Tough Love Letters

Tough Love Letters

You must write to me often. It will not be in my power to write you very frequently; but you must write to me as often as once a month by mail, whether I write to you or not. Do not fail to write to me soon after you receive this.

On November 15, 1811, when he wrote those words and mailed them from New Haven to Westborough, MA, world-renowned inventor and manufacturer Eli Whitney had begun to suspect that his 16-year-old nephew, Eli Whitney Blake, was ignoring him. The elder had sent Blake two unanswered letters over the summer, prompting Whitney to remark, oozing skepticism, that he “was a little surprised that they should have both miscarried.”

But when it came to shaping the young man who would become his protégé—the man who Whitney would pull out of law schooling to groom as his successor, and who, in 1825, with his brother Philos, would take over Whitney’s armory on the west bank of the Mill River—Uncle Eli was willing to take his lumps, and to give them, too.

These often came in the form of the kind of suggestions that weren’t really suggestions. For example, in the same letter, Whitney set the expectation that Blake should be enrolling in Yale College the next fall, and that he would need to adjust his schoolwork to be ready for it. “I should not like to have you enter without being well-prepared,” Whitney wrote, attaching “a correct list” of the books he felt his nephew must study before becoming a Yale man. He also wrote that he expected Blake to continue keeping an account of all of his “necessary expenses,” and that, in what must have been a relief to teenager Eli, more money was on the way.

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After a reply from the nephew, something else was on its way: another letter from the uncle, dated December 19, 1811. In it, Whitney wrote:

I am pleased to observe that you improve in your handwriting—there is, however, much room for improvement and now is your time to learn to write a good hand. … You make many of your Capital Letters too large, and of unequal size. You err greatly… in the superscription of your letters. Your small [indecipherable]s also are awkwardly and badly made.

Unfortunately for his uncle, Blake’s penman-ship had to some extent already sailed; even his writing later in life was erratic and often difficult to read. A letter Blake wrote to his brother Elihu in 1809, at the not-so-tender age of 14, reveals loopy handwriting that could undulate like waves and vary wildly in letter-sizing, as if performed under the unlikely circumstance of riding a speeding carriage down a continually winding road. Clearly, it hadn’t improved very much in the two intervening years.

In any case, Whitney was just getting started highlighting Blake’s potential and actual deficiencies in that December letter. “…let my instructions sink deep into your mind and not let me have occasion to repeat them,” he wrote, before telling Blake he must avoid “vulgar” and “profane language” so as to become “interesting and respectable in conversation,” cultivating the persona of a “polite scholar,” not a “clown.” When speaking, he counseled, “let your voice be audible and your pronunciation clear and distinct,” because “nothing can render a person more unpleasant to others than drawling, muttering or an indistinct articulation…” Moreover, Whitney was “extremely sorry to learn from your uncle that you have contracted a habit of sitting, walking and standing very crooked.” Fearing that bad posture would increase his nephew’s chances of developing consumption, a.k.a. tuberculosis, Whitney wrote that the slouch had to go “at all costs.”

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After all of that tough love, by the next fall, Eli Whitney’s disposition towards his nephew had softened considerably, and not by coincidence. A letter dated September 5, 1812, expressed delight “to learn that you are in good health and are fitted to enter College.” In it, Whitney urged Blake to secure the equivalent of a letter of recommendation from his teacher, or “preceptor,” for showing to the president of Yale. Meanwhile, he promised to “furnish you, on my account, with as much money as will be necessary to pay off all your bills and expenses and bring you” to New Haven.

For Blake and the city that was about to become his home, the rest, as they say, is history. Blake went to Yale, graduating in 1816. By 1817, a letter from Whitney reveals that he and Blake were sharing scientific and engineering ideas as near-equals. After Whitney’s death in 1825, Blake and brother Philos would run the Whitney Armory until 1836, then found a new company called Blake Brothers Hardware, a reputable manufacturer, in Westville.

Along the way, Eli Whitney Blake would leave one particularly big mark on the world, as well as several smaller marks on New Haven—some of them still around today, waiting to be rediscovered…

…until tomorrow’s edition.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims. Research for this article relied heavily upon Yale University’s invaluable Blake Family Papers collection, which includes the document pictured above.

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Turning down a dream editing job right out of college, Dan instead went into marketing and media sales to better cover the rent. Stints at Spin Magazine and Yahoo! followed. But he kept scratching that writing-and-editing itch—first on the side, then at a couple of startups. Dan is now scratching it as Daily Nutmeg's editor.

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