Writers: Know Your Audience

Some People Just Lack Tact. Consider the plight of Anton Heitmuller, book, autograph and art dealer around the turn of the century.  His curious strategy: approach famous figures of his era and quote them material fated to insult their life’s work. In 1905, he tried to sell Susan B. Anthony a collection of material documenting the exploits of America’s great leaders, and for reasons that perhaps seemed logical to him at the time did not include one woman.  Anthony’s response:

“When you get a collection of autographs and portraits of distinguished women of the last century – of Mary Woolstencraft, Frances Wright, Elizabeth Cady Stanton…, I will think about patronizing you.  But while women are by law excluded from a voice in the government under which they live I can only work for their emancipation.  I know you think women are the pets of society.  That they may be, but to be a pet is not to be an equal…”

Or consider Heitmuller’s efforts to sell historical material to Father Divine, African American religious, spiritual, and civil rights leader.  The latter’s response:

“Concerning the historical collection of slave material offered, we would not be interested and particularly disinterested from a racial standpoint of consideration, for it is the very work of my mission to break down the segregated barrier of so-called races creeds and colors…”

So why did these two write such evocative letters, summarizing their life’s work, when they could just as easily have ignored Heitmuller and tossed his letter in the trash?  And why did Heitmuller’s approach to men like Harry Houdini, who could not wait to review a Lincoln assassination collection, work?  I have asked myself this question and can venture a guess.  The collective appreciation of the historical record is on full display in collecting autographs.  Generally speaking, we collect material from people we admire or respect – it’s an emotional experience (for those who are interested, view this video we created on the emotional experience of historical autographs).  Both Anthony and Father Divine, unlike Houdini, were advancing social change, and Heitmuller’s communications drew vivid pictures of their opposition enshrined in this historical record.  Particularly with Anthony, who was 85 at the time and had spent her whole life fighting for equality, this must have seemed a form of failure, that men could still find no women worthy of including in the lists of our great historical figures.

Their responses are interesting when you reflect on history as a subjective analysis, one that is open to interpretation.  Anthony and Father Divine drew a direct line from history and historical collectibles to their present struggles.  Seamlessly.  Did Anthony feel that prejudice of her day was preventing an accurate reflection of the work of women in the past and present?  One book dealer found out the hard way.  Interestingly, he kept the letter.  And in searching through his archive, we have gained a more meaningful appreciation for an entire era.

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