In Longfellow’s novel Kavanagh, Mr. Churchill reads a word problem to his wife:
“In a lake the bud of a water-lily was observed, one span above the water, and when moved by the gentle breeze, it sunk in the water at two cubits’ distance. Required the depth of the water.”
“That is charming, but must be very difficult,” she says. “I could not answer it.”
Is it? If a span is 9 inches and a cubit is 18 inches, how deep is the water?
In spite of twenty-five years in Southern California, [Aldous Huxley] remains an English gentleman. The scientist’s habit of examining everything from every side and of turning everything upside down and inside out is also characteristic of Aldous. I remember him leafing through a copy of Transition, reading a poem in it, looking again at the title of the magazine, reflecting for a moment, then saying, ‘Backwards it spells NO IT ISN(T) ART.’
– Igor Stravinsky, Dialogues, 1982
This is James Norman Hall. He co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, operated a machine gun for the Royal Fusiliers, flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, and spent months as a German POW.
And he wrote the poetry of a 9-year-old girl.
Literally. In 1938 a girl came to Hall in a troubled dream and began dictating poems to him about life in his childhood home of Colfax, Iowa. “She told me things about people in our hometown that I had completely forgotten, or thought I had.”
He typed them up and published them under the title Oh, Millersville!, claiming they were the rediscovered work of a turn-of-the-century Iowa farmgirl named Fern Gravel:
Oh, it is wonderful in Millersville
On many a winter night,
When the ground is covered with snow
And the moon is shining so bright.
You can hear the sleigh-bells jingling
I don’t think there could be
A more beautiful sound.
Keats it ain’t, but its homely charm brought writeups in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hall let six years elapse before he published a confession in the Atlantic Monthly, explaining that he’d been ruminating on the evils of industrialization when the girl’s voice had entered his thoughts. The voice, it seemed, remained: Hall wrote a dozen more books and moved to Tahiti, but in his autobiography he wrote that “Iowa, for all the years I have been away from it, has always been, and still is, home for me.”
When Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930, he began to receive fan mail. One young woman proposed becoming his secretary. “I’ll do everything for you,” she wrote. “And when I say everything, I mean everything.”
Lewis’ wife, Dorothy, saw the letter and responded. “My dear Miss,” she wrote. “My husband already has a stenographer who handles his work for him. And, as for ‘everything,’ I take care of that myself — and when I say everything, I mean everything.”
But Miss Cooper, the daughter of the novelist, tells a story which is well-nigh incredible. When in Paris, she saw a French translation of ‘The Spy,’ in which a man is represented as tying his horse to a locust. Not understanding that the locust-tree was meant, the intelligent Frenchman translated the word as ‘sauterelle,’ and, feeling that some explanation was due, he gravely explained in a note that grasshoppers grew to an enormous size in America, and that one of them, dead and stuffed, was placed at the door of the mansion for the convenience of visitors on horseback.
– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
Conclusion of a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 12-year-old daughter Scottie, away at summer camp, Aug. 8, 1933:
Things to worry about:
Worry about courage
Worry about cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship
Things not to worry about:
Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failures unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions
Things to think about:
What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?
“He didn’t want me to have the fun of making my own mistakes,” she wrote later. “He wanted to make them for me.”
In October 1955, shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Marianne Moore was approached by the Ford Motor Company to help devise a name for a new series of cars. “We should like it to have a compelling quality in itself and by itself,” wrote marketing research manager David Wallace. “To convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design.”
Moore accepted the challenge and contributed her suggestions throughout the year that followed. These included:
- The Resilient Bullet
- The Intelligent Whale
- The Ford Fabergé
- The Arc-en-Ciel
- The Mongoose Civique
- The Anticipator
- The Regna Racer
- The Aeroterre
- The Turbotorc
- The Thunder Crester
- The Magigravure
- The Pastelogram
- The Utopian Turtletop
Ford added these to its own growing list. Finally, in November 1956, Wallace sent her the company’s decision. “We have chosen a name out of the more than six-thousand-odd candidates that we gathered,” he wrote. “It has a certain ring to it. An air of gaiety and zest. At least, that’s what we keep saying. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is — Edsel.”
To autograph seekers, Mark Twain would return a typewritten message:
I hope I shall not offend you; I shall certainly say nothing with the intention to offend you. I must explain myself, however, and I will do it as kindly as I can. What you ask me to do I am asked to do as often as one half-dozen times a week. Three hundred letters a year! One’s impulse is to freely consent, but one’s time and necessary occupations will not permit it. There is no way but to decline in all cases, making no exceptions; and I wish to call your attention to a thing which has probably not occurred to you, and that is this: that no man takes pleasure in exercising his trade as a pastime. Writing is my trade, and I exercise it only when I am obliged to. You might make your request of a doctor, or a builder, or a sculptor, and there would be no impropriety in it, but if you asked either for a specimen of his trade, his handiwork, he would be justified in rising to a point of order. It would never be fair to ask a doctor for one of his corpses to remember him by.
In 1962 James Jones was in Paris, struggling to finish The Thin Red Line, his novelization of his experiences in the Battle of Mount Austen during Guadalcanal.
As Jones was agonizing over a scene in which a member of the company, badly wounded, lay crying for help in no man’s land, the laundry man came to collect his bill. When Jones answered the knock, his face was wet with tears.
“Pas nécessaire,” said the man, taken aback. “It’s okay. You no have to pay now.”
Justice Arthur Gilbert of the California Court of Appeal felt that legal motions might be more interesting if they were written in the styles of famous authors. He proposed these motions for continuance:
It was busy and there was commotion. I looked out the window where the wind touched the top of the trees and far below, the street, white from the sunlight, and the cars inching forward, but I could feel up here that it would not be good, but there was nothing one could do. Pilar, my secretary, looked at me and her eyes told me that this was as bad as when the bulls are running toward you and there is nowhere to climb and you know you will be trampled, but you know that until they do you can live a good life, a short, happy life. And when I asked her for the file and she said, “What file, Ingles?” I knew that the bulls were loose and there was nowhere to go; there was no yesterday, no tomorrow, but that was then and now is here, Your Honor. There was a time when it was good, but now it is a time when it is bad and you can make it good again, and if you can’t, it’s a rotten shame.
Thirty days to answer.
It’s the cruelest month.
Dead, dying decay, an apt description
For my brain, withered, not resplendent now,
A supplicant, having been etherized upon a table
During the time to answer.
I ask for relief,
Not with a bang, but a whimper.
HelpmeohGod Time is creptupandI saidyesohheyesyesyesyesI need relief nowfromignominious default default fault-d de fault is mine ohhelptheteatiscaughtintheproceduralwringer. Relief.
Benji had taken the file and went along the fence with it and lost it through the spaces in the fence where the flowers were curling. That’s what they said. I started to cry. Caddy, who smelled like trees, and Quentin, who just smelled, came to find the file, but I didn’t holler ’til mother shouted at Dilsey for bringing me cheap store cake. Dilsey took me up to bed. Quentin told Caddy he had to answer. He had to find the file. Caddy did not know that Benji had taken the file, and Benji could not know that he had taken the file, because this motion is written from Benji’s point of view, and his IQ is 17.
In December 1924, a postal inspector from Corinth, Miss., leveled a series of charges against the postmaster at the University of Mississippi. “You mistreat mail of all classes,” he wrote, “including registered mail; … you have thrown mail with return postage guaranteed and all other classes into the garbage can by the side entrance,” and “some patrons have gone to this garbage can to get their magazines.”
The slothful postmaster was William Faulkner. He had accepted the position in 1921 while trying to establish himself as a writer, but he spent most of his time in the back of the office, as far as possible from the service windows, in what he called the “reading room.” When he wasn’t reading or writing there he was playing bridge with friends; he would rise grumpily only when a patron rapped on the glass with a coin.
It was a brief career. Shortly after the inspector’s complaint, Faulkner wrote to the postmaster general: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”
In making up newspapers–that is, in piecing together paragraphs into columns–two separate items may sometimes be jumbled together with amazing results. Thus, the New Haven Journal announced in one paragraph that ‘The large cast-iron wheel, revolving nine hundred times a minute, exploded in that city yesterday after a long and painful illness. Deceased was a prominent thirty-second degree Mason,’ and in another that ‘John Fadden, a well-known florist and real-estate broker of Newport, Rhode Island, died in Wardner Russell’s sugar-mill at Crystal Lake, Illinois, on Saturday, doing $3000 damages to the building and injuring several workmen severely.’
– William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892
Beset with writer’s block, Robert Benchley typed the word The, thinking it “as safe a start as any.”
Then he left for an hour with friends.
On returning to his room he regarded the solitary word, alone on its expanse of blank paper.
He typed hell with it and “went out happily for the evening.”
Anthony Burgess wrote his Enderby novels under the pen name Joseph Kell. So he was amused when in 1963 the Yorkshire Post asked him to review one of them.
Sensing a practical joke by one of the editors, he submitted a scathing review. “This is in many ways a dirty book,” he wrote. “It may well make some people sick, and those of my readers with tender stomachs are advised to let it alone.”
Alas, the assignment wasn’t a joke. The newspaper published Burgess’ review — and when it discovered his double identity, “I was attacked by the editor of the Yorkshire Post on Yorkshire Television and promptly, and perhaps justly, dismissed.”
See Conflict of Interest.
Art critic Philip Gilbert Hamerton’s wife found herself sitting next to Alfred, Lord Tennyson one day at a Paris lunch. He told her this story — she records it in her 1896 memoir:
I had occasion to go to Paris with a friend who was supposed to speak French creditably, and who fancied himself a master of it. On the morning following our arrival in the French capital, being somewhat knocked up by the journey, we had a late breakfast at a small side-table of the dining-room, of which we were soon the only occupants, under the watchful and, as I thought, suspicious eyes of a waiter, whose attention had probably been attracted by the conspicuous difference between our stature and garb from that of his little dandified countrymen.
Having caught a slight cold on the passage, I felt more inclined to stay by the fire with a newspaper than to go out, and did so, whilst my friend, who had some business in the town, left me for some time. As I drew my chair up to the hearth I heard the waiter answering with alacrity to some recommendation of my friend’s, ‘Oh, monsieur peut être tranquille, j’y veillerai.’ I thought it was some order about our dinner, and resumed my political studies.
Was it my cold which made me dull and inattentive? It is quite possible, for my eyes kept wandering from my paper, and, strange to say, always met those of the French waiter riveted upon me. At first I felt annoyed: what could be so strange about my person? Then I was irritated, for though that queer little man was making some pretence at dusting or replacing chairs, still his eyes never left me for a moment, and at last, being somewhat drowsy, I had the sensation that one experiences in a nightmare, and thought I had better resort to my room and make up for a shortened night.
No sooner, however, had I got up from my chair than the waiter was entreating me to remain, offering to heap coals on the fire, to bring me another paper or a pillow if I was tired, and ‘Did I wish to write a letter? he would fetch instantly what was required; or should I like something hot for my cold?’ His voice had the strange coaxing tone that we use to pacify children, and made me stare; but I answered angrily that I only wanted a nap, and to be let alone, and I made for the door in spite of his objurgations.
Then he ran in front of me, and barring the door with arms outstretched, besought me to await my friend. This unaccountable behavior had rendered me furious, and now I was determined to force my way out, despite the mad resistance and loud gibberish of the waiter, and I began to use my fists.
It was in the midst of this tremendous row that my astonished friend re-appeared in the dining-room, and was greeted with this exclamation from my adversary: ‘Ah, monsieur, vous voyez, j’ai tenu ma parole: je ne l’ai pas laissé sortir le fou; mais ça n’a pas été sans peine, il était temps que vous arriviez.’
It turned out that my friend, anxious for my comfort and noticing that the fire was getting low, had said in his easy French before leaving, ‘Garçon, surtout ne laissez pas sortir le fou’ (feu) — meaning ‘Don’t let the fire go out,’ and the intelligent foreigner had immediately guessed from my appearance that I was le fou.’
Tennyson offered this as one of a number of anecdotes about him that were current at the time; when she asked whether it were true, he smiled and said, “I think it is capital; you will have to guess.”
A little girl asked George Ade, “Does M-I-R-A-G-E spell marriage?”
He said, “Yes.”
Horace Greeley had atrocious handwriting. According to William Shepard Walsh’s Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities (1892), Greeley once sent the following note to the Iowa Press Association:
I have waited till longer waiting would be discourteous, only to find that I cannot attend your Press meeting next June as I would like to do. I find so many cares and duties pressing on me that, with the weight of years, I feel obliged to decline any invitation that takes me away a day’s journey from home.
After some study, the Iowans deciphered this as:
I have wondered all along whether any squirt had denied the scandal about the President meeting Jane in the woods on Saturday. I have hominy, carrots, and R.R. ties more than I could move with eight steers. If eels are blighted, dig them early. Any insinuation that brick ovens are dangerous to hams gives me the horrors.
Their reply is not recorded.
Sir John Cutler had pair of silk stockings, which his housekeeper, Dolly, darned for a long term of years with worsted; at the end of which time, the last gleam of silk had vanished, and Sir John’s silk stockings were found to have degenerated into worsted. Now, upon this, a question arose amongst the metaphysicians, whether Sir John’s stockings retained (or, if not, at what precise period they lost) their personal identity. The moralists again were anxious to know, whether Sir John’s stockings could be considered the same ‘accountable’ stockings from first to last. The lawyers put the same question in another shape, by demanding whether any felony which Sir John’s stockings could be supposed to have committed in youth, might legally be the subject of indictment against the same stockings when superannuated; whether a legacy left to the stockings in their first year, could be claimed by them in their last; and whether the worsted stockings could be sued for the debts of the silk stockings.
– Thomas de Quincey, “Autobiography of an English Opium-Eater,” from Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, September 1838
J.J. Sylvester was a brilliant mathematician but, by all accounts, a lousy poet. The Dictionary of American Biography opines delicately that “Most of Sylvester’s original verse showed more ingenuity than poetic feeling.”
What it lacked, really, was variety. His privately printed book Spring’s Debut: A Town Idyll contains 113 lines, every one of which rhymes with in.
Even worse is “Rosalind,” a poem of 400 lines all of which rhyme with the title character’s name. In his History of Mathematics, Florian Cajori reports that Sylvester once recited “Rosalind” at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute. He began by reading all the explanatory footnotes, so as not to interrupt the poem, and realized too late that this had taken an hour and a half.
“Then he read the poem itself to the remnant of his audience.”
See Poetry in Motion.
About 50 years after Shakespeare’s death, John Dryden’s brother-in-law James Howard rewrote Romeo and Juliet as a tragicomedy in which the lovers are happily married. His production was so unpopular that the play was performed as a tragedy on alternate evenings, but it was enough to inspire a series of dramatists to try their hands at revising the Bard.
British poet laureate William Davenant added dancing and singing to Macbeth, all reportedly “excellently performed, being in the nature of an opera.” In Irish poet Nahum Tate’s 1681 revision of King Lear, the fool is absent, the king survives, Cordelia marries Edgar, and the three sisters are reconciled. In the 1740s, David Garrick raised Juliet’s age to 18, dropped the bedroom scene, removed Rosaline, and added a brief reunion between the lovers in the tomb. (He considered these changes “few and trifling.”)
The one really interesting such idea lay with Lewis Carroll, who dreamed of “Bowldlerising Bowldler,” “i.e. of editing a Shakespeare which shall be absolutely fit for girls.” He planned to “erase ruthlessly every word in the play that is in any degree profane, or coarse, or in any sense unsuited for a girl of from 10 to 15; and then to make the best I can of what is left.” Alas, he never completed the project.
At a London dinner, Sydney Smith overheard the woman next to him decline gravy. He turned to her and said, “Madam, I have been looking all my life for a person who disliked gravy–let us swear eternal friendship.”
Sir Humphrey Davy
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
– Edmund Clerihew Bentley
“Light crosses space with the prodigious velocity of 6,000 leagues per second.”
– La Science Populaire, April 28, 1881
“A typographical error slipped into our last issue that it is important to correct: the speed of light is 76,000 leagues per hour — and not 6,000.”
– La Science Populaire, May 19, 1881
“A note correcting a first error appeared in our issue number 68, indicating that the speed of light is 76,000 leagues per hour. Our readers have corrected this new error. The speed of light is approximately 76,000 leagues per second.”
– La Science Populaire, June 16, 1881
John Irving’s 1978 novel The World According to Garp contains the complete text of a novella, “The Pension Grillparzer.” Garp, an aspiring writer, submits it to a magazine and receives a summary rejection: “The story is only mildly interesting, and it does nothing new with language or with form. Thanks for showing it to us, though.”
When Irving’s editor asked whether this might seem too abrupt, Irving showed him a rejection slip from the Paris Review — he had submitted “The Pension Grillparzer” to them just to see what would happen and, receiving this response, inserted it verbatim into the novel. “I tried the story with American Review, too, they turned it down. And even two non-literary magazines didn’t want it: The New Yorker and Esquire.”
“It was a good feeling when ‘The Pension Grillparzer’ was repeatedly singled out as one of the strongest parts of the novel, and it won the Pushcart Prize for short fiction that year. One literary magazine, Antaeus, did publish it. Naturally, I’ve liked them ever since.”
While Bret Harte was serving as proofreader for a provincial newspaper in Yreka, Calif., he was asked to consider a flowery obituary that contained the sentence “Even in Yreka her chastity was conspicuous.”
Harte realized with a smile that the writer had probably meant “charity,” so he underscored “chastity” and put a question mark in parentheses in the margin, to indicate that the word should be checked.
The following morning he picked up the paper and read: “Even in Yreka her chastity was conspicuous (?)”