Literature

Drawing Blanks

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In 2002, Russian magnate Vladimir O. Potanin paid $1 million for Kazimir Malevich’s 1915 painting Black Square. “‘All paintings are pictures’ would have been a strong candidate for a necessary truth until Malevich proved it false,” wrote Arthur Danto of the inscrutable black canvas. Malevich himself had said, “It is not painting; it is something else.”

In The Hunting of the Snark, the Bellman guides his party across the Ocean with “a map they could all understand”:

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“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!

“Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank”
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best —
A perfect and absolute blank!”

While an architecture student at Cornell in the 1920s, practical joker Hugh Troy was given 48 hours to render “a conception of what a brightly floodlighted hydroelectric plant might look like at night.” “Though Hugh was overloaded with other work, he got his drawing in on time,” remembered classmate Don Hershey. He called it Hydroelectric Plant at Night (Fuse Blown):

troy hydroelectric plant

In 1967 British artists Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin produced a “map of itself,” a “map of an area of dimensions 12″ x 12″ indicating 2,304 1/4″ squares”:

map of itself

Katharine Harmon, in The Map as Art, writes that this is one of a series of maps “revealing only what they wished to show and jettisoning the rest — drawing attention to what cartographers have always done.”

(Thanks, Tristram.)

Ten Commandments

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In 1928, theologian and mystery writer Ronald Knox codified 10 rules of detective fiction:

  1. The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.
  2. All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.
  3. Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.
  4. No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.
  5. No Chinaman must figure in the story.
  6. No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.
  7. The detective himself must not commit the crime.
  8. The detective is bound to declare any clues which he may discover.
  9. The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal from the reader any thoughts which pass through his mind: his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.
  10. Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

These came to define the “golden age” of the classic murder mystery. The story, Knox wrote, “must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end.”

Misc

  • Kurt Vonnegut managed the country’s first Saab dealership.
  • Max Born is Olivia Newton-John’s grandfather.
  • 19683 = 1 × (9 – 6)8 × 3
  • Before the advent of European settlers, it’s believed that no Native American had blood type B.
  • “Good taste is the worst vice ever invented.” — Edith Sitwell

The first recorded performance of Hamlet took place at sea, aboard the East India ship Red Dragon off the coast of Africa in 1607. Capt. William Keeling’s diary entry for Sept. 5 reads: “I sent the interpreter according to his desier abord the Hector whear he brooke fast and after came abord me wher we gave the tragedie of Hamlett.”

Declined With Thanks

When Hunter S. Thompson published Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, writers began to send him manuscripts, hoping he could help to get them published in Rolling Stone. Thompson sent a package of their poems to the magazine’s poetry editor, Charles Perry. “I don’t know about this stuff,” he wrote. “If you feel the same way, send it back to them with this” — and he included a prepared rejection letter:

You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill in here again. If I had the time, I’d come out there and drive a fucking wooden stake into your forehead. Why don’t you get a job, germ? Maybe delivering advertising handouts door to door, or taking tickets for a wax museum. You drab South Bend cocksuckers are all the same; like those dope-addled dingbats at the Rolling Stone office. I’d like to kill those bastards for sending me your piece … and I’d just as soon kill you, too. Jam this morbid drivel up your ass where your readership will better appreciate it.

“We actually sent it out to a couple of people, thinking they would appreciate it,” Perry recalled later. “One person took it to a lawyer and asked whether he could sue us, and the lawyer said, ‘No, you don’t have a leg to stand on … but could I Xerox it?'”

Master Class

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Writings of Sherlock Holmes, compiled by Vincent Starrett in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes:

  • Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos
  • Upon the Tracing of Footsteps
  • Upon the Influence of a Trade Upon the Form of the Hand
  • The Book of Life
  • On the Typewriter and Its Relation to Crime
  • Upon the Dating of Old Documents
  • Of Tattoo Marks
  • On Secret Writings
  • On the Surface Anatomy of the Human Ear
  • Early English Charters
  • On the Polyphonic Motets of Lassus
  • Chaldean Roots in the Ancient Cornish Language
  • Malingering
  • Upon the Uses of Dogs in the Work of the Detective
  • Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, With Some Observations Upon the Segregation of the Queen
  • The Blanched Soldier
  • The Lion’s Mane
  • Sigerson
  • The Whole Art of Detection
  • Translations

In June 1955, a document purporting to be Holmes’ last will and testament was published by Nathan L. Bengis in the London Mystery Magazine. In it, Holmes leaves “to the authorities of Scotland Yard, one copy of each of my trifling monographs on crime detection, unless happily they shall feel they have outgrown the need for the elementary suggestions of an amateur detective.”

Literary Complaints

Charles Dickens to London clockmaker John Bennett:

My Dear Sir — Since my hall clock was sent to your establishment to be cleaned it has gone (as indeed it always has) perfectly well, but has struck the hours with great reluctance; and, after enduring internal agonies of a most distressing nature, it has now ceased striking altogether. Though a happy release for the clock, this is not convenient to the household. If you can send down any confidential person with whom the clock can confer, I think it may have something on its works that it would be glad to make a clean breast of.

W.S. Gilbert to the Times:

Sir, — Allow me to corroborate Dean Gregory’s statement as to the degeneration that has overtaken a company [the London and Northwestern Railway] which, until recently, was justly regarded as a pattern to all other lines in the matter of punctuality and rapidity of despatch. … In the face of Saturday the officials of the company stand helpless and appalled. This day, which recurs at stated and well-ascertained intervals, is treated as a phenomenon entirely outside the ordinary operations of nature, and, as a consequence, no attempt whatever is made to grapple with its inherent difficulties. To the question, ‘What has caused the train to be so late?’ the officials reply, ‘It is Saturday’ — as who should say, ‘It is an earthquake.’

Mark Twain to a gas and electric lighting company in Hartford, Conn.:

Gentlemen, — There are but two places in our whole street where lights could be of any value, by any accident, and you have measured and appointed your intervals so ingeniously as to leave each of those places in the centre of a couple of hundred yards of solid darkness. When I noticed that you were setting one of your lights in such a way that I could almost see how to get into my gate at night, I suspected that it was a piece of carelessness on the part of the workmen, and would be corrected as soon as you should go around inspecting and find it out. My judgment was right; it is always right, when you are concerned. For fifteen years, in spite of my prayers and tears, you persistently kept a gas lamp exactly half way between my gates, so that I couldn’t find either of them after dark; and then furnished such execrable gas that I had to hang a danger signal on the lamp post to keep teams from running into it, nights. Now I suppose your present idea is, to leave us a little more in the dark.

Don’t mind us — out our way; we possess but one vote apiece, and no rights which you are in any way bound to respect. Please take your electric light and go to — but never mind, it is not for me to suggest; you will probably find the way; and any way you can reasonably count on divine assistance if you lose your bearings.

S.L. Clemens.

Pen Pals

franklin pierce adams

“Guess whose birthday it is today?” Franklin Pierce Adams asked Beatrice Kaufman.

“Yours?” she guessed.

“No, but you’re getting warm,” he said. “It’s Shakespeare’s!”

Visitors

From “Love and Freindship,” a story by the 14-year-old Jane Austen:

One evening in December, as my father, my mother, and myself were arranged in social converse round our fireside, we were on a sudden greatly astonished by hearing a violent knocking on the outward door of our rustic cot.

My father started — ‘What noise is that?’ said he. ‘It sounds like a loud rapping at the door,’ replied my mother. ‘It does indeed,’ cried I. ‘I am of your opinion,’ said my father, ‘it certainly does appear to proceed from some uncommon violence exerted against our unoffending door.’ ‘Yes,’ exclaimed I, ‘I cannot help thinking it must be somebody who knocks for admittance.’

‘That is another point,’ replied he. ‘We must not pretend to determine on what motive the person may knock — though that someone does rap at the door, I am partly convinced.’

Here, a second tremendous rap interrupted my father in his speech and somewhat alarmed my mother and me.

‘Had we better not go and see who it is?’ said she. ‘The servants are out.’ ‘I think we had,’ replied I. ‘Certainly,’ added my father, ‘by all means.’ ‘Shall we go now?’ said my mother, ‘The sooner the better,’ answered he. ‘Oh! let no time be lost,’ cried I.

A third more violent rap than ever again assaulted our ears. ‘I am certain there is somebody knocking at the door,’ said my mother. ‘I think there must,’ replied my father. ‘I fancy the servants are returned,’ said I. ‘I think I hear Mary going to the door.’ ‘I’m glad of it, cried my father, ‘for I long to know who it is.’

I was right in my conjecture; for Mary instantly entering the room informed us that a young gentleman and his servant were at the door, who had lost their way, were very cold and begged leave to warm themselves by our fire. …

Stage Whispers

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Fanny Kemble’s 1833 American tour was not a uniform success — her journal gives this account of one eventful scene in Baltimore:

ROMEO: Tear not our heart strings thus! They crack! They break! — Juliet! Juliet! (dies)

JULIET: (to corpse) Am I smothering you?

CORPSE: (to Juliet) Not at all. Could you be so kind, do you think, as to put my wig on again for me? It has fallen off.

JULIET: (to corpse) I’m afraid I can’t, but I’ll throw my muslin veil over it. You’ve broken the phial, haven’t you? (corpse nods)

JULIET: Where’s your dagger?

CORPSE: ‘Pon my soul, I don’t know.

“The play went off pretty well, except they broke one man’s collar-bone, and nearly dislocated a woman’s shoulder by flinging the scenery about.”

Epic Fantasy

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From a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to his publishers, February 1950:

My work has escaped my control, and I have produced a monster; an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and rather terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody); and it is not really a sequel to The Hobbit, but to The Silmarillion. Ridiculous and tiresome as you may think me, I want to publish them both — The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings. That is what I should like. Or I will let it all be. I cannot contemplate any drastic rewriting or compression. But I shall not have any just grievance (nor shall I be dreadfully surprised) if you decline so obviously unprofitable a proposition.

At 150 million copies, The Lord of the Rings is now the third best-selling novel of all time.

Art Direction

E. Gertrude Thomson

In 1879, illustrator Emily Gertrude Thomson appointed to meet Lewis Carroll at the South Kensington Museum. She had arrived at the rendezvous before she realized that neither of them knew what the other looked like.

“The room was fairly full of all sorts and conditions, as usual,” she wrote later, “and I glanced at each masculine figure in turn, only to reject it as a possibility of the one I sought.”

As the clock struck, she heard high voices and children’s laughter ringing down the corridor, and a tall, slim gentleman entered holding two little girls by the hand. “He stood for a moment, head erect, glancing swiftly over the room, then, bending down, whispered something to one of the children; she, after a moment’s pause, pointed straight at me.”

He dropped their hands, came forward with a smile, and said, “I am Mr. Dodgson; I was to meet you, I think?” She smiled and asked how he had recognized her.

“My little friend found you,” he said. “I told her I had come to meet a young lady who knew fairies, and she fixed on you at once.”

More Amusing Indexes

From Oliver Wendell Holmes’ The Poet at the Breakfast-Table, 1872:

Act to make the poor rich by making the rich poorer, 3
Ankle, wonderful effects of breaking a bone in the, 114
Batrachian reservoir (frog-pond in vulgar speech), the palladium of our city, 369
Biography, penalties of being its subject, 191 et seq.
Common virtues of humanity not to be confiscated to the use of any one creed, 360
House-flies mysterious creatures, 288
Ideas often improve by transplantation, 171
Intellects, one story, two story, three story, 50
Jests distress some people, 289
Justice, an algebraic x, 317
Life a fatal complaint, and contagious, 395
Limitations, human, not to be transferred to the Infinite, 319
Millionaires cannot be exterminated, 5
Non-clerical minds, hopeful for the future of the race, 302
Old people almost wish to lose their blessings for the pleasure of remembering them, 385
Poem, is it hard work to write one?, 111
Power, we have no respect for as such, 317
Private property in thought hard to get and keep, 356
Ribbon in button-hole pleases the author, 322
Rigorists, mellowing, better than tightening liberals, 19
Tattooing with the belief of our tribe while we are in our cradles, 384
Traditionalists eliminate cause and effect from the domain of morals, 265

And from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621:

Atheists described, 705
Baseness of birth no disparagement, 509
Beer censured, 145
Black eyes best, 519
Blow on the head cause of melancholy, 247
Confidence in his physician half a cure, 392
Crocodiles jealous, 629
Eunuchs why kept, and where, 642
Fishes in love, 493
Great men most part dishonest, 636
Guts described, 96
Hell where, 318
How oft ’tis fit to eat in a day, 307
Ignorance the mother of devotion, 678
Man the greatest enemy to man, 84
Old folks apt to be jealous, 632
Poets why poor, 203
Salads censured, 145
Step-mother, her mischiefs, 241
Venison a melancholy meat, 142
Why good men are often rejected, 415
Why fools beget wise children, wise men fools, 139, 140

The New York Times Book Review called Burton’s index “a readerly pleasure in itself.”

See Memorable Indexes.

Self Seeking

Letter from Winston Churchill to American author Winston Churchill, June 1899:

Mr. Winston Churchill presents his compliments to Mr. Winston Churchill, and begs to draw his attention to a matter which concerns them both. He has learnt from the Press notices that Mr. Winston Churchill proposes to bring out another novel, entitled Richard Carvel, which is certain to have a considerable sale both in England and America. Mr. Winston Churchill is also the author of a novel now being published in serial form in Macmillan’s Magazine, and for which he anticipates some sale both in England and America. He also proposes to publish on the 1st of October another military chronicle on the Soudan War. He has no doubt that Mr. Winston Churchill will recognise from this letter — if indeed by no other means — that there is grave danger of his works being mistaken for those of Mr. Winston Churchill. He feels sure that Mr. Winston Churchill desires this as little as he does himself. In future to avoid mistakes as far as possible, Mr. Winston Churchill has decided to sign all published articles, stories, or other works, ‘Winston Spencer Churchill,’ and not ‘Winston Churchill’ as formerly. He trusts that this arrangement will commend itself to Mr. Winston Churchill, and he ventures to suggest, with a view to preventing further confusion which may arise out of this extraordinary coincidence, that both Mr. Winston Churchill and Mr. Winston Churchill should insert a short note in their respective publications explaining to the public which are the works of Mr. Winston Churchill and which those of Mr. Winston Churchill. The text of this note might form a subject for future discussion if Mr. Winston Churchill agrees with Mr. Winston Churchill’s proposition. He takes this occasion of complimenting Mr. Winston Churchill upon the style and success of his works, which are always brought to his notice whether in magazine or book form, and he trusts that Mr. Winston Churchill has derived equal pleasure from any work of his that may have attracted his attention.

In 1959 Bertrand Russell and Lord Russell of Liverpool wrote a joint letter to the Times:

“Sir: In order to discourage confusions which have been constantly occurring, we beg herewith to state that neither of us is the other.”

A Modest Proposal

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In 1936, after his first wife had left him, Evelyn Waugh sent a letter to her cousin Laura Herbert, asking whether “you could bear the idea of marrying me.”

“I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you,” he wrote, “but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody and misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it’s a lousy proposition. On the other hand I think I could do a Grant and reform & become quite strict about not getting drunk and I am pretty sure I should be faithful. Also there is always a fair chance that there will be another bigger economic crash in which case if you had married a nobleman with a great house you might find yourself starving, while I am very clever and could probably earn a living of some sort somewhere.”

He added, “All these are very small advantages compared with the awfulness of my character. I have always tried to be nice to you and you may have got it into your head that I am nice really, but that is all rot. It is only to you & for you. I am jealous & impatient — but there is no point in going into a whole list of my vices. You are a critical girl and I’ve no doubt that you know them all and a great many I don’t know myself.”

They were wed the following spring.

Figurehead

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French science fiction writer Albert Robida has been lost in the shadow of Jules Verne, but in the 1880s he was widely popular for a trilogy of illustrated novels imagining life in the 20th century. He predicted social upheavals around the time of our two world wars and foresaw transatlantic air travel, home shopping, video telephones, and a feminist revolution. But his greatest innovation was one we haven’t reached yet — a president made of wood:

And he is really well made. See the hand that’s holding the pen? It is secured in position. You can try pushing and pulling it all you want, it won’t budge! There is a secret lock. Absolute security! The mechanism is extremely complex; there are three locks and three keys. The prime minister has one, the president of the chamber has another one, and the president of the senate has the third. A minimum of two keys is requested to activate the mechanism. In case of conflict between the prime minister and the president of the chamber, the president of the senate is summoned with his key. He stands with one side or the other and introduces his key into one of the locks. The mechanism is activated, and the automatic president signs away!

“He shall reign, but not govern,” explains a citizen. “The power will remain in the hands of the nation’s representatives. … The monarchists’ main objection to democracy has always been its inherent instability. With this wooden president, democracy equals stability!”

Murder Ink

In 1973, Sheldon Klein of the University of Wisconsin programmed a computer to write a 2,100-word mystery story in 19 seconds:

Wonderful smart Lady Buxley was rich. Ugly oversexed Lady Buxley was single. John was Lady Buxley’s nephew. Impoverished irritable John was evil. Handsome oversexed John Buxley was single. John hated Edward. John Buxley hated Dr. Bartholomew Hume. Brilliant Hume was evil. Hume was oversexed. Handsome Dr. Bartholomew was single. Kind easygoing Edward was rich. Oversexed Lord Edward was ugly. Lord Edward was married to Lady Jane. Edward Liked Mary Jane. Edward was not jealous. Lord Edward disliked John. Pretty jealous Jane liked Lord Edward. …

The plots tend to be haphazard and the narrative unsophisticated … but in this example the butler did it. Perhaps Klein was onto something.

“Good Heavens, Holmes!”

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Stage instruction from La Tragedia de Baskerville, a five-act drama mounted in Bilbao in 1915 by Gonzalo Jóver and Enrique Arroyo:

El perro ha de ser de atrezzo, grande, negro, de cabeza achatada, en los ojos dos lámparas eléctricas rojas y otra en la boca, simulando la parte de la lengua. El perro irá montado sobre ballestas arquedas, con las patas extendidas en actitud de galopar. Las dos ballestas se unen por dos travesaños que irán debajo de las patas. Del travesaño delantero se engancha un alambre, del cual se tirará fuertemente, para que el perro corra con el movimiento propio del galope. Para que no se vea el montaje es necesario que los apliques sean más altos que el practicable del camino.

The dog, large and black, with red electric lights for eyes and another to indicate the tongue, is to be mounted on arched crossbows, with paws extended as though running. The crossbows are to be joined by two cross timbers, placed under the feet, and to the foremost cross piece a copper wire is to be attached in such fashion that it may be vigorously pulled, to give the animal a galloping movement. Arrangement of the mechanical mounting is to be such that the appliances are not visible from the audience.

Historian Paul Patrick Rogers notes that the play “seems never to have reached Madrid.”

Unquote

“The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own.” — William Empson

A Close Friend

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In June 1857, Hans Christian Andersen arrived at Charles Dickens’ new country home, Gads Hill Place. Andersen was an enormous admirer of Dickens — he had just dedicated a novel to him and was eager to enjoy a fortnight with his “friend and brother.”

Enjoy it he did. He gathered nosegays in the woods, cut figures from paper, invited Dickens’ son Charley to shave him, and explored London in cabs while hiding his valuables in his boots. He found that Dickens had an excellent supply of dinner whiskey and could offer a large tumbler of gin and sherry afterward. He watched Dickens perform in The Frozen Deep, burst into tears at the death scene, drank champagne with the cast, and returned to see it again a week later.

So delighted was he that in the end he stayed five weeks instead of the planned two. “None of your friends can be more closely attached to you than I,” he wrote on the way back to Denmark. “The visit to England, the stay with you, is a bright point in my life. … I understood every minute that you cared for me, that you were glad to see me, and were my friend.”

When Dickens returned to the house, he stole into Anderson’s bedroom and affixed a card to the dressing-table mirror. “Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks,” it said, “which seemed to the family AGES.”

Lightning Rods

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On April 18, 1926, Sinclair Lewis mounted the pulpit of a Kansas City church, took out his watch, and defied God to prove his existence within 10 minutes by striking him dead.

God spared him.

George Bernard Shaw had once made the same challenge but gave God only three minutes. “I am a very busy man,” he said.

Unquote

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“The average American loves his family. If he has any love left over for some other person, he generally selects Mark Twain.” — Thomas Edison

Modern Literature

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In the early 1970s, AI researcher James Meehan tried to teach a computer to retell Aesop’s fables. This was not always successful:

Once upon a time there was a dishonest fox and a vain crow. One day the crow was sitting in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth. He noticed that he was holding the piece of cheese. He became hungry, and swallowed the cheese. The fox walked over to the crow. The end.

Henry Ant was thirsty. He walked over to the river bank where his good friend Bill Bird was sitting. Henry slipped and fell in the river. He was unable to call for help. He drowned.

One day Henry Crow sat in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth, when up came Bill Fox. Bill saw the cheese and was hungry. He said, ‘Henry, I like your singing very much. Won’t you please sing for me?’ Henry, flattered by this compliment, began to sing. The cheese fell to the ground. Bill Fox saw the cheese on the ground and was very hungry. He became ill. Henry Crow saw the cheese on the ground, and he became hungry, but he knew that he owned the cheese. He felt pretty honest with himself, so he decided not to trick himself into giving up the cheese. He wasn’t trying to deceive himself, either, nor did he feel competitive with himself, but he remembered that he was also in a position of dominance over himself, so he refused to give himself the cheese. He couldn’t think of a good reason why he should give himself the cheese, so he offered to bring himself a worm if he’d give himself the cheese. That sounded okay, but he didn’t know where any worms were. So he said to himself, ‘Henry, do you know where any worms are?’ But of course, he didn’t, so he …

“The program eventually ran aground for other reasons,” Meehan writes. “I was surprised it got as far as it did.”

Pen Time

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“I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.” — Pascal

“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” — Mark Twain

“If you want me to talk for ten minutes, I’ll come next week. If you want me to talk for an hour I’ll come tonight.” — Woodrow Wilson

Also:

Harold Macmillan: “What are you doing, prime minister?”

Winston Churchill: “Rehearsing my impromptu witticisms.”

Unconfirmed

When Mark Twain took his first job as a newspaper reporter, his editor told him never to report anything as fact unless he could verify it by personal knowledge.

That night Twain covered a social gala. He filed the following story: “A woman giving the name of Mrs. James Jones, who is reported to be one of the society leaders of the city, is said to have given what purported to be a party yesterday to a number of alleged ladies. The hostess claims to be the wife of a reputed attorney.”