n. a list of written stupidities
Unfortunate lines in poetry, collected in D.B. Wyndham Lewis’ The Stuffed Owl, 1930:
- He suddenly dropt dead of heart-disease. (Tennyson, “Sea-Dreams”)
- Her smile was silent as the smile on corpses three hours old. (Earl of Lytton, “Love and Sleep”)
- Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast? (Browning, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”)
- Then I fling the fisherman’s flaccid corpse / At the feet of the fisherman’s wife. (Alfred Austin, “The Wind Speaks”)
- With a goad he punched each furious dame. (Chapman, translation of the Iliad)
- Forgive my transports on a theme like this, / I cannot bear a French metropolis. (Johnson, “London”)
- So ’tis with Christians, Nature being weak, / While in this world, are liable to leak. (William Balmford, The Seaman’s Spiritual Companion)
- Now Vengeance has a brood of eggs, / But Patience must be hen. (George Meredith, “Archduchess Anne”)
- O Sire of Song! Sonata-King! Sublime and loving Master, / The sweetest soul that ever struck an octave in disaster! (Eric Mackay, “Beethoven at the Piano”)
- The vales were saddened by a common gloom, / When good Jemima perished in her bloom. (Wordsworth, “Epitaph on Mrs. Quillinan”)
- Such was the sob and the mutual throb / Of the knight embracing Jane. (Thomas Campbell, “The Ritter Bann”)
- Poor South! Her books get fewer and fewer, / She was never much given to literature. (J. Gordon Coogler)
- Reach me a Handcerchiff, Another yet, / And yet another, for the last is wett. (Anonymous, A Funeral Elegie Upon the Death of George Sonds, Esq., 1658)
- Tell me what viands, land or streams produce, / The large, black, female, moulting crab excel? (Grainger, The Sugar-Cane)
In The Razor’s Edge, Larry Darrell says, “The dead look so terribly dead when they’re dead.” Isabel asks, “What do you mean exactly?” He says, “Just that.”
In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?
Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”
But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”
The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”
The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:
First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.
Second Clown: But is this law?
First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.
More proverbs from Poor Richard’s Alamanack:
- Those who have nothing to trouble them, will be troubled at nothing.
- Great modesty often hides great merit.
- The Muses love the Morning.
- Do me the favour to deny me at once.
- There’s none deceived but he that trusts.
- If evils come not, then our fears are vain; and if they do, fear but augments the pain.
- Full of courtesie, full of craft.
- The tongue is ever turning the aching tooth.
- Nothing dries sooner than a Tear.
- In the Affairs of this World Men are saved, not by Faith, but by the Want of it.
- An old young man will be a young old man.
- The prodigal generally does more injustice than the covetous.
- Singularity in the right, hath ruined many: happy those who are convinced of the general Opinion.
- Why does the blind man’s wife paint herself?
“The wit of conversation consists more in finding it in others, than shewing a great deal yourself. He who goes out of your company pleased with his own facetiousness and ingenuity, will the sooner come into it again. Most men had rather please than admire you and seek less to be instructed and diverted, than approved and applauded; and it is certainly the most delicate sort of pleasure, to please another. But that sort of wit, which employs itself insolently in criticizing and censuring the words and sentiments of others in conversation, is absolute folly; for it answers none of the needs of conversation. He who uses it neither improves others, is improved himself, or pleases any one.”
Inspired by Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, marine engineer Simon Lake devoted himself to making a working practical submarine. In 1898, when his company built the first sub to operate successfully in the open sea, Verne sent a congratulatory telegram:
WHILE MY BOOK ‘TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA’ IS ENTIRELY A WORK OF IMAGINATION, MY CONVICTION IS THAT ALL I SAID IN IT WILL COME TO PASS. A THOUSAND MILE VOYAGE IN THE BALTIMORE SUBMARINE BOAT IS EVIDENCE OF THIS. THIS CONSPICUOUS SUCCESS OF SUBMARINE NAVIGATION IN THE UNITED STATES WILL PUSH ON UNDER-WATER NAVIGATION ALL OVER THE WORLD. IF SUCH A SUCCESSFUL TEST HAD COME A FEW MONTHS EARLIER IT MIGHT HAVE PLAYED A GREAT PART IN THE WAR JUST CLOSED. THE NEXT GREAT WAR MAY BE LARGELY A CONTEST BETWEEN SUBMARINE BOATS.
Bonus fact: The “20,000 leagues” in Verne’s title refers to the distance of the Nautilus’ voyage, not its depth. The sea is only about 2 miles deep; 20,000 leagues is nearly 70,000 miles.
The last canto of Dante’s Purgatorio contains this perplexing sentence:
And if perchance
My saying, dark as Themis or as Sphinx,
Fail to persuade thee, (since like them it foils
The intellect with blindness) yet ere long
Events shall be the Naiads, that will solve
This knotty riddle, and no damage light
On flock or field.
When did water nymphs solve the riddle of the Sphinx? It turns out that Dante was relying on a flawed medieval edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that rendered Laïades (meaning Oedipus, the son of Laius) as Naïades, or naiads. He believed that water nymphs had ridden their sea monsters across the desert to solve the Sphinx’s riddle.
The version of the story that we know, in which Oedipus solves the riddle, comes from Sophocles’ Oedipus, which, being written in Greek, was unavailable to Dante. And he cast his own version in such exquisite language that it’s now immortal — one classic work misquoting another.
n. a hoarder of books
In the rare book collection of the archives at Caltech is a copy of Adrien-Marie Legendre’s 1808 text on number theory. It comes from the collection of Eric Temple Bell, who taught mathematics at Caltech from 1926 to 1953. Inside the book is an inscription in Bell’s handwriting:
This book survived the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 18 April, 1906. It was buried with about 600 others, in a vacant lot, before the fire reached the spot. The house next door to the lot fell upon the cache; the tar from the roof baked the 4 feet of dirt, covering the books, to brick, and incinerated all but 4 books, of which this is one. Signed: E. T. Bell. Book buried just below Grace Church, at California and Stockton Streets. House number 729 California Street.
During the Great Fire of London in 1666, Samuel Pepys came upon Sir William Batten burying his wine in a pit in his garden. Pepys “took the opportunity of laying all the papers of my office that I could not otherwise dispose of” and later buried “my Parmazan cheese, as well as my wine and some other things.” I don’t know whether he ever recovered them.
Mark Twain’s 3-year-old daughter Susie found this letter waiting for her on Christmas morning 1875:
Palace of St. Nicholas,
In the Moon,
My Dear Susie Clemens:
I have received & read all the letters which you & your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother & your nurses; & I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown people’s alphabets, you used the character which all children, in all lands on earth & in the twinkling stars use; & as all my subjects in the moon are children & use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your & your baby sister’s jagged & fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother & the nurses, for I am a foreigner & cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you & the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight & when you were asleep, & delivered them all, myself — & kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice-mannered, & about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letters which you dictated, there were some words which I could not make out, for certain, & one or two small orders which I couldn’t fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls had just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star, away up in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star, & you will say, ‘Little Snow Flake (for that is the child’s name,) I’m glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I.’ That is, you must write that, with your own hand, & Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it, she wouldn’t hear you. Make your letter light & thin, for the distance is great & the postage very heavy.
There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be ‘trunk full of doll’s clothes?’ Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody, & I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen door-bell rings, George must be blindfolded & sent to open the door, & then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet & take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tip-toe and not speak — otherwise he will die some day. Then you must go up to the nursery & stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed, & put your ear to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen, & when I whistle through it, you must speak in the tube & say, ‘Welcome, Santa Claus!’ Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not? If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color, & then you must tell me every single thing, in detail, which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say ‘Good bye & a Merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens!’ You must say, ‘Good bye, good old Santa Claus, & thank you very much — & please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star to-night & she must look down here — I will be right in the west bay-window; & every fine night I will look at her star & say, I know somebody up there, & like her, too.’ Then you must go down in the library, & make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, & everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon & get those things, & in a few minutes I will come down the chimney which belongs to the fire-place that is in the hall — if it is a trunk you want, because I couldn’t get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery-chimney, you know.
People may talk, if they want to, till they hear my footsteps in the hall — then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my foot steps at all — so you may go now & then & peep through the dining room doors, & by & by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room — for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven’t time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag — else he will die some day. You must watch George, & not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holy-stone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; & whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty, & somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus’s boot made on the marble, what will you say, little Sweetheart?
Good-bye, for a few minutes, till I come down to the world & ring the kitchen door-bell.
Whom people sometimes call ‘The Man in the Moon.’
In May 1875, Frederick Law Olmsted received a letter from his 4-year-old son Henry, asking him to send the family dog to Massachusetts, where he and his mother were visiting family friends. Olmsted replied:
The cats keep coming into the yard, six of them every day, and Quiz drives them out. If I should send Quiz to you to drive the cows away from your rhubarb he would not be here to drive the cats out of the yard. If six cats should keeping coming into the yard every day and not go out, in a week there would be 42 of them and in a month 180 and before you came back next November 1260. Then if there should be 1260 cats in the yard before next November half of them at least would have kittens and if half of them should have 6 kittens apiece, there would be more than 5000 cats and kittens in the yard. There would not be any place for Rosanna to spread the clothes unless she drove them all off the grass plot, and if she did they would have to crowd at the end of the yard nearest the house, and if they did that they would make a great pile as high as the top of my windows. A pile of 5000 cats and kittens, some of them black ones, in front of my window would make my office so dark I should not be able to write in it. Besides that those underneath, particularly the kittens, would be hurt by those standing on top of them and I expect they would make such a great squalling all the time that I should not be able to sleep, and if I was not able to sleep, I should not be able to work, and if I did not work I should not have any money, and if I had not any money, I could not send any to Plymouth to pay your fare back on the Fall River boat, and I could not pay my fare to go to Plymouth and so you and I would not ever see each other any more. No, Sir. I can’t spare Quiz and you will have to watch for the cows and drive them off yourself or you will raise no rhubarb.
Your affectionate father.
Lesser-known maxims from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander, hath as lasting fame as his master.
- Who has deceiv’d thee so oft as thy self?
- We are not so sensible of the greatest Health as of the least Sickness.
- A temper to bear much, will have much to bear.
- Content and riches seldom meet together; riches take thou, contentment I had rather.
- Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.
- Vanity backbites more than malice.
- In success be moderate.
- A new truth is a truth, and an old error is an error, tho’ Clodpate won’t allow either.
- What maintains one Vice would bring up two children.
- The Golden Age never was the present Age.
- Quarrels never could last long, if on one side lay the wrong.
- If your riches are yours, why don’t you take them with you t’other World?
“Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful. Nor is a duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.”
In 1880, Sidney Lanier made an important announcement to his 11-year-old son Charley:
West Chester, Pa.
August 15, 1880
My dear Charley:
A young man came to our house yesterday morning who claims that he is a brother of yours and Sidney’s and Harry’s and that he is entitled to all the rights and privileges appertaining unto that honorable connection. … He is a most exemplary young man. He never stays out late at night; neither chews, smokes, nor uses snuff; abstains from all intoxicating liquors, and does not touch even tea or coffee; however much preserves and fruit-cake there may be on the supper-table, he never asks for any; he does no kind of work on the Sabbath; he honors his father and mother, particularly his mother; he plays no games of hazard, not even marbles for winnance; and I am positively certain that in the whole course of his life he has never uttered a single angry or ungentlemanly word. I am bound to admit that he has his shortcomings: he isn’t as particular about his clothes as I would like to see him; he has a way of trying to get both fists in his mouth which certainly does look odd in company; and he wants his breakfast in the morning at four o’clock — an hour at which it is very inconvenient, with our household arrangements, to furnish it to him. …
Earnestly hoping that this lovely little (for I omitted to mention that he is small of stature) brother Rob may find a good warm place in your three hearts without being obliged to resort to extreme measures, and with a hundred embraces for you, me dear big Charley,
Your &c &c &c.
A letter from William James to his 8-year-old daughter Peggy, June 19, 1895:
I am very happy here, and fear that you may already have gone up to Chocorua with your Mamma. Yesterday a beautiful humming bird came into the library and spent two hours without resting, trying to find his way out by the skylight in the ceiling. You never saw such untiring strength. Filled with pity for his fatigue, I went into the garden and culled a beautiful rose. The moment I held it up in my hand under the skylight, the angelic bird flew down into it and rested there as in a nest — the beautifullest sight you ever saw.
In November 1921 Carl Sandburg’s 10-year-old daughter Margaret fell asleep in class and was diagnosed with nocturnal epilepsy. Her mother rushed her to Battle Creek Sanitarium, where her condition would be treated with fasting. Sandburg wrote to her:
This is only a little letter from your daddy to say he thinks about you hours and hours and he knows that there was never a princess or a fairy worth so much love. We are starting on a long journey and hard fight — you and mother and daddy — and we are going to go on slowly, quietly, hand in hand, the three of us, never giving up. And so we are going to win. Slowly, quietly, never giving up, we are going to win.
They did. Margaret’s weight plummeted, but she recovered and went on to edit many of her father’s works. In 1953 Sandburg wrote to a friend, “Margaret has become widely read, a scholar who often surprises me with her erudition, knows the Bible and Shakespeare better than I do.”
Entries in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911):
CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.
EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
FAMOUS, adj. Conspicuously miserable.
HABIT, n. A shackle for the free.
HERS, pron. His.
IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.
IMPUNITY, n. Wealth.
LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
LANGUAGE, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.
MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.
OCEAN, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.
OTHERWISE, adv. No better.
POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
YEAR, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.
He defined nonsense as “the objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.”
John Brunner’s 1965 science fiction novel The Squares of the City concerns a South American metropolis in which two opposing political leaders direct the actions of their followers using “subliminal perception.”
In an afterword, Brunner revealed that he had organized the entire plot to follow a historic chess game, Steinitz-Tchigorin Havana 1892. Each of the 32 pieces and pawns corresponds to a character in the book, and every capture in the Steinitz-Tchigorin game corresponds to an event in the plot. For example, Felipe Mendoza, representing the black king’s bishop, is killed in a duel with Luis Arrio, who represents the white queen’s knight. In the game, Steinitz captured Tchigorin’s king’s bishop with his queen’s knight on move 22.
“The individuals who correspond to the ‘pieces’ have powers roughly commensurate with those of the pawns and officers they represent,” Brunner explained. “The moves are all there, in their correct order and — so far as possible — in precise correspondence with their effect on the original game. That is to say, support of one piece by another on its own side, threatening of one or more pieces by a piece on the other side, indirect threats and the actual taking of pieces, are all as closely represented as possible in the development of the action.”
The book was nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel in 1966.
One day in 1880 John Muir set out to explore a glacier in southeastern Alaska, accompanied by Stickeen, the dog belonging to his traveling companion. The day went well, but on their way back to camp they found their way blocked by an immense 50-foot crevasse crossed diagonally by a narrow fin of ice. After long deliberation Muir cut his way down to the fin, straddled it and worked his way perilously across, but Stickeen, who had shown dauntless courage throughout the day, could not be convinced to follow. He sought desperately for some other route, gazing fearfully into the gulf and “moaning and wailing as if in the bitterness of death.” Muir called to him, pretended to march off, and finally ordered him sternly to cross the bridge. Miserably the dog inched down to the farther end and, “lifting his feet with the regularity and slowness of the vibrations of a seconds pendulum,” crept across the abyss and scrambled up to Muir’s side.
And now came a scene! ‘Well done, well done, little boy! Brave boy!’ I cried, trying to catch and caress him; but he would not be caught. Never before or since have I seen anything like so passionate a revulsion from the depths of despair to exultant, triumphant, uncontrollable joy. He flashed and darted hither and thither as if fairly demented, screaming and shouting, swirling round and round in giddy loops and circles like a leaf in a whirlwind, lying down, and rolling over and over, sidewise and heels over head, and pouring forth a tumultuous flood of hysterical cries and sobs and gasping mutterings. When I ran up to him to shake him, fearing he might die of joy, he flashed off two or three hundred yards, his feet in a mist of motion; then, turning suddenly, came back in a wild rush and launched himself at my face, almost knocking me down, all the while screeching and screaming and shouting as if saying, ‘Saved! saved! saved!’ Then away again, dropping suddenly at times with his feet in the air, trembling and fairly sobbing. Such passionate emotion was enough to kill him. Moses’ stately song of triumph after escaping the Egyptians and the Red Sea was nothing to it. Who could have guessed the capacity of the dull, enduring little fellow for all that most stirs this mortal frame? Nobody could have helped crying with him!
Thereafter, Muir wrote, “Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel of food, however tempting, from any hand but mine. At night, when all was quiet about the camp-fire, he would come to me and rest his head on my knee with a look of devotion as if I were his god. And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, ‘Wasn’t that an awful time we had together on the glacier?’”
Driven from bed by pain in his toe one October night, Ben Franklin imagined a parley with his tormentor:
FRANKLIN. Eh! Oh! eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?
GOUT. Many things; you have ate and drank too freely, and too much indulged those legs of yours in their indolence.
FRANKLIN. Who is it that accuses me?
GOUT. It is I, even I, the Gout.
FRANKLIN. What! my enemy in person?
GOUT. No, not your enemy.
FRANKLIN. I repeat it, my enemy; for you would not only torment my body to death, but ruin my good name; you reproach me as a glutton and a tippler; now all the world, that knows me, will allow that I am neither the one nor the other.
GOUT. The world may think as it pleases; it is always very complaisant to itself, and sometimes to its friends; but I very well know that the quantity of meat and drink proper for a man, who takes a reasonable degree of exercise, would be too much for another, who never takes any.
FRANKLIN. I take — eh! oh! — as much exercise — eh! — as I can, Madam Gout. You know my sedentary state, and on that account, it would seem, Madam Gout, as if you might spare me a little, seeing it is not altogether my own fault.
GOUT. Not a jot; your rhetoric and your politeness are thrown away; your apology avails nothing. If your situation in life is a sedentary one, your amusements, your recreation, at least, should be active. …
FRANKLIN. Oh! oh! — for Heaven’s sake leave me! and I promise faithfully never more to play at chess, but to take exercise daily, and live temperately.
GOUT. I know you too well. You promise fair; but, after a few months of good health, you will return to your old habits; your fine promises will be forgotten like the forms of the last year’s clouds. Let us then finish the account, and I will go. But I leave you with an assurance of visiting you again at a proper time and place; for my object is your good, and you are sensible now that I am your real friend.
As the dialogue shows, Franklin had understood the risks he was incurring — at 28 he had written in Poor Richard’s Almanack:
Be temperate in wine, in eating, girls, and slouth;
Or the Gout will seize you and plague you both.
But he accepted the consequences. Three years before his death he wrote, “People who live long, who will drink of the cup of life to the very bottom, must expect to meet with the usual dregs, and when I reflect on the number of terrible maladies human nature is subject to, I think myself favoured in having to my share only the stone and the gout.”
Book One of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise concludes with this italicized passage as Tom and Amory are taking leave of Princeton:
The last light fades and drifts across the land — the low, long land, the sunny land of spires; the ghosts of evening tune again their lyres and wander singing in a plaintive band down the long corridors of trees; pale fires echo the night from tower top to tower: Oh, sleep that dreams, and dream that never tires, press from the petals of the lotus flower something of this to keep, the essence of an hour.
No more to wait the twilight of the moon in this sequestered vale of star and spire, for one eternal morning of desire passes to time and earthy afternoon. Here, Heraclitus, did you find in fire and shifting things the prophecy you hurled down the dead years; this midnight my desire will see, shadowed among the embers, furled in flame, the splendor and the sadness of the world.
In fact this is a sonnet. Fitzgerald had written it originally in rhymed lines of iambic pentameter and decided only afterward to run it into prose. There’s a second such poem (“The February streets, wind-washed by night”) hidden in the section “Looking Backward.” See Prose Poetry.
Speaking of Princeton, I found this photo while researching art for this post — “Princeton students after a freshman vs. sophomores snowball fight in 1893″:
Novelist Simon Raven was known as a bit of a bounder.
When his wife wired him WIFE AND BABY STARVING SEND MONEY SOONEST, he cabled back SORRY NO MONEY SUGGEST EAT BABY.
James Joyce took extraordinary pains in composing Ulysses. By his estimate the book cost him 20,000 hours of labor over eight years, and he told a friend that the resulting research “filled a small valise.” On Nov. 2, 1921, just weeks before the novel went to press, he wrote to his aunt, Josephine Murray:
Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt. I saw it done myself but by a man of rather athletic build. I require this information in detail in order to determine the wording of a paragraph.
Sure enough, this passage appears in “Ithaca,” the book’s 17th episode, when Leopold Bloom realizes he has forgotten his key:
A stratagem. Resting his feet on the dwarf wall, he climbed over the area railings, compressed his hat on his head, grasped two points at the lower union of rails and stiles, lowered his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement, and allowed his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall.
But time was always pressing. On Oct. 12 he begged Josephine for her recollections of some Dublin acquaintances: “Get an ordinary sheet of foolscap and a pencil,” he wrote, “and scribble any God damn drivel you may remember about these people.”
Oliver Herford opened his Christmas cards in July.
“When other people’s friends have gone away for the summer and neglect them,” he said, “it certainly is gratifying and exciting to be cheerily greeted by everyone you know.”
Masaoka Shiki, the fourth of Japan’s great haiku masters, is a member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Described as “baseball mad,” Shiki first encountered the game in preparatory school in 1884, only 12 years after American teacher Horace Wilson first introduced it to his students at Tokyo University in 1872. Shiki wrote nine baseball haiku, the first in 1890, making him the first Japanese writer to use the game as a literary subject:
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch
like young cats
still ignorant of love
we play with a ball
to ball catching
the willow in a breeze
Throughout his career Shiki wrote essays, fiction, and poetry about the game, and he made translations of baseball terms that are still in use today. Eventually he taught the game to Kawahigashi Hekigotō and Takahama Kyoshi, who themselves became famous haiku poets under his tutelage, and today a baseball field near Bunka Kaikan in Ueno bears his name. He wrote:
under a faraway sky
the people of America
I can watch it
During our life at Tavistock House [1851-60], I had a long and serious illness, with an almost equally long convalescence. During the latter, my father suggested that I should be carried every day into his study to remain with him, and, although I was fearful of disturbing him, he assured me that he desired to have me with him. On one of these mornings, I was lying on the sofa endeavouring to keep perfectly quiet, while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk, where he remained silently writing until luncheon time. It was a most curious experience for me, and one of which, I did not until later years, fully appreciate the purport. Then I knew that with his natural intensity he had thrown himself completely into the character that he was creating, and that for the time being he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen.
– Mary Dickens, Charles Dickens by His Eldest Daughter, 1885
Sherlock Holmes is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
“Holmes did not exist, but he should have existed,” society chief David Giachardi said in bestowing the award in 2002. “That is how important he is to our culture. We contend that the Sherlock Holmes myth is now so deeply rooted in the national and international psyche through books, films, radio and television that he has almost transcended fictional boundaries.”
Mark Twain received this letter from a Danish customs officer in 1879:
Please to excuse that I fall with the door in the house, without first to begin with the usual long ribble-row. I want to become the autograph of the over alle the world well known Mark Twain, whose narratives so apt have procured me a laughter.
If you will answer this letter, I will be very glad. Answer me what you will; but two words. If you will not answer me other so write only, that you do not like to write autographs.
It’s not known whether he responded, but on the envelope Twain wrote, “Please preserve this remarkable letter.” See Lost in Translation.