Working Conditions

Half of Jane Austen’s oeuvre was written on a tiny table in the family parlor, subject to continual interruptions. In his Memoir of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote:

The first year of her residence at Chawton seems to have been devoted to revising and preparing for the press ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’; but between February 1811 and August 1816, she began and completed ‘Mansfield Park,’ ‘Emma,’ and ‘Persuasion,’ so that the last five years of her life produced the same number of novels with those which had been written in her early youth. How she was able to effect all this is surprising, for she had no separate study to retire to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.

He adds: “I have no doubt that I, and my sisters and cousins, in our visits to Chawton, frequently disturbed this mystic process, without having any idea of the mischief that we were doing; certainly we never should have guessed it by any signs of impatience or irritability in the writer.”

So There

E.E. Cummings had to borrow $300 from his mother in order to publish 70 Poems, his 1935 collection of poetry. Vindictively he changed its title to No Thanks and dedicated it to the 14 publishing houses that had rejected it:

cummings dedication

Their names form the shape of a funeral urn.

Hidden Men

Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to a “Mr. W.H.” No one knows who this was — his identity has remained a mystery for 400 years. Most of the sonnets are addressed to a young man, and some seem to contain puns on the names “Will” and “Hughes” (for example, sonnet 20 refers to “a man in hue all hughes in his controlling”), so the 18th-century scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt suggested that the young man was named William Hughes. Oscar Wilde took this up in his 1889 short story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” in which he imagines that Mr. W.H. was one Willie Hughes, “a wonderful boy-actor of great beauty” who played women’s roles in Shakespeare’s company. Unfortunately there’s no evidence that such a person actually existed, though Samuel Butler discovered a real-life William Hughes who served as cook on a ship called the Vanguard in 1634.

In Ulysses, Mr. Best calls Wilde’s the “most brilliant” of all theories to explain the mystery. That’s ironic, because Ulysses contains a mysterious character of its own, a “man in a macintosh” who appears repeatedly but is never identified:

Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I’d like to know? Now I’d give a trifle to know who he is. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. A fellow could live on his lonesome all his life.

And, later:

Mr Bloom stood far back, his hat in his hand, counting the bared heads. Twelve. I’m thirteen. No. The chap in the macintosh is thirteen. Death’s number. Where the deuce did he pop out of? He wasn’t in the chapel, that I’ll swear. Silly superstition that about thirteen.

This being Ulysses, he could be almost anyone, and critics have suggested everyone from Satan to Charles Stewart Parnell. Joyce seemed to delight in his own riddle, asking his friends, “Who was the man in the macintosh?” But he never revealed the answer.


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  • “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” — Plutarch

Edward Gorey’s pen names included Ogdred Weary, Raddory Gewe, Regera Dowdy, D. Awd­rey-Gore, E.G. Deadworry, Waredo Dyrge, Deary Rewdgo, Dewda Yorger, and Dogear Wryde. Writer Wim Tigges responded, “God reward ye!”

Private Exit,_Untergang_der_%22Lusitania%22.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:

I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.

Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’

They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’

The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.

It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.

Nota Bene

In 1937 Wolcott Gibbs drew up a list of 31 rules for new fiction editors at the New Yorker. “The average contributor to this magazine is semi-literate,” he wrote. “That is, he is ornate to no purpose, full of senseless and elegant variations, and can be relied on to use three sentences where a word would do.” Some of his rules:

1. “Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page, recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said’: ‘He said morosely, violently, eloquently,’ and so on. Editorial theory should probably be that a writer who can’t make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.”

2. “Word ‘said’ is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting ‘grunted,’ ‘snorted,’ etc., are waste motion, and offend the pure in heart.”

3. “Our writers are full of clichés, just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one, and had better be removed.”

12. “[Style editor Hobie] Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn’t believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. ‘A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel.’ Sometimes they’re necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr. Weekes suffers and quite rightly.”

20. “The more ‘as a matter of facts,’ ‘howevers,’ ‘for instances,’ etc., you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.”

“I would be delighted to go over the list of writers, explaining the peculiarities of each as they have appeared to me in more than ten years of exasperation on both sides,” he wrote. “By going over the list, I can give a general idea of how much nonsense each artist will stand for.”

“The Poets in a Puzzle”

Cottle, in his life of Coleridge, relates the following amusing incident:–‘I led my horse to the stable, where a sad perplexity arose. I removed the harness without difficulty; but, after many strenuous attempts, I could not remove the collar. In despair, I called for assistance, when Mr. Wordsworth brought his ingenuity into exercise; but, after several unsuccessful efforts, he relinquished the achievement as a thing altogether impracticable. Mr. Coleridge now tried his hand, but showed no more skill than his predecessor; for, after twisting the poor horse’s neck almost to strangulation, and the great danger of his eyes, he gave up the useless task, pronouncing that the horse’s head must have grown since the collar was put on; for he said, ‘it was a downright impossibility for such a huge os frontis to pass through so narrow an aperture.’ Just at this instant, a servant-girl came near, and understanding the cause of our consternation, ‘Ha! master,’ said she, ‘you don’t go about the work in the right way: you should do like this,’ when, turning the collar upside down, she slipped it off in a moment, to our great humiliation and wonderment, each satisfied afresh that there were heights of knowledge in the world to which we had not yet attained.

— William Evans Burton, The Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor, 1898

Two for One

Longfellow thought that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Victorian poet and painter, was two different people. On leaving Rossetti’s house he said, “I have been very glad to meet you, Mr. Rossetti, and should like to have met your brother also. Pray tell him how much I admire his beautiful poem, ‘The Blessed Damozel.'”

In Philosophical Troubles, Saul A. Kripke offers a related puzzle. Peter believes that politicians never have musical talent. He knows of Paderewski, the great pianist and composer, and he has heard of Paderewski the Polish statesman, but he does not know that they are the same person. Does Peter believe that Paderewski had musical talent?

The Two Cultures

In 1855 American publisher James T. Fields made the mistake of taking William Thackeray to a dull scientific lecture:

During his second visit to Boston I was asked to invite him to attend an evening meeting of a scientific club, which was to be held at the house of a distinguished member. I was very reluctant to ask him to be present, for I knew he could be easily bored, and I was fearful that a prosy essay or geological speech might ensue, and I knew he would be exasperated with me, even although I were the innocent cause of his affliction. My worst fears were realized. We had hardly got seated, before a dull, bilious-looking old gentleman rose, and applied his auger with such pertinacity that we were all bored nearly to distraction. I dared not look at Thackeray, but I felt that his eye was upon me. My distress may be imagined, when he got up quite deliberately from the prominent place where a chair had been set for him, and made his exit very noiselessly into a small anteroom leading into the larger room, and in which no one was sitting. The small apartment was dimly lighted, but he knew that I knew he was there. Then commenced a series of pantomimic feats impossible to describe adequately. He threw an imaginary person (myself, of course) upon the floor, and proceeded to stab him several times with a paper-folder which he caught up for the purpose. After disposing of his victim in this way, he was not satisfied, for the dull lecture still went on in the other room, and he fired an imaginary revolver several times at an imaginary head. Still, the droning speaker proceeded with his frozen subject (it was something about the Arctic regions, if I remember rightly), and now began the greatest pantomimic scene of all, namely, murder by poison, after the manner in which the player King is disposed of in Hamlet. Thackeray had found a small phial on the mantel-shelf, and out of it he proceeded to pour the imaginary ‘juice of cursed hebenon’ into the imaginary porches of somebody’s ears. The whole thing was inimitably done, and I hoped nobody saw it but myself; but years afterwards a ponderous, fat-witted young man put the question squarely to me: ‘What was the matter with Mr. Thackeray that night the club met at M—-‘s house?’

Family Plot

Some years ago, when Macready was performing in Chicago, he was unfortunate enough to offend one of the actors. This person, who was cast for the part of Claudius in ‘Hamlet,’ resolved to pay off the star for many supposed offenses. So, in the last scene, as Hamlet stabbed the usurper, that monarch reeled foward, and after a most spasmodic finish, stretched himself out precisely in the place Hamlet required for his own death. Macready, much annoyed, whispered:–

‘Die further up the stage, Sir!’

The monarch lay insensible. Upon which, in a still louder voice, Hamlet growled:–

‘Die further up the stage, Sir!’

Hereon Claudius, sitting up, observed:–

‘I bleeve I’m King here, and I’ll die where I please.’

— Olive Logan, Before the Footlights and Behind the Scenes, 1870