Friday, August 29, 2008

an insignificant individual like myself

John Lothrop Motley to Dr. O. W. Holmes.

Walton-on-Thames, September 16th, 1857.

My Dear Wendell,
This is not a letter, not even an apology for one. I only wish to say to you that I intend to write very soon, and that I hope to hear from you as often as you can overcome your avaricious tendencies. I am myself excessively miserly at this moment, for I am almost distraught at the circumlocution and circumvolutions of London. To try to do anything in a hurry here is to "hew down oaks with rushes." Sisyphus with his rock was an idle, loafing individual compared to the martyr who is doomed to work up the precipice of English routine. I have been in London a month, and my rock has just come down upon my toes for the fourth or fifth time. I have not yet got into the State Paper Office, where I expected to have effected my entrance after the first day or two succeeding my arrival. I thought to have done a great deal of work there this time. But the American Minister, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the Minister of the Interior, and the Master of the Rolls (who by the way is not a baker, as Lowell would probably suggest), and various other dignitaries have all to be made aware (in a Pickwickian sense) that an insignificant individual like myself is desirous of reading some musty and forgotten old letters which not one of them could read or would wish to if they could. A friend of mine once went into a soda-water shop in Boston on a very hot day, and was told by an elderly individual behind the counter that his son John, proprietor of the establishment, had gone to Portland, but that upon his return he would undoubtedly be very happy to prepare him a glass. This is exactly my case. The Earl of Clarendon is absent with the Queen at Balmoral. Panizzi of the British Museum is in Turin. Dallas is at the Isle of Wight, and others are hiding themselves in other corners or pretending to be absent, even if actually here, because in September it is disreputable to be in London. No moral or religious person therefore would acknowledge himself to be here. When these illustrious personages all get back, they will unite to prepare my glass of soda-water. By that time I shall be in Paris. I have also had time during the last two or three weeks to go over a mass of MS. in the British Museum. Mais il faut casser des oeufs pour faire une omelette.

Routledge tells me that your poems (particularly the Punch-Bowl), are familiar to everybody in England. I have been a recluse till now. We are at present staying at this magnificent place, Mount Felix, near Walton-on-Thames, enjoying the princely hospitality of our friends, Russell Sturgis and his wife. I wish you were here too. Remember me kindly to Lowell and Agassiz and Felton, Longfellow, Tom Appleton, and all the members of our Club, which I hope you have regularly joined by this time. My wife joins me in warmest remembrances to you and your wife and children. I am provoked that I have been writing all about myself. I shall write to you ere long again, and will not use this horrible paper. Nec tenui penna is a good motto, but Nec tenui charta shall henceforth be mine. Do write me occasionally, if only a single sheet of notepaper, and pardon the detestable stupidity of this.
Ever most sincerely your friend, J. L. M.

An English admirer of yours, Mr. Synge, attache in Her Majesty's Foreign Office, who is staying in this house and who has heard much in your praise from Thackeray, asks to send you his respects.
[Photo above, L to R, Whittier, Holmes, Emerson, Motley, Alcott, Hawthorne, Lowell, Agassiz, and Longfellow.]
-from The Correspondence of John Lothrop Motley edited by George Williams Curtis 2nd edition (London: John Murray, 1889) vol. 1, pp. 204-205.

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