'It is a princely gift and I shall wear it with arrogance'
How to send thanks
As we slam the door on yet another shocking year on Earth, those of us who were lucky enough to receive Christmas gifts are now faced with a task despised by many: writing letters1 of thanks. If you’re anything like me—and if you are, you have my deepest sympathy—you’ll spend an hour looking out of the window imagining a more creative version of yourself firing off witty, touching thank-yous without breaking a sweat, then reality will slap you hard in the face as you once again scrape together an entirely pedestrian note of a few words that could easily have been composed by Siri. My gift to you, then, is some inspiration. Let’s see how the big shots do it. How, for example, did Kurt Vonnegut respond when gifted a robot named Boris? What did Sylvia Townsend Warner write when sent an empty matchbox for Christmas? And, to begin, let us marvel at Proust’s reaction when sent a gold clock inscribed with the words, ‘May I only number happy hours.’
(You do not need to thank me2.)
Although those hours will wound me, until they eventually kill me (you know that they used to put a Latin motto on sun-dials, which I translate for you: All wound, the last kills), I shall never tire of observing their murderous progress when I see them glide over the sea-green or peacock-blue enamel and reach and pass, beyond the consoling motto, the beautiful golden figures.
And now, here comes the greatest pleasure of all. I did not believe it was for me—but then I saw that it wasn’t a mistake, that I was indeed the owner of this ravishing object, and at the same time I learnt that the exquisite person to whom I owed this present was none other than my little Louisa. There is no one towards whom gratitude could be sweeter to me.
Marcel Proust to Louise de Mornand, 30 Dec 1904 | Selected Letters, Vol 2
You two have given me many extraordinary gifts over the years, but you have topped them all with Boris, the chess robot. Perhaps you knew that Boris would be a highly personal gift, since I once fancied myself quite a player. You have refilled a great hole in my life. I play several games a day again—at my own convenience, and I love doing that.
I can beat Boris if I really concentrate—even when I give him a full minute to make each move. But if I make the slightest mistake, he is heartless, and I still can’t believe the brilliance of his end games. Really—he is one smart, mean son of a bitch. The people who invented him must be ten times as smart as Einstein. Five years ago, people were saying that such a robot could never be built, since the variables in each game ran into the billions.
I have plenty to thank you two for already, not counting presents at all—and so does everybody in my family. Now you give me this, too, the best present, word of honor, anybody ever gave me.
I have one small legal question. If Boris and I have a falling out for some reason, can he sue for alimony?
Kurt Vonnegut to Annie and Don Farber, 16 Nov 1968 | Kurt Vonnegut: Letters
It was very good indeed of you to send me three such lovely scarves; but very rash. Three beautiful gifts—how many lashes wont they earn you? Lady Ottolilia Morrett—look out for that flamboyant female in my next book. At present, just to take you in, I’m very grateful. The Keynes’s came over to lunch yesterday: I was at the lowest gasp even of my dishevelment, I rushed in, pinned a scarf to my neck—and lo and behold—a thrill ran through the company. They said they couldn’t think where my beauty and the lovely scent came from. So a thousand (provisional) thanks.
Virginia Woolf to Lady Ottoline Morrell, 26 Dec 1932 | The Complete Collection
It is a princely gift3 and I shall wear it with arrogance.
John Steinbeck to John Huston, 5 Jan 1965 | A Life in Letters
I want to thank you for the dresses. They are first very pretty, and second a good fit and third something that I could not have bought for myself. But greatest of all I am joyful because your generosity has made me bloom like the desert after a rain. I am not forgetting for a single second the part my Godmother played in my good fortune, but I do not wish to fall short in my appreciation of your kindness either.
I look very beautiful in the dresses and you will perhaps feel a tiny twinge of jealousy when you gaze upon me, but the artist in you will be so delighted at the sight of such a perfect union of clothes and woman that you will stifle your jealousy at once and rejoice with me.
Thanks and thanks and thanks.
Zora Neale Hurston to Cornelia Chapin, 29 Feb 1932 | A Life in Letters
Except for waves of nausea that glide through me on their little cat feet, I’m fine. We greatly enjoyed the plant you and Blanche sent us and it served as our table piece for many days, flanked by a couple of candles that arrived from Germany, where all my direct descendants seem to have drifted. The two gifts combined beautifully and your plant bloomed with great ferocity and shed many a glow—and of the right color for the dining room.
E. B. White to Stanley White, 21 Jan 1956 | Letters of E. B. White
Most people are inconsiderate at Xmas time. They either send a book or candy. With only a book it is pretty monotonous just sitting there reading: your eyes are enjoying themselves but your mouth is quiet and your tongue and your throat, along with your ears, aren’t getting in on the fun. It’s the same with just candy. You sit there munching away: your tongue and your teeth and your neck are all having a good time, but your eyes are hanging around doing nothing. Just reading a book, or just eating candy, isn’t much fun.
But you, with that uncanny knack you have of sending the proper, managed the ideal Xmas gift: a book and candy. Now I can sit here with my book open and my bag of candy open, my eyes, jaws, teeth, throat, digestive juices all going a mile a minute--and I’m eating noisily to let my ears get in on it, too.
Fred Allen to Dave Rattray, 25 Dec 1945 | Fred Allen’s Letters
What a cagey one you are! Never o never did I suspect a FILE! I am so proud of it. It is just the sort of gift I LOVE. I’ll use it the rest of my life, & it occupies a niche in my heart next to my typewriter and my bike! People who love me always know what makes me happiest.
Sylvia Plath to her mother, 27 Oct 1952 | The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol 1
Usually one begins a thank-you letter by some graceless comparison, by saying, I have never been given such a very scarlet muffler, or, This is the largest horse I have ever been sent for Christmas. But your matchbox is a nonpareil, for never in my life have I been given a matchbox. Stamps, yes, drawing-pins, yes, balls of string, yes, yes, menacingly too often; but never a matchbox. Now that it has happened I ask myself why it has never happened before.
Sylvia Townsend Warner to Alyse Gregory, 23 Dec 1946 | More Letters of Note
I realise it’s 2021, and when I say “letters of thanks” I’m doing so with fingers crossed. I’m acutely aware that “WhatsApp of thanks” will for many be more accurate.
I mean, you can, but you don’t need to. Alternatively you could, I suppose, if you don’t already, subscribe?
Huston had given him, for Christmas, a piece of Sardinian velvet, which Steinbeck was to have made into a jacket.