The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 3

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The Americanization of Edward Bok by Edward W. Bok
Chapter 3: The Hunger for Self-Education

WITH school-days ended, the question of self-education became an absorbing thought with Edward Bok. He had mastered a schoolboy’s English, but seven years of public-school education was hardly a basis on which to build the work of a lifetime. He saw each day in his duties as office boy some of the foremost men of the time. It was the period of William H. Vanderbilt’s ascendancy in Western Union control; and the railroad millionnaire and his companions, Hamilton McK. Twombly, James H. Banker, Samuel F. Barger, Alonzo B. Cornell, Augustus Schell, William Orton, were objects of great interest to the young office boy. Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Edison were also constant visitors to the department. He knew that some of these men, too, had been deprived of the advantage of collegiate training, and yet they had risen to the top. But how? The boy decided to read about these men and others, and find out. He could not, however, afford the separate biographies, so he went to the libraries to find a compendium that would authoritatively tell him of all successful men. He found it in Appleton’s Encyclopædia, and, determining to have only the best, he saved his luncheon money, walked instead of riding the five miles to his Brooklyn home, and, after a period of saving, had his reward in the first purchase from his own earnings: a set of the Encyclopædia. He now read about all the successful men, and was encouraged to find that in many cases their beginnings had been as modest as his own, and their opportunities of education as limited.

One day it occurred to him to test the accuracy of the biographies he was reading. James A. Garfield was then spoken of for the presidency; Edward wondered whether it was true that the man who was likely to be President of the United States had once been a boy on the tow-path, and with a simple directness characteristic of his Dutch training, wrote to General Garfield, asking whether the boyhood episode was true, and explaining why he asked. Of course any public man, no matter how large his correspondence, is pleased to receive an earnest letter from an information-seeking boy. General Garfield answered warmly and fully. Edward showed the letter to his father, who told the boy that it was valuable and he should keep it. This was a new idea. He followed it further: if one such letter was valuable, how much more valuable would be a hundred! If General Garfield answered him, would not other famous men? Why not begin a collection of autograph letters? Everybody collected something.

Edward had collected postage-stamps, and the hobby had, incidentally, helped him wonderfully in his study of geography. Why should not autograph letters from famous persons be of equal service in his struggle for self-education? Not simple autographs—they were meaningless; but actual letters which might tell him something useful. It never occurred to the boy that these men might not answer him.

So he took his Encyclopædia—its trustworthiness now established in his mind by General Garfield’s letter—and began to study the lives of successful men and women. Then, with boyish frankness, he wrote on some mooted question in one famous person’s life; he asked about the date of some important event in another’s, not given in the Encyclopædia; or he asked one man why he did this or why some other man did that.

Most interesting were, of course, the replies. Thus General Grant sketched on an improvised map the exact spot where General Lee surrendered to him; Longfellow told him how he came to write “Excelsior”; Whittier told the story of “The Barefoot Boy”; Tennyson wrote out a stanza or two of “The Brook,” upon condition that Edward would not again use the word “awful,” which the poet said “is slang for ‘very,’” and “I hate slang.”

One day the boy received a letter from the Confederate general Jubal A. Early, giving the real reason why he burned Chambersburg. A friend visiting Edward’s father, happening to see the letter, recognized in it a hitherto-missing bit of history, and suggested that it be published in the New York Tribune. The letter attracted wide attention and provoked national discussion.

This suggested to the editor of The Tribune that Edward might have other equally interesting letters; so he despatched a reporter to the boy’s home. This reporter was Ripley Hitchcock, who afterward became literary adviser for the Appletons and Harpers. Of course Hitchcock at once saw a “story” in the boy’s letters, and within a few days The Tribune appeared with a long article on its principal news page giving an account of the Brooklyn boy’s remarkable letters and how he had secured them. The Brooklyn Eagle quickly followed with a request for an interview; the Boston Globe followed suit; the Philadelphia Public Ledger sent its New York correspondent; and before Edward was aware of it, newspapers in different parts of the country were writing about “the well-known Brooklyn autograph collector.”

Edward Bok was quick to see the value of the publicity which had so suddenly come to him. He received letters from other autograph collectors all over the country who sought to “exchange” with him. References began to creep into letters from famous persons to whom he had written, saying they had read about his wonderful collection and were proud to be included in it. George W. Childs, of Philadelphia, himself the possessor of probably one of the finest collections of autograph letters in the country, asked Edward to come to Philadelphia and bring his collection with him—which he did, on the following Sunday, and brought it back greatly enriched.

Several of the writers felt an interest in a boy who frankly told them that he wanted to educate himself, and asked Edward to come and see them. Accordingly, when they lived in New York or Brooklyn, or came to these cities on a visit, he was quick to avail himself of their invitations. He began to note each day in the newspapers the “distinguished arrivals” at the New York hotels; and when any one with whom he had corresponded arrived, Edward would, after business hours, go up-town, pay his respects, and thank him in person for his letters. No person was too high for Edward’s boyish approach; President Garfield, General Grant, General Sherman, President Hayes—all were called upon, and all received the boy graciously and were interested in the problem of his self-education. It was a veritable case of making friends on every hand; friends who were to be of the greatest help and value to the boy in his after-years, although he had no conception of it at the time.

The Fifth Avenue Hotel, in those days the stopping-place of the majority of the famous men and women visiting New York, represented to the young boy who came to see these celebrities the very pinnacle of opulence. Often while waiting to be received by some dignitary, he wondered how one could acquire enough means to live at a place of such luxury. The main dining-room, to the boy’s mind, was an object of special interest. He would purposely sneak up-stairs and sit on one of the soft sofas in the foyer simply to see the well-dressed diners go in and come out. Edward would speculate on whether the time would ever come when he could dine in that wonderful room just once!

One evening he called, after the close of business, upon General and Mrs. Grant, whom he had met before, and who had expressed a desire to see his collection. It can readily be imagined what a red-letter day it made in the boy’s life to have General Grant say: “It might be better for us all to go down to dinner first and see the collection afterward.” Edward had purposely killed time between five and seven o’clock, thinking that the general’s dinner-hour, like his own, was at six. He had allowed an hour for the general to eat his dinner, only to find that he was still to begin it. The boy could hardly believe his ears, and unable to find his voice, he failed to apologize for his modest suit or his general after-business appearance.

As in a dream he went down in the elevator with his host and hostess, and when the party of three faced toward the dining-room entrance, so familiar to the boy, he felt as if his legs must give way under him. There have since been other red-letter days in Edward Bok’s life, but the moment that still stands out preeminent is that when two colored head waiters at the dining-room entrance, whom he had so often watched, bowed low and escorted the party to their table. At last, he was in that sumptuous dining-hall. The entire room took on the picture of one great eye, and that eye centred on the party of three—as, in fact, it naturally would. But Edward felt that the eye was on him, wondering why he should be there.

What he ate and what he said he does not recall. General Grant, not a voluble talker himself, gently drew the boy out, and Mrs. Grant seconded him, until toward the close of the dinner he heard himself talking. He remembers that he heard his voice, but what that voice said is all dim to him. One act stamped itself on his mind. The dinner ended with a wonderful dish of nuts and raisins, and just before the party rose from the table Mrs. Grant asked the waiter to bring her a paper bag. Into this she emptied the entire dish, and at the close of the evening she gave it to Edward “to eat on the way home.” It was a wonderful evening, afterward up-stairs, General Grant smoking the inevitable cigar, and telling stories as he read the letters of different celebrities. Over those of Confederate generals he grew reminiscent; and when he came to a letter from General Sherman, Edward remembers that he chuckled audibly, reread it, and then turning to Mrs. Grant, said: “Julia, listen to this from Sherman. Not bad.” The letter he read was this:      DEAR MR. BOK:—
  I prefer not to make scraps of sentimental writing. When I write anything I want it to be real and connected in form, as, for instance, in your quotation from Lord Lytton’s play of “Richelieu,” “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Lord Lytton would never have put his signature to so naked a sentiment. Surely I will not.
  In the text there was a prefix or qualification: Beneath the rule of men entirely great

The pen is mightier than the sword.
  Now, this world does not often present the condition of facts herein described. Men entirely great are very rare indeed, and even Washington, who approached greatness as near as any mortal, found good use for the sword and the pen, each in its proper sphere.
  You and I have seen the day when a great and good man ruled this country (Lincoln) who wielded a powerful and prolific pen, and yet had to call to his assistance a million of flaming swords.
  No, I cannot subscribe to your sentiment, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which you ask me to write, because it is not true.
  Rather, in the providence of God, there is a time for all things; a time when the sword may cut the Gordian knot, and set free the principles of right and justice, bound up in the meshes of hatred, revenge, and tyranny, that the pens of mighty men like Clay, Webster, Crittenden, and Lincoln were unable to disentangle. Wishing you all success, I am, with respect, your friend,

W. T. SHERMAN.

Mrs. Grant had asked Edward to send her a photograph of himself, and after one had been taken, the boy took it to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, intending to ask the clerk to send it to her room. Instead, he met General and Mrs. Grant just coming from the elevator, going out to dinner. The boy told them his errand, and said he would have the photograph sent up-stairs.

“I am so sorry we are just going out to dinner,” said Mrs. Grant, “for the general had some excellent photographs just taken of himself, and he signed one for you, and put it aside, intending to send it to you when yours came.” Then, turning to the general, she said: “Ulysses, send up for it. We have a few moments.”

“I’ll go and get it. I know just where it is,” returned the general. “Let me have yours,” he said, turning to Edward. “I am glad to exchange photographs with you, boy.”

To Edward’s surprise, when the general returned he brought with him, not a duplicate of the small carte-de-visite size which he had given the generall—all that he could afford—but a large, full cabinet size.

“They make ’em too big,” said the general, as he handed it to Edward.

But the boy didn’t think so!

That evening was one that the boy was long to remember. It suddenly came to him that he had read a few days before of Mrs. Abraham Lincoln’s arrival in New York at Doctor Holbrook’s sanitarium. Thither Edward went; and within half an hour from the time he had been talking with General Grant he was sitting at the bedside of Mrs. Lincoln, showing her the wonderful photograph just presented to him. Edward saw that the widow of the great Lincoln did not mentally respond to his pleasure in his possession. It was apparent even to the boy that mental and physical illness had done their work with the frail frame. But he had the memory, at least, of having got that close to the great President. [figure]

The eventful evening, however, was not yet over. Edward had boarded a Broadway stage to take him to his Brooklyn home when, glancing at the newspaper of a man sitting next to him, he saw the headline: “Jefferson Davis arrives in New York.” He read enough to see that the Confederate President was stopping at the Metropolitan Hotel, in lower Broadway, and as he looked out of the stage-window the sign “Metropolitan Hotel” stared him in the face. In a moment he was out of the stage; he wrote a little note, asked the clerk to send it to Mr. Davis, and within five minutes was talking to the Confederate President and telling of his remarkable evening.

Mr. Davis was keenly interested in the coincidence and in the boy before him. He asked about the famous collection, and promised to secure for Edward a letter written by each member of the Confederate Cabinet. This he subsequently did. Edward remained with Mr. Davis until ten o’clock, and that evening brought about an interchange of letters between the Brooklyn boy and Mr. Davis at Beauvoir, Mississippi, that lasted until the latter passed away.

Edward was fast absorbing a tremendous quantity of biographical information about the most famous men and women of his time, and he was compiling a collection of autograph letters that the newspapers had made famous throughout the country. He was ruminating over his possessions one day, and wondering to what practical use he could put his collection; for while it was proving educative to a wonderful degree, it was, after all, a hobby, and a hobby means expense. His autograph quest cost him stationery, postage, car-fare—all outgo. But it had brought him no income, save a rich mental revenue. And the boy and his family needed money. He did not know, then, the value of a background.

He was thinking along this line in a restaurant when a man sitting next to him opened a box of cigarettes, and taking a picture out of it threw it on the floor. Edward picked it up, thinking it might be a “prospect” for his collection of autograph letters. It was the picture of a well-known actress. He then recalled an advertisement announcing that this particular brand of cigarettes contained, in each package, a lithographed portrait of some famous actor or actress, and that if the purchaser would collect these he would, in the end, have a valuable album of the greatest actors and actresses of the day. Edward turned the picture over, only to find a blank reverse side. “All very well,” he thought, “but what does a purchaser have, after all, in the end, but a lot of pictures? Why don’t they use the back of each picture, and tell what each did: a little biography? Then it would be worth keeping.” With his passion for self-education, the idea appealed very strongly to him; and believing firmly that there were others possessed of the same thirst, he set out the next day, in his luncheon hour, to find out who made the picture.

At the office of the cigarette company he learned that the making of the pictures was in the hands of the Knapp Lithographic Company. The following luncheon hour, Edward sought the offices of the company, and explained his idea to Mr. Joseph P. Knapp, now the president of the American Lithograph Company.

“I’ll give you ten dollars apiece if you will write me a one-hundred-word biography of one hundred famous Americans,” was Mr. Knapp’s instant reply. “Send me a list, and group them, as, for instance: presidents and vice-presidents, famous soldiers, actors, authors, etc.”

“And thus,” says Mr. Knapp, as he tells the tale today, “I gave Edward Bok his first literary commission, and started him off on his literary career.”

And it is true.

But Edward soon found the Lithograph Company calling for “copy,” and, write as he might, he could not supply the biographies fast enough. He, at last, completed the first hundred, and so instantaneous was their success that Mr. Knapp called for a second hundred, and then for a third. Finding that one hand was not equal to the task, Edward offered his brother five dollars for each biography; he made the same offer to one or two journalists whom he knew and whose accuracy he could trust; and he was speedily convinced that merely to edit biographies written by others, at one-half the price paid to him, was more profitable than to write himself.

So with five journalists working at top speed to supply the hungry lithograph presses, Mr. Knapp was likewise responsible for Edward Bok’s first adventure as an editor. It was commercial, if you will, but it was a commercial editing that had a distinct educational value to a large public.

The important point is that Edward Bok was being led more and more to writing and to editorship.