About Portraits by Bill Nye
Story type: Essay
Hudson, Wis., August 25, 1885.
Hon. William F. Vilas, Postmaster-General, Washington, D.C.
Dear Sir,–For some time I have been thinking of writing to you and asking you how you were getting along with your department since I left it. I did not wish to write you for the purpose of currying favor with an administration against which I squandered a ballot last fall. Neither do I desire to convey the impression that I would like to open a correspondence with you for the purpose of killing time. If you ever feel like sitting down and answering this letter in an off-hand way it would please me very much, but do not put yourself out to do so. I wanted to ask you, however, how you like the pictures of yourself recently published by the patent insides. That was my principal object in writing. Having seen you before this great calamity befell you, I wanted to inquire whether you had really changed so much. As I remember your face, it was rather unusually intellectual and attractive for a great man. Great men are very rarely pretty. I guess that, aside from yourself, myself, and Mr. Evarts, there is hardly an eminent man in the country who would be considered handsome. But the engraver has done you a great injustice, or else you have sadly changed since I saw you. It hardly seems possible that your nose has drifted around to leeward and swelled up at the end, as the engraver would have us believe. I do not believe that in a few short months the look of firmness and conscious rectitude that I noticed could have changed to that of indecision and vacuity which we see in some of your late portraits as printed.
I saw one yesterday, with your name attached to it, and it made my heart ache for your family. As a resident in your State I felt humiliated. Two of Wisconsin’s ablest men have been thus slaughtered by the rude broad-axe of the engraver. Last fall, Senator Spooner, who is also a man with a first-class head and face, was libeled in this same reckless way. It makes me mad, and in that way impairs my usefulness. I am not a good citizen, husband or father when I am mad. I am a perfect simoom of wrath at such times, and I am not responsible for what I do.
Nothing can arouse the indignation of your friends, regardless of party, so much as the thought that while you are working so hard in the postoffice at Washington with your coat off, collecting box rent and making up the Western mail, the remorseless engraver and electrotyper are seeking to down you by making pictures of you in which you appear either as a dude or a tough.
While I have not the pleasure of being a member of your party, having belonged to what has been sneeringly alluded to as the g.o.p., I cannot refrain from expressing my sympathy at this time. Though we may have differed heretofore upon important questions of political economy, I cannot exult over these portraits. Others may gloat over these efforts to injure you, but I do not. I am not much of a gloater, anyhow.
I leave those to gloat who are in the gloat business.
Still, it is one of the drawbacks incident to greatness. We struggle hard through life that we may win the confidence of our fellow-men, only at last to have pictures of ourselves printed and distributed where they will injure us.
I desire to add before closing this letter, Mr. Vilas, that with those who are acquainted with you and know your sterling worth, these portraits will make no difference. We will not allow them to influence us socially or politically. What the effect may be upon offensive partisans who are total strangers to you, I do not know.
My theory in relation to these cuts is, that they are combined and interchangeable, so that, with slight modifications, they are used for all great men. The cut, with the extras that go with it, consists of one head with hair (front view), one bald head (front view), one head with hair (side view), one bald head (side view), one pair eyes (with glasses), one pair eyes (plain), one Roman nose, one Grecian nose, one turn-up nose, one set whiskers (full), one moustache, one pair side-whiskers, one chin, one set large ears, one set medium ears, one set small ears, one set shoulders, with collar and necktie for above, one monkey-wrench, one set quoins, one galley, one oil can, one screwdriver. These different features are then arranged so that a great variety of clergymen, murderers, senators, embezzlers, artists, dynamiters, humorists, arsonists, larcenists, poets, statesmen, base ball players, rinkists, pianists, capitalists, bigamists and sluggists are easily represented. No newspaper office should be without them. They are very simple, and any child can easily learn to operate it. They are invaluable in all cases, for no one knows at what moment a revolting crime may be committed by a comparatively unknown man, whose portrait you wish to give, and in this age of rapid political transformations, presentations and combinations, no enterprising paper should delay the acquisition of a combined portrait for the use of its readers.
Hoping that you are well, and that you will at once proceed to let no guilty man escape, I remain, yours truly,