Literature

Mouthful

Composed in 390 B.C., Aristophanes’ play Ecclesiazusae concludes with the name of a dish on which the characters plan to feast.

The word is lopadotemachoselachogaleokranioleipsanodrimupotrimmatosilphioliparomelitoaktakexhumeno-kichlepikossuphophattoperisteralektruonoptopiphallidokinklopeleioplagoosiraiobaphetragalopterugon. At 169 letters, it’s still the longest word in the Greek language.

Fine Scotch

A sentence composed entirely of contractions taken from Robert Burns poems:

E’en th’ flow’rs afiel’ ha’e fac’t heav’n wi’ th’ rightfu’, shinin’ blessin’ that’s prevail’d i’ th’ min’ o’ th’ faithfu’ servan’ an’ th’ mournfu’, wand’ring craz’d o’ th’ worl': heav’n’s pray’rs ha’e honour’d th’ cheerfu’ an’ th’ gen’rous ‘gainst t’other worl’s glib-tongu’d, wither’d pow’r.

When the English poet laureate Alfred Austin unveiled a statue of Burns in 1896, Punch proposed some remarks for him.

“Ye ken I canna mak’ ye a lang speech, bein’ mair a wanchansie mon, ram-feezled wi’ writin’, than a skirlin’, tapetless glib-gabbet,” he was to say. “Burns was nae feckless gowk, sae it’s a pleasure tae me tae unveil this sonsie statue.”

Peer Review

Was James Fenimore Cooper a great writer? His fellow authors didn’t think so. Mark Twain counted 114 literary offenses on a single page of The Deerslayer, including an “airy, complacent, monkey-with-a-parasol” style that Bret Harte parodied:

Judge Tompkins: ‘Genevra, the logs which compose yonder fire seem to have been incautiously chosen. The sibilation produced by the sap, which exudes copiously therefrom, is not conducive to composition.’

Genevra: ‘True, father, but I thought it would be preferable to the constant crepitation which is apt to attend the combustion of more seasoned ligneous fragments.’

Of Cooper’s characters, James Russell Lowell wrote, “The women he draws from one model don’t vary / All sappy as maples and flat as a prairie.”

“Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language,” Twain concluded, “and … the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.” Perhaps they were jealous.

Unquote

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“Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” — London Critic, 1855

Conflict of Interest

Eric Temple Bell led two lives. By day he was a mathematician at Caltech; by night he wrote science fiction as John Taine.

By a happy chance the two personalities met in 1951, when the Pasadena Star-News asked Taine to review Bell’s book Mathematics, Queen and Servant of Science.

Not one to lose an opportunity, he accepted. “The last flap of the jacket says Bell ‘is perhaps mathematics’ greatest interpreter,'” Taine wrote. “Knowing the author well, the reviewer agrees.”

Self-Help

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Someone once asked G.K. Chesterton what book he’d most like to have on a desert island.

He answered, “Thomas’s Guide to Practical Shipbuilding.”

A Clean Breast

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As he lay dying in 1635, Lope de Vega asked whether the end was at hand. Assured that it was, he murmured, “All right, then, I’ll say it. Dante makes me sick.”

Clockwork

“Did you ever notice that remarkable coincidence? Bernard Shaw is 61 years old. H.G. Wells is 51, G.K. Chesterton is 41, you’re 31 and I’m 21 — all the great authors of the world in arithmetical progression.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald in a 1918 letter to Shane Leslie

A Wide Vocabulary

Doug Nufer’s 2004 novel Never Again is aptly named — in 202 pages he never uses the same word twice. Here’s the first sentence:

When the racetrack closed forever I had to get a job.

And here’s the last (and the moral):

Worldly bookmaker soulmates rectify unfair circumstance’s recurred tragedies, ever-moving, ever-hedging shifty playabilities since chances say someone will be for ever closing racetracks.

It’s an example of an Oulipo exercise in constrained writing — here’s another.

A Blindfold Bullseye

In 1908, German novelist Ferdinand H. Grautoff published Banzai!, a curiously prescient account of a war between Japan and the United States. Japan deals a surprise defeat to unprepared American troops, who rally to repulse them:

Our splendid regiments could not be checked, so eager were they to push forward, and they succeeded in storming one of the enemy’s positions after the other along the mountainside. At last the enemy began to retreat, and the thunder of the cannon was again and again drowned in the frenzied cheers. General MacArthur was continually receiving at his headquarters reports of fresh victories in the front and on both wings.

Note the name of the American commander. Grautoff gives no clue to his inspiration, but in an introduction he writes, “All the incidents we had observed on the dusty highway of History, and passed by with indifference, had been sure signs of the coming catastrophe.”

Timeless Reason

In an 1849 letter to his sister, Lewis Carroll asks which is more accurate, a clock that is right once a year or one that has stopped altogether. The stopped clock is more accurate, he says–because it’s correct twice a day.

You might go on to ask, ‘How am I to know when eight o’clock does come? My clock will not tell me.’ Be patient, reader: you know that when eight o’clock comes your clock is right; very good; then your rule is this: keep your eye fixed on your clock, and the very moment it is right it will be eight o’clock.

“‘But–‘ you say. There, that’ll do, reader; the more you argue the farther you get from the point, so it will be as well to stop.”

More Bad Poetry

The verses of Puritan poet George Wither (1588-1667) fairly glow — if by “verses” you mean “drivelings” and by “glow” you mean “suck like a tarpit”:

Her hair like gold did glister,
Each eye was like a star;
She did surpass her sister,
Which passed all others far.
She would me honey call;
She’d, O she’d kiss me too;
But now, alas! sh’ ‘as left me,
Falero, lero, loo.

When Wither was taken prisoner by the Cavaliers during the English civil war, Sir John Denham pleaded with Charles I: “I hope your majesty will not hang poor George Wither — for as long as he lives it can’t be said that I am the worst poet in England.”

“Extraordinary Prediction”

It is recorded of the poet Dryden, by Charles Wilson, in his ‘Life of Congreve,’ that having, strange to say, belief in astrology, he was careful to ascertain to the second the time at which his son Charles was born. He then calculated the boy’s nativity, and was alarmed to discover that evil influences prevailed in the heavens. … He concluded that in his eighth year, and on the day of birth, his son’s life would be seriously endangered if not lost; and that if he lived, the same danger would exist when he attained his twenty-third birthday, and again on his thirty-third or fourth. On the boy’s eighth birthday, despite every precaution to keep the boy from every possible danger, he was nearly killed by the fall of a wall. On his twenty-third birthday he was seized with giddiness and fell from an old tower belonging to the Vatican at Rome; and he was drowned at Windsor while swimming across the Thames in his thirty-third year.

The World of Wonders, 1883

The Author’s Tale

‘Twas potter, and the little brown
Did simon and schuster in the shaw;
All mosby were the ballantines,
And the womraths mcgraw.

“Beware Jovanovich, my son!
The knopfs that crown, the platts that munk!
Beware the doubleday, and shun
The grolier wagnallfunk!”

He took his putnam sword in hand,
Long time the harcourt brace he sought;
So rested he by the crowell tree
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in harper thought he stood,
Jovanovich, with eyes of flame,
Came houghton mifflin through the wood
And bowkered as it came!

Dodd mead! Dodd mead! And from his steed
His dutton sword went kennicatt!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went quadrangling back.

“And hast thou slain Jovanovich?
Come to my arms, my bantam boy!
Oh, stein and day! Giroux! McKay!”
He scribnered in his joy.

‘Twas potter, and the little brown
Did simon and schuster in the shaw;
All mosby were the ballantines,
And the womraths mcgraw.

— Anonymous

Short Verse

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

That’s the first verse of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” University of Liverpool librarian John Sampson found it a bit wordy, so he tightened it up:

The curfew tolls the knell of day,
The lowing herd winds o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his way,
And leaves the world to dark and me.

Still unsatisfied, he tried:

The curfew tolls the knell of day,
The herd winds o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his way,
And leaves the world to me.

Finally he settled on:

Dusk tolls,
Herds flee,
Hinds scoot:
Not me.

Oh, Never Mind

Zhuangzi and Huizi were strolling along the dam of the Hao Waterfall when Zhuangzi said, ‘See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!’

Huizi said, ‘You’re not a fish — how do you know what fish enjoy?’

Zhuangzi said, ‘You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?’

Huizi said, ‘I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish — so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!’

Zhuangzi said, ‘Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy — so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.’

Zhuangzi, China, fourth century B.C.

Walking Wounded

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John Watson, the companion and biographer of Sherlock Holmes, was hit by a Jezail bullet while serving with the British army in Afghanistan.

Curiously, though, the wound migrates.

In “A Study in Scarlet” (1887), Watson says he was struck in the shoulder, but in “The Sign of Four” (1890) the wound has moved to his leg, which Watson says aches at changes in the weather.

One would think that this might have drawn Watson’s attention, as he was a medical doctor. But evidently he lacked his friend’s perspicacity — in “The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor” (1892) he refers only to a bullet wound in “one of my limbs.”

Trivium

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The shortest chapter in the Bible is Psalm 117. The longest is Psalm 119.

This knowledge can come in handy.

Cast Away

Here’s a paragraph from Robinson Crusoe. It contains a remarkable error — can you spot it?

A little after noon, I found the sea very calm, and the tide ebbed so far out, that I could come within a quarter of a mile of the ship; and here I found a fresh renewing of my grief: for I saw evidently, that if we had kept on board, we had been all safe–that is to say, we had all got safe on shore, and I had not been so miserable as to be left entirely destitute of all comfort and company, as I now was. This forced tears from my eyes again; but as there was little relief in that, I resolved, if possible, to get to the ship–so I pulled off my clothes, for the weather was hot to extremity, and took the water. But when I came to the ship, my difficulty was still greater to know how to get on board; for, as she lay aground and high out of the water, there was nothing within my reach to lay hold of. I swam round her twice, and the second time I spied a small piece of rope, which I wondered I did not see at first, hang down by the fore-chains, so low as that with great difficulty I got hold of it, and, by the help of that rope, got up into the forecastle of the ship. Here I found that the ship was bulged, and had a great deal of water in her hold, but that she lay so on the side of a bank of hard sand, or rather earth, and her stern lay lifted up upon the bank, and her head low almost to the water: by this means all her quarter was free, and all that was in that part was dry; for you may be sure my first work was to search and to see what was spoiled, and what was free, and first I found that all the ship’s provisions were dry and untouched by the water: and being very well disposed to eat, I went to the bread-room and filled my pockets with biscuit, and ate it as I went about other things, for I had no time to lose. I also found some rum in the great cabin, of which I took a large dram, and which I had indeed need enough of to spirit me for what was before me. Now I wanted nothing but a boat, to furnish myself with many things which I foresaw would be very necessary to me.

Unquote

Half of the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.

— T.S. Eliot

Oops

Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary defines garret as “a room on the highest floor of the house.”

It defines cockloft as “the room over the garret.”

“The Sweet Singer of Michigan”

Julia Moore’s poetry was so bad that it gained a national following even among her contemporaries in the 1870s. One reviewer wrote, “Shakespeare, could he read it, would be glad that he was dead”:

They once did live at Edgerton,
They once did live at Muskegon,
From there they went to Chicago,
Which proved their fatal overthrow.

It was William House’s family,
As fine a family as you see—
His family was eleven in all,
I do not think it was very small.

She stopped writing when she saw that her fans were laughing, not weeping — and, immortally, she closed her career with these lines:

And now kind friends, what I have wrote
I hope you will pass o’er,
And not criticise as some have done
Hitherto herebefore.

Anonymous

Who wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Strangely, no one knows. The novel is credited to B. Traven, but exactly who that is has been a matter of speculation for more than 80 years.

Most of Traven’s output was published between 1926 and 1939, composed in German sprinkled with Americanisms and frequently concerning leftist politics and Mexican history.

The writer himself never came forward, and he left only intriguing clues to his identity: In the 1920s apparently he was associated with Munich anarchist Erich Mühsam, and later a Mexican journalist discovered a bank account in Traven’s name in Acapulco. When John Huston filmed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1947, a man claiming to be Traven’s agent visited the set and appeared to take an unusual interest in the proceedings, but he disappeared afterward.

Apparently that’s how he wanted it: It now appears that the writer took on at least four distinct identities during his lifetime. One of these men wrote, “I shall always and at all times prefer to be pissed on by dogs than reveal who I am.”

False Advertising

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written by Alex Haley.