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By Edward Bok
THE AMERICANIZATION OF EDWARD BOK
The Autobiography of a Dutch Boy Fifty Years After
To the American woman I owe much, but to two women I owe more,
My mother and my wife.
And to them I dedicate this account of the boy to whom one gave
birth and brought to manhood and the other blessed with all a
home and family may mean.
This book was to have been written in 1914, when I foresaw some leisure to write it, for I then intended to retire from active editorship. But the war came, an entirely new set of duties commanded, and the project was laid aside.
Its title and the form, however, were then chosen. By the form I refer particularly to the use of the third person. I had always felt the most effective method of writing an autobiography, for the sake of a better perspective, was mentally to separate the writer from his subject by this device.
Moreover, this method came to me very naturally in dealing with the Edward Bok, editor and publicist, whom I have tried to describe in this book, because, in many respects, he has had and has been a personality apart from my private self. I have again and again found myself watching with intense amusement and interest the Edward Bok of this book at work. I have, in turn, applauded him and criticised him, as I do in this book. Not that I ever considered myself bigger or broader than this Edward Bok: simply that he was different. His tastes, his outlook, his manner of looking at things were totally at variance with my own. In fact, my chief difficulty during Edward Bok's directorship of The Ladies' Home Journal was to abstain from breaking through the editor and revealing my real self. Several times I did so, and each time I saw how different was the effect from that when the editorial Edward Bok had been allowed sway. Little by little I learned to subordinate myself and to let him have full rein.
But no relief of my life was so great to me personally as his decision to retire from his editorship. My family and friends were surprised and amused by my intense and obvious relief when he did so. Only to those closest to me could I explain the reason for the sense of absolute freedom and gratitude that I felt.
Since that time my feelings have been an interesting study to myself. There are no longer two personalities. The Edward Bok of whom I have written has passed out of my being as completely as if he had never been there, save for the records and files on my library shelves. It is easy, therefore, for me to write of him as a personality apart: in fact, I could not depict him from any other point of view. To write of him in the first person, as if he were myself, is impossible, for he is not.
The title suggests my principal reason for writing the book. Every life has some interest and significance; mine, perhaps, a special one. Here was a little Dutch boy unceremoniously set down in America unable to make himself understood or even to know what persons were saying; his education was extremely limited, practically negligible; and yet, by some curious decree of fate, he was destined to write, for a period of years, to the largest body of readers ever addressed by an American editor--the circulation of the magazine he edited running into figures previously unheard of in periodical literature. He made no pretense to style or even to composition: his grammar was faulty, as it was natural it should be, in a language not his own. His roots never went deep, for the intellectual soil had not been favorable to their growth;--yet, it must be confessed, he achieved.
But how all this came about, how such a boy, with every disadvantage to overcome, was able, apparently, to "make good"--this possesses an interest and for some, perhaps, a value which, after all, is the only reason for any book.
EDWARD W. BOKMERION, PENNSYLVANIA, 1920
IN WHOSE LIVES ARE FOUND THE SOURCE AND MAINSPRING OF SOME OF THE EFFORTS OF THE AUTHOR OF THIS BOOK IN HIS LATER YEARS
Along an island in the North Sea, five miles from the Dutch Coast, stretches a dangerous ledge of rocks that has proved the graveyard of many a vessel sailing that turbulent sea. On this island once lived a group of men who, as each vessel was wrecked, looted the vessel and murdered those of the crew who reached shore. The government of the Netherlands decided to exterminate the island pirates, and for the job King William selected a young lawyer at The Hague.
"I want you to clean up that island," was the royal order. It was a formidable job for a young man of twenty-odd years. By royal proclamation he was made mayor of the island, and within a year, a court of law being established, the young attorney was appointed judge; and in that dual capacity he "cleaned up" the island.
The young man now decided to settle on the island, and began to look around for a home. It was a grim place, barren of tree or living green of any kind; it was as if a man had been exiled to Siberia. Still, argued the young mayor, an ugly place is ugly only because it is not beautiful. And beautiful he determined this island should be.
One day the young mayor-judge called together his council. "We must have trees," he said; "we can make this island a spot of beauty if we will!" But the practical seafaring men demurred; the little money they had was needed for matters far more urgent than trees.
"Very well," was the mayor's decision--and little they guessed what the words were destined to mean--"I will do it myself." And that year he planted one hundred trees, the first the island had ever seen.
"Too cold," said the islanders; "the severe north winds and storms will kill them all."
"Then I will plant more," said the unperturbed mayor. And for the fifty years that he lived on the island he did so. He planted trees each year; and, moreover, he had deeded to the island government land which he turned into public squares and parks, and where each spring he set out shrubs and plants.
Moistened by the salt mist the trees did not wither, but grew prodigiously. In all that expanse of turbulent sea--and only those who have seen the North Sea in a storm know how turbulent it can be--there was not a foot of ground on which the birds, storm-driven across the water-waste, could rest in their flight. Hundreds of dead birds often covered the surface of the sea. Then one day the trees had grown tall enough to look over the sea, and, spent and driven, the first birds came and rested in their leafy shelter. And others came and found protection, and gave their gratitude vent in song. Within a few years so many birds had discovered the trees in this new island home that they attracted the attention not only of the native islanders but also of the people on the shore five miles distant, and the island became famous as the home of the rarest and most beautiful birds. So grateful were the birds for their resting-place that they chose one end of the island as a special spot for the laying of their eggs and the raising of their young, and they fairly peopled it. It was not long before ornithologists from various parts of the world came to "Eggland," as the farthermost point of the island came to be known, to see the marvellous sight, not of thousands but of hundreds of thousands of bird-eggs.
A pair of storm-driven nightingales had now found the island and mated there; their wonderful notes thrilled even the souls of the natives; and as dusk fell upon the seabound strip of land the women and children would come to "the square" and listen to the evening notes of the birds of golden song. The two nightingales soon grew into a colony, and within a few years so rich was the island in its nightingales that over to the Dutch coast and throughout the land and into other countries spread the fame of "The Island of Nightingales."
Meantime, the young mayor-judge, grown to manhood, had kept on planting trees each year, setting out his shrubbery and plants, until their verdure now beautifully shaded the quaint, narrow lanes, and transformed into cool wooded roads what once had been only barren sun-baked wastes. Artists began to hear of the place and brought their canvases, and on the walls of hundreds of homes throughout the world hang to-day bits of the beautiful lanes and wooded spots of "The Island of Nightingales." The American artist William M. Chase took his pupils there almost annually. "In all the world to-day," he declared to his students, as they exclaimed at the natural cool restfulness of the island, "there is no more beautiful place."
The trees are now majestic in their height of forty or more feet, for it is nearly a hundred years since the young attorney went to the island and planted the first tree; today the churchyard where he lies is a bower of cool green, with the trees that he planted dropping their moisture on the lichen-covered stone on his grave.
This much did one man do. But he did more.
After he had been on the barren island two years he went to the mainland one day, and brought back with him a bride. It was a bleak place for a bridal home, but the young wife had the qualities of the husband. "While you raise your trees," she said, "I will raise our children." And within a score of years the young bride sent thirteen happy-faced, well-brought-up children over that island, and there was reared a home such as is given to few. Said a man who subsequently married a daughter of that home: "It was such a home that once you had been in it you felt you must be of it, and that if you couldn't marry one of the daughters you would have been glad to have married the cook."
One day when the children had grown to man's and woman's estate the mother called them all together and said to them, "I want to tell you the story of your father and of this island," and she told them the simple story that is written here.
"And now," she said, "as you go out into the world I want each of you to take with you the spirit of your father's work, and each in your own way and place, to do as he has done: make you the world a bit more beautiful and better because you have been in it. That is your mother's message to you."
The first son to leave the island home went with a band of hardy men to South Africa, where they settled and became known as "the Boers." Tirelessly they worked at the colony until towns and cities sprang up and a new nation came into being: The Transvaal Republic. The son became secretary of state of the new country, and to-day the United States of South Africa bears tribute, in part, to the mother's message to "make the world a bit more beautiful and better."
The second son left home for the Dutch mainland, where he took charge of a small parish; and when he had finished his work he was mourned by king and peasant as one of the leading clergymen of his time and people.
A third son, scorning his own safety, plunged into the boiling surf on one of those nights of terror so common to that coast, rescued a half-dead sailor, carried him to his father's house, and brought him back to a life of usefulness that gave the world a record of imperishable value. For the half-drowned sailor was Heinrich Schliemann, the famous explorer of the dead cities of Troy.
The first daughter now left the island nest; to her inspiration her husband owed, at his life's close, a shelf of works in philosophy which to-day are among the standard books of their class.
The second daughter worked beside her husband until she brought him to be regarded as one of the ablest preachers of his land, speaking for more than forty years the message of man's betterment.
To another son it was given to sit wisely in the councils of his land; another followed the footsteps of his father. Another daughter, refusing marriage for duty, ministered unto and made a home for one whose eyes could see not.
So they went out into the world, the girls and boys of that island home, each carrying the story of their father's simple but beautiful work and the remembrance of their mother's message. Not one from that home but did well his or her work in the world; some greater, some smaller, but each left behind the traces of a life well spent.
And, as all good work is immortal, so to-day all over the world goes on the influence of this one man and one woman, whose life on that little Dutch island changed its barren rocks to a bower of verdure, a home for the birds and the song of the nightingale. The grandchildren have gone to the four corners of the globe, and are now the generation of workers-some in the far East Indies; others in Africa; still others in our own land of America. But each has tried, according to the talents given, to carry out the message of that day, to tell the story of the grandfather's work; just as it is told here by the author of this book, who, in the efforts of his later years, has tried to carry out, so far as opportunity has come to him, the message of his grandmother:
"Make you the world a bit more beautiful and better because you have been in it."
THE AMERICANIZATION OF EDWARD BOK
The Leviathan of the Atlantic Ocean, in 1870, was The Queen, and when she was warped into her dock on September 20 of that year, she discharged, among her passengers, a family of four from the Netherlands who were to make an experiment of Americanization.
The father, a man bearing one of the most respected names in the Netherlands, had acquired wealth and position for himself; unwise investments, however, had swept away his fortune, and in preference to a new start in his own land, he had decided to make the new beginning in the United States, where a favorite brother-in-law had gone several years before. But that, never a simple matter for a man who has reached forty-two, is particularly difficult for a foreigner in a strange land. This fact he and his wife were to find out. The wife, also carefully reared, had been accustomed to a scale of living which she had now to abandon. Her Americanization experiment was to compel her, for the first time in her life, to become a housekeeper without domestic help. There were two boys: the elder, William, was eight and a half years of age; the younger, in nineteen days from his landing-date, was to celebrate his seventh birthday.
This younger boy was Edward William Bok. He had, according to the Dutch custom, two other names, but he had decided to leave those in the Netherlands. And the American public was, in later years, to omit for him the "William."
Edward's first six days in the United States were spent in New York, and then he was taken to Brooklyn, where he was destined to live for nearly twenty years.
Thanks to the linguistic sense inherent in the Dutch, and to an educational system that compels the study of languages, English was already familiar to the father and mother. But to the two sons, who had barely learned the beginnings of their native tongue, the English language was as a closed book. It seemed a cruel decision of the father to put his two boys into a public school in Brooklyn, but he argued that if they were to become Americans, the sooner they became part of the life of the country and learned its language for themselves, the better. And so, without the ability to make known the slightest want or to understand a single word, the morning after their removal to Brooklyn, the two boys were taken by their father to a public school.
The American public-school teacher was perhaps even less well equipped in those days than she is to-day to meet the needs of two Dutch boys who could not understand a word she said, and who could only wonder what it was all about. The brothers did not even have the comfort of each other's company, for, graded by age, they were placed in separate classes.
Nor was the American boy of 1870 a whit less cruel than is the American boy of 1920; and he was none the less loath to show that cruelty. This trait was evident at the first recess of the first day at school. At the dismissal, the brothers naturally sought each other, only to find themselves surrounded by a group of tormentors who were delighted to have such promising objects for their fun. And of this opportunity they made the most. There was no form of petty cruelty boys' minds could devise that was not inflicted upon the two helpless strangers. Edward seemed to look particularly inviting, and nicknaming him "Dutchy" they devoted themselves at each noon recess and after school to inflicting their cruelties upon him.
Louis XIV may have been right when he said that "every new language requires a new soul," but Edward Bok knew that while spoken languages might differ, there is one language understood by boys the world over. And with this language Edward decided to do some experimenting. After a few days at school, he cast his eyes over the group of his tormentors, picked out one who seemed to him the ringleader, and before the boy was aware of what had happened, Edward Bok was in the full swing of his first real experiment with Americanization. Of course the American boy retaliated. But the boy from the Netherlands had not been born and brought up in the muscle-building air of the Dutch dikes for nothing, and after a few moments he found himself looking down on his tormentor and into the eyes of a crowd of very respectful boys and giggling girls who readily made a passageway for his brother and himself when they indicated a desire to leave the schoolyard and go home.
Edward now felt that his Americanization had begun; but, always believing that a thing begun must be carried to a finish, he took, or gave--it depends upon the point of view--two or three more lessons in this particular phase of Americanization before he convinced these American schoolboys that it might be best for them to call a halt upon further excursions in torment.
At the best, they were difficult days at school for a boy of six without the language. But the national linguistic gift inherent in the Dutch race came to the boy's rescue, and as the roots of the Anglo-Saxon lie in the Frisian tongue, and thus in the language of his native country, Edward soon found that with a change of vowel here and there the English language was not so difficult of conquest. At all events, he set out to master it.
But his fatal gift of editing, although its possession was unknown to him, began to assert itself when, just as he seemed to be getting along fairly well, he balked at following the Spencerian style of writing in his copybooks. Instinctively he rebelled at the flourishes which embellished that form of handwriting. He seemed to divine somehow that such penmanship could not be useful or practicable for after life, and so, with that Dutch stolidity that, once fixed, knows no altering, he refused to copy his writing lessons. Of course trouble immediately ensued between Edward and his teacher. Finding herself against a literal blank wall--for Edward simply refused, but had not the gift of English with which to explain his refusal--the teacher decided to take the matter to the male principal of the school. She explained that she had kept Edward after school for as long as two hours to compel him to copy his Spencerian lesson, but that the boy simply sat quiet. He was perfectly well-behaved, she explained, but as to his lesson, he would attempt absolutely nothing.
It was the prevailing custom in the public schools of 1870 to punish boys by making them hold out the palms of their hands, upon which the principal would inflict blows with a rattan. The first time Edward was punished in this way, his hand became so swollen he wondered at a system of punishment which rendered him incapable of writing, particularly as the discerning principal had chosen the boy's right hand upon which to rain the blows. Edward was told to sit down at the principal's own desk and copy the lesson. He sat, but he did not write. He would not for one thing, and he could not if he would. After half an hour of purposeless sitting, the principal ordered Edward again to stand up and hold out his hand; and once more the rattan fell in repeated blows. Of course it did no good, and as it was then five o'clock, and the principal had inflicted all the punishment that the law allowed, and as he probably wanted to go home as much as Edward did, he dismissed the sore-handed but more-than-ever-determined Dutch boy.
Edward went home to his father, exhibited his swollen hand, explained the reason, and showed the penmanship lesson which he had refused to copy. It is a singular fact that even at that age he already understood Americanization enough to realize that to cope successfully with any American institution, one must be constructive as well as destructive. He went to his room, brought out a specimen of Italian handwriting which he had seen in a newspaper, and explained to his father that this simpler penmanship seemed to him better for practical purposes than the curlicue fancifully embroidered Spencerian style; that if he had to learn penmanship, why not learn the system that was of more possible use in after life?
Now, your Dutchman is nothing if not practical. He is very simple and direct in his nature, and is very likely to be equally so in his mental view. Edward's father was distinctly interested--very much amused, as he confessed to the boy in later years--in his son's discernment of the futility of the Spencerian style of penmanship. He agreed with the boy, and, next morning, accompanied him to school and to the principal. The two men were closeted together, and when they came out Edward was sent to his classroom. For some weeks he was given no penmanship lessons, and then a new copy-book was given him with a much simpler style. He pounced upon it, and within a short time stood at the head of his class in writing.
The same instinct that was so often to lead Edward aright in his future life, at its very beginning served him in a singularly valuable way in directing his attention to the study of penmanship; for it was through his legible handwriting that later, in the absence of the typewriter, he was able to secure and satisfactorily fill three positions which were to lead to his final success.
Years afterward Edward had the satisfaction of seeing public-school pupils given a choice of penmanship lessons: one along the flourish lines and the other of a less ornate order. Of course, the boy never associated the incident of his refusal with the change until later when his mother explained to him that the principal of the school, of whom the father had made a warm friend, was so impressed by the boy's simple but correct view, that he took up the matter with the board of education, and a choice of systems was considered and later decided upon.
From this it will be seen that, unconsciously, Edward Bok had started upon his career of editing!
The Elder Bok did not find his "lines cast in pleasant places" in the United States. He found himself, professionally, unable to adjust the methods of his own land and of a lifetime to those of a new country. As a result the fortunes of the transplanted family did not flourish, and Edward soon saw his mother physically failing under burdens to which her nature was not accustomed nor her hands trained. Then he and his brother decided to relieve their mother in the housework by rising early in the morning, building the fire, preparing breakfast, and washing the dishes before they went to school. After school they gave up their play hours, and swept and scrubbed, and helped their mother to prepare the evening meal and wash the dishes afterward. It was a curious coincidence that it should fall upon Edward thus to get a first-hand knowledge of woman's housework which was to stand him in such practical stead in later years.
It was not easy for the parents to see their boys thus forced to do work which only a short while before had been done by a retinue of servants. And the capstone of humiliation seemed to be when Edward and his brother, after having for several mornings found no kindling wood or coal to build the fire, decided to go out of evenings with a basket and pick up what wood they could find in neighboring lots, and the bits of coal spilled from the coal-bin of the grocery-store, or left on the curbs before houses where coal had been delivered. The mother remonstrated with the boys, although in her heart she knew that the necessity was upon them. But Edward had been started upon his Americanization career, and answered: "This is America, where one can do anything if it is honest. So long as we don't steal the wood or coal, why shouldn't we get it?" And, turning away, the saddened mother said nothing.
But while the doing of these homely chores was very effective in relieving the untrained and tired mother, it added little to the family income. Edward looked about and decided that the time had come for him, young as he was, to begin some sort of wage-earning. But how and where? The answer he found one afternoon when standing before the shop-window of a baker in the neighborhood. The owner of the bakery, who had just placed in the window a series of trays filled with buns, tarts, and pies, came outside to look at the display. He found the hungry boy wistfully regarding the tempting-looking wares.
"Look pretty good, don't they?" asked the baker.
"They would," answered the Dutch boy with his national passion for cleanliness, "if your window were clean."
"That's so, too," mused the baker. "Perhaps you'll clean it."
"I will," was the laconic reply. And Edward Bok, there and then, got his first job. He went in, found a step-ladder, and put so much Dutch energy into the cleaning of the large show-window that the baker immediately arranged with him to clean it every Tuesday and Friday afternoon after school. The salary was to be fifty cents per week!
But one day, after he had finished cleaning the window, and the baker was busy in the rear of the store, a customer came in, and Edward ventured to wait on her. Dexterously he wrapped up for another the fragrant currant-buns for which his young soul--and stomach--so hungered! The baker watched him, saw how quickly and smilingly he served the customer, and offered Edward an extra dollar per week if he would come in afternoons and sell behind the counter. He immediately entered into the bargain with the understanding that, in addition to his salary of a dollar and a half per week, he should each afternoon carry home from the good things unsold a moderate something as a present to his mother. The baker agreed, and Edward promised to come each afternoon except Saturday.
"Want to play ball, hey?" said the baker.
"Yes, I want to play ball," replied the boy, but he was not reserving his Saturday afternoons for games, although, boy-like, that might be his preference.
Edward now took on for each Saturday morning--when, of course, there was no school--the delivery route of a weekly paper called the South Brooklyn Advocate. He had offered to deliver the entire neighborhood edition of the paper for one dollar, thus increasing his earning capacity to two dollars and a half per week.
Transportation, in those days in Brooklyn, was by horse-cars, and the car-line on Smith Street nearest Edward's home ran to Coney Island. Just around the corner where Edward lived the cars stopped to water the horses on their long haul. The boy noticed that the men jumped from the open cars in summer, ran into the cigar-store before which the watering-trough was placed, and got a drink of water from the ice-cooler placed near the door. But that was not so easily possible for the women, and they, especially the children, were forced to take the long ride without a drink. It was this that he had in mind when he reserved his Saturday afternoon to "play ball."
Here was an opening, and Edward decided to fill it. He bought a shining new pail, screwed three hooks on the edge from which he hung three clean shimmering glasses, and one Saturday afternoon when a car stopped the boy leaped on, tactfully asked the conductor if he did not want a drink, and then proceeded to sell his water, cooled with ice, at a cent a glass to the passengers. A little experience showed that he exhausted a pail with every two cars, and each pail netted him thirty cents. Of course Sunday was a most profitable day; and after going to Sunday-school in the morning, he did a further Sabbath service for the rest of the day by refreshing tired mothers and thirsty children on the Coney Island cars--at a penny a glass!
But the profit of six dollars which Edward was now reaping in his newly found "bonanza" on Saturday and Sunday afternoons became apparent to other boys, and one Saturday the young ice-water boy found that he had a competitor; then two and soon three. Edward immediately met the challenge; he squeezed half a dozen lemons into each pail of water, added some sugar, tripled his charge, and continued his monopoly by selling "Lemonade, three cents a glass." Soon more passengers were asking for lemonade than for plain drinking-water!
One evening Edward went to a party of young people, and his latent journalistic sense whispered to him that his young hostess might like to see her social affair in print. He went home, wrote up the party, being careful to include the name of every boy and girl present, and next morning took the account to the city editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, with the sage observation that every name mentioned in that paragraph represented a buyer of the paper, who would like to see his or her name in print, and that if the editor had enough of these reports he might very advantageously strengthen the circulation of The Eagle. The editor was not slow to see the point, and offered Edward three dollars a column for such reports. On his way home, Edward calculated how many parties he would have to attend a week to furnish a column, and decided that he would organize a corps of private reporters himself. Forthwith, he saw every girl and boy he knew, got each to promise to write for him an account of each party he or she attended or gave, and laid great stress on a full recital of names. Within a few weeks, Edward was turning in to The Eagle from two to three columns a week; his pay was raised to four dollars a column; the editor was pleased in having started a department that no other paper carried, and the "among those present" at the parties all bought the paper and were immensely gratified to see their names.
So everybody was happy, and Edward Bok, as a full-fledged reporter, had begun his journalistic career.
It is curious how deeply embedded in his nature, even in his earliest years, was the inclination toward the publishing business. The word "curious" is used here because Edward is the first journalist in the Bok family in all the centuries through which it extends in Dutch history. On his father's side, there was a succession of jurists. On the mother's side, not a journalist is visible.
Edward attended the Sunday-school of the Carroll Park Methodist Episcopal Church, in Brooklyn, of which a Mr. Elkins was superintendent. One day he learned that Mr. Elkins was associated with the publishing house of Harper and Brothers. Edward had heard his father speak of Harper's Weekly and of the great part it had played in the Civil War; his father also brought home an occasional copy of Harper's Weekly and of Harper's Magazine. He had seen Harper's Young People; the name of Harper and Brothers was on some of his school-books; and he pictured in his mind how wonderful it must be for a man to be associated with publishers of periodicals that other people read, and books that other folks studied. The Sunday-school superintendent henceforth became a figure of importance in Edward's eyes; many a morning the boy hastened from home long before the hour for school, and seated himself on the steps of the Elkins house under the pretext of waiting for Mr. Elkins's son to go to school, but really for the secret purpose of seeing Mr. Elkins set forth to engage in the momentous business of making books and periodicals. Edward would look after the superintendent's form until it was lost to view; then, with a sigh, he would go to school, forgetting all about the Elkins boy whom he had told the father he had come to call for!
One day Edward was introduced to a girl whose father, he learned, was editor of the New York Weekly. Edward could not quite place this periodical; he had never seen it, he had never heard of it. So he bought a copy, and while its contents seemed strange, and its air unfamiliar in comparison with the magazines he found in his home, still an editor was an editor. He was certainly well worth knowing. So he sought his newly made young lady friend, asked permission to call upon her, and to Edward's joy was introduced to her father. It was enough for Edward to look furtively at the editor upon his first call, and being encouraged to come again, he promptly did so the next evening. The daughter has long since passed away, and so it cannot hurt her feelings now to acknowledge that for years Edward paid court to her only that he might know her father, and have those talks with him about editorial methods that filled him with ever-increasing ambition to tread the path that leads to editorial tribulations.
But what with helping his mother, tending the baker's shop in after-school hours, serving his paper route, plying his street-car trade, and acting as social reporter, it soon became evident to Edward that he had not much time to prepare his school lessons. By a supreme effort, he managed to hold his own in his class, but no more. Instinctively, he felt that he was not getting all that he might from his educational opportunities, yet the need for him to add to the family income was, if anything, becoming greater. The idea of leaving school was broached to his mother, but she rebelled. She told the boy that he was earning something now and helping much. Perhaps the tide with the father would turn and he would find the place to which his unquestioned talents entitled him. Finally the father did. He associated himself with the Western Union Telegraph Company as translator, a position for which his easy command of languages admirably fitted him. Thus, for a time, the strain upon the family exchequer was lessened.
But the American spirit of initiative had entered deep into the soul of Edward Bok. The brother had left school a year before, and found a place as messenger in a lawyer's office; and when one evening Edward heard his father say that the office boy in his department had left, he asked that he be allowed to leave school, apply for the open position, and get the rest of his education in the great world itself. It was not easy for the parents to see the younger son leave school at so early an age, but the earnestness of the boy prevailed.
And so, at the age of thirteen, Edward Bok left school, and on Monday, August 7, 1876, he became office boy in the electricians' department of the Western Union Telegraph Company at six dollars and twenty-five cents per week.
And, as such things will fall out in this curiously strange world, it happened that as Edward drew up his chair for the first time to his desk to begin his work on that Monday morning, there had been born in Boston, exactly twelve hours before, a girl-baby who was destined to become his wife. Thus at the earliest possible moment after her birth, Edward Bok started to work for her!
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 Encyclopedia, 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 Encyclopedia. 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 Encyclopedia--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 Encyclopedia; 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 general--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.
Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, October 13th 1881
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.
Edward Bok had not been office boy long before he realized that if he learned shorthand he would stand a better chance for advancement. So he joined the Young Men's Christian Association in Brooklyn, and entered the class in stenography. But as this class met only twice a week, Edward, impatient to learn the art of "pothooks" as quickly as possible, supplemented this instruction by a course given on two other evenings at moderate cost by a Brooklyn business college. As the system taught in both classes was the same, more rapid progress was possible, and the two teachers were constantly surprised that he acquired the art so much more quickly than the other students.
Before many weeks Edward could "stenograph" fairly well, and as the typewriter had not then come into its own, he was ready to put his knowledge to practical use.
An opportunity offered itself when the city editor of the Brooklyn Eagle asked him to report two speeches at a New England Society dinner. The speakers were to be the President of the United States, General Grant, General Sherman, Mr. Evarts, and General Sheridan. Edward was to report what General Grant and the President said, and was instructed to give the President's speech verbatim.
At the close of the dinner, the reporters came in and Edward was seated directly in front of the President. In those days when a public dinner included several kinds of wine, it was the custom to serve the reporters with wine, and as the glasses were placed before Edward's plate he realized that he had to make a decision then and there. He had, of course, constantly seen wine on his father's table, as is the European custom, but the boy had never tasted it. He decided he would not begin then, when he needed a clear head. So, in order to get more room for his note-book, he asked the waiter to remove the glasses.
It was the first time he had ever attempted to report a public address. General Grant's remarks were few, as usual, and as he spoke slowly, he gave the young reporter no trouble. But alas for his stenographic knowledge, when President Hayes began to speak! Edward worked hard, but the President was too rapid for him; he did not get the speech, and he noticed that the reporters for the other papers fared no better. Nothing daunted, however, after the speechmaking, Edward resolutely sought the President, and as the latter turned to him, he told him his plight, explained it was his first important "assignment," and asked if he could possibly be given a copy of the speech so that he could "beat" the other papers.