Tuesday, February 28, 2017

“The Letter,” revised

The text of “The Letter,” a poem by Charles William Eliot, revised by Woodrow Wilson, is inscribed on the façade of the Old City Post Office in Washington, D.C., now the National Postal Museum:

Messenger of Sympathy and Love
Servant of Parted Friends
Consoler of the Lonely
Bond of the Scattered Family
Enlarger of the Common Life
Carrier of News and Knowledge
Instrument of Trade and Industry
Promoter of Mutual Acquaintance
Of Peace and of Goodwill Among Men and

Text as reproduced in Winifred Gallagher, How the Post Office Created America: A History (New York: Penguin, 2016).
As someone who still writes and receives letters, I think that the text of this poem should be better known. The only reference to it on the NPM’s website appears on an FAQ page, right before a brief account of a now-abandoned Graceful Envelope Contest.

I found a thoughtful commentary on “The Letter” by Eliza D. Keith, a self-identified “San Francisco schoolteacher” who had the nerve to rethink Eliot’s and Wilson’s words. In doing so, she was taking on two presidents. (Eliot was the president of Harvard when he wrote this poem). I love the cheeky reminder that “The cat may look at the king.” Which text do you prefer: Eliot’s, Wilson’s, or Keith’s?

[Eliza D, Keith, “Wilson’s Revision of Dr. Eliot’s English.” The Western Journal of Education 19, no.2 (February 1914). There’s an obvious glitch in the “For the East Pavilion” text: the first “Promoter of mutual acquaintance” should be removed. The Butler quoted at the end: another president, Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University.]

Eliza D. Keith did a fair amount of writing. Her newspaper contribution “7,000,000 Women Bread Winners Need the Ballot” (The San Francisco Call, August 7, 1911) may be read online. An excerpt:
It has never seemed to me that the question of equal suffrage — votes for women as well as men — calls for any argument. It is self-evident.

The struggle is for women to obtain what belongs to them as human beings, as individuals, as citizens taxed to support a government in which they have no representation.
The Call proclaimed Keith a “Real Leader Among Suffragists.” And she was. The byline for this piece identifies her as a Past Grand President of the Native Daughters of the Golden West and, yes, “Teacher in San Francisco School Department.”

Related viewing
Photographs of the inscription: 1, 2 (Flickr)

[I couldn’t have assembled and tidied up the columns of Keith’s piece without the great Mac app Acorn.]

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