by an author well known on both sides of the Atlantic. Thought I, here is a man who will appreciate originality. If I approach him in an unconventional way he will do something handsome. Accordingly, I wrote him in effect that I could boast of sufficient grace to read and admire his writings; that I thought I deserved nothing short of immortality and that the blackness of my sin should not be remembered against me. I shall not again try to be original, for the reply was savage. I was not even given the dignity of sex, but was referred to as it.
Of course, the autographomaniac receives many businesslike communications like the following, perfectly courteous but not overdiffuse in style: "Yours received. I am happy to inclose the desired autograph." But such acknowledgments do not give one that peculiarly pleasant thrill that accompanies the receipt of a "call down" or scathing denunciation. The maniac worthy of the name is not thin-skinned, and does not weep when he is told that he is a bore and a great nuisance. It is an interesting autograph he is after, and once he gets it the world may wag its cruel tongue until it is tired -- little he cares!
Such distinguished collectors as Dr. G. Birkbeck Hill and Mr. Adrian Joline turn up their noses at my kind. For some reason best known to themselves resent being placed in the same category as myself. But, bless their hearts! they are blind. They think their manner of riding a hobby is the only safe and proper way; but what are their pleasures and troubles compared with mine? They collect through dealers, and at the auction sales, spend heaps of money (which they carefully refrain from mentioning to their wives ), and when they have secured the coveted autographs, what have they got? Dry-as-dust letters written for the most part by men long since gone to their fathers. With me and my brothers it is different. We choose a vulnerable point for attack, make a dashing charge, and usually come away with something alive -- and a few scars! Keep your musty, dusty stuff, Mr. Joline and Dr. Hill; spend your money and get all the pleasure you can out of your hobby, but please do not put anything in the way of my collection by direct application.
"Shocking," you say. Perhaps; but I am willing to take the consequences.
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College
Main Content& Search
Contents: Uncollected Essays