When I began to read, one of the first books my mother gave me was Penrod by Booth Tarkington. I loved the book, in part because Penrod’s boyhood was preferable to my own, but also because Tarkington was fun, funny, and his prose flowed like a brook in the woods. I still return to him from time to time, and recently discovered a collection of letters he wrote to his nephews while he was traveling in Europe in 1903 and 1904. Your Amiable Uncle was published in 1949 and it’s filled with letters anyone would enjoy receiving. But for the nephews — aged 14, 12 and 1 — these must have been a hoot.
Tarkington began with ever varying salutations — “Dear Men,” “Angelic Nephews,” “Dear Sunday-School Models,” “Most Pious,” “Gifted Ones,” “Sons of Belial” — and closed similarly — “Your Helpful Uncle,” “Your Encouraging Uncle,” “Thoughtful and Instructive Uncle,” “Your Exalted Uncle.”
He wrote of the gifts he was collecting for them: “I am going to put one of the best right in the envelope with this letter: a picture card from St. Stephen’s in Paris! Of course, you won’t expect the other things to be quite so fine as this, or so interesting, yet I assure you that all are helpful and pious. How I wish I might behold your joy when this engaging object meets the eye! I think with pleasure almost equaling yours of the long November evenings which will not pass so quickly, as you sit engaged in contemplation of, and reflections engendered by, this treasure!”
And again, “We have bought you each a lovely, calfbound hymnal. You will be mad with joy. But that is not all. Perhaps I shouldn’t tell you, so far ahead — it may spoil half your pleasure in getting them, but I can’t resist. Each of you is to have a fine woodcut engraving of the Apostle Peter! Voila! After that, what more has life to offer you?”
More in line with the boys’ tastes, he wrote, “You would enjoy this hotel. There was a murder on the next floor yesterday afternoon, and my friend the Baron offered to get me a ticket of admission when they guillotine the gentleman who did the shooting. I fear I cannot stay, much as I enjoy such social occasions.”
After Paris came Rome. “I hope to find in Rome something really gruesome to tell you about. In the meantime, we are adding to your presents. In my next, I shall inform you of what we got for you today. You will dance with glee.”
He also included many drawings to illustrate the letters. This is my favorite:
With references to Indianapolis, he wrote, “Then we saw Lucrezia Borgia’s house, also her portrait in the Borghese villa. She was the old, original Nancy Clem of Rome; she poisoned more people than Sherman’s Restaurant.”
From Capri, he wrote about a waterspout he had seen over the sea: “I would have bought it for you but couldn’t find the proprietor. I am sorry, because you would have liked to own one, I know. Probably your mother wouldn’t let you bring it into the house — except as a great favor when you are good; but that wouldn’t be often enough to do any damage. You could have kept it in the cistern, ordinarily.”
And this as well: “This is the true Isle of the Sirens — nobody could stay here a little while without hearing them calling to him to stay here forever, amidst the kindly Southerners, with music and palm trees and ripening oranges and gentle greetings — it is a place that is like a good sermon without the minister.”
From Naples, this observation: “We landed into the Camorra. The Camorra is a secret society banned by the police, who nearly all belong to it.”
While they must have been glad to see their amiable uncle come home after his months abroad, I am sure they missed the letters they received while he was away.