Two months before the outbreak of World War I, Arthur Conan Doyle published a curious short story in The Strand. “Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius” told of a fleet of enemy submarines attacking England’s food imports, starving the nation and winning a war:
Of course, England will not be caught napping in such a fashion again! Her foolish blindness is partly explained by her delusion that her enemy would not torpedo merchant vessels. Common sense should have told her that her enemy will play the game that suits them best — that they will not inquire what they may do, but they will do it first and talk about it afterwards.
In a commentary published with the story, Adm. Penrose Fitzgerald wrote, “I do not myself think that any civilized nation will torpedo unarmed and defenceless merchant ships.” Adm. Sir Compton Domvile felt “compelled to say that I think it most improbable, and more like one of Jules Verne’s stories than any other author I know.” Adm. William Hannam Henderson agreed: “No nation would permit it, and the officer who did it would be shot.”
But within months the U-boats’ depredations had begun, and by February 1915 Doyle was being accused of suggesting the idea to the Germans. “I need hardly say that it is very painful to me to think that anything I have written should be turned against my own country,” he told a reporter. “The object of the story was to warn the public of a possible danger which I saw overhanging this country and to show it how to avoid that danger.”
“Oh, isn’t it a lovely sunset?” a young woman asked Robert Frost.
He said, “I never discuss business after dinner.”
1916 saw a poetic flowering across the United States — a series of public gardens cultivating the plants mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Bard’s death. The one above is at Vassar, but similar installations appeared at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rockefeller Park in Cleveland, and Central Park.
New York’s garden filled two acres with violets, wind-flowers, bloodroot, hepatica, rock-dress, English daisies, spring beauties, shooting stars, candytuft, forget-me-nots, and moss pinks, as well as an oak transplanted from Stratford-on-Avon. But its participation is surprising: In 1890 a similarly romantic impulse there had led to much darker results.
Bonus factoid: Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the same date but on different days. How? Both died on April 23, 1616, but at the time England was following the Julian calendar and Spain the Gregorian — a source of oddities in itself.
In 1922, Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost a suitcase full of his early manuscripts at the Gare de Lyons as she was traveling to meet him in Geneva. It was never recovered.
In 1919, T.E. Lawrence misplaced his briefcase while changing trains at Reading railway station. It had contained the first eight books of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. He, too, had to start again.
In 1835, when Thomas Carlyle had finished writing the first volume in his history of the French Revolution, he loaned the manuscript to John Stuart Mill, seeking his opinion. Mill’s maid mistook it for trash and burned it.
“I remember and can still remember less of it than of anything I ever wrote with such toil,” Carlyle wrote in his journal. After laboriously rewriting the volume, he said he felt like a man who had “nearly killed himself accomplishing zero.”
In 1949, New Statesman challenged its readers to parody the style of any novelist named Green or Greene.
Under a pseudonym, Graham Greene submitted a parody of himself:
The child had an air of taking everything in and giving nothing away. At the Rome airport he was led across the tarmac by his aunt, but he seemed to hear nothing of her advice to himself or of the information she produced for the air hostess. He was too busy with his eyes: the hangars had his attention, every lane on the field except his own — that could wait.
‘My nephew,’ she said, ‘yes, that’s him on the list. Roger Court. You will look after him, won’t you? He’s never been quite on his own before,’ but when she made that statement the child’s eyes moved back plane by plane with what looked like contempt, back to the large breasts and the fat legs and the over-responsible mouth: how could she have known, he might have been thinking, how often I am alone?
He came in second.
Huckleberry Finn was already in press in 1884 when publisher Charles L. Webster received an alarmed letter from an advance salesman: A mischievous engraver had altered the illustration above to give it a rather darker character (NSFW).
It certainly puts a new spin on the caption.
Despite a reward of $500, the prankster was never identified. Webster had to call back all published copies of the novel, cut out the plate, and tip in a new one, delaying publication past the Christmas season. But it’s fortunate they caught it when they did — it could have ruined Mark Twain’s career.
Harold Ross personally edited every issue of the New Yorker between 1925 and 1951. Unfortunately, he was a fiend for commas, peppering every sentence until all possible ambiguity was removed. An example from 1948:
“When I read, the other day, in the suburban-news section of a Boston newspaper, of the death of Mrs. Abigail Richardson Sawyer (as I shall call her), I was, for the moment, incredulous, for I had always thought of her as one of nature’s indestructibles.”
His writers hated this. James Thurber revised Wordsworth:
She lived, alone, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be,
But, she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference, to me.
And E.B White wrote, “Commas in the New Yorker fall with the precision of knives in a circus act, outlining the victim.”
But Ross was immovable. “We have carried editing to a very high degree of fussiness here,” he acknowledged to H.L. Mencken, “probably to a point approaching the ultimate. I don’t know how to get it under control.”
So on it went. A correspondent once asked Thurber why Ross had added the comma to the sentence “After dinner, the men went into the living-room.” Thurber responded, “This particular comma was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.”
Elphinston: What, have you not read it through?
Johnson: No, Sir, do you read books through?
— Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791
What is gopher wood? Noah used it to build his ark, but there’s no other reference to it in the Bible.
Similarly, no one’s quite sure what a kankedort is. It appears in one passage in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde:
Was Troilus nought in a kankedort,
That lay, and myghte whisprynge of hem here,
And thoughte, “O Lord, right now renneth my sort
Fully to deye, or han anon comfort!”
The Oxford English Dictionary defines it helplessly as an awkward situation or affair and says it’s “of unascertained etymology.”
See Hapax Legomenon.
False book-backs ordered by Charles Dickens in 1851 to fill blank spaces in his study at Tavistock House:
- Five Minutes in China (3 volumes)
- Forty Winks at the Pyramids (2 volumes)
- History of the Middling Ages (6 volumes)
- Jonah’s Account of the Whale
- Captain Parry’s Virtues of Cold Tar
- Kant’s Ancient Humbugs (10 volumes)
- Bowwowdom: A Poem
- The Quarrelly Review
- The Art of Cutting the Teeth
- Drowsy’s Recollections of Nothing (3 volumes)
- Heavysides Conversations With Nobody (3 volumes)
- Growler’s Gruffiology, With Appendix (4 volumes)
- Miss Biffin on Deportment
- Lady Godiva on the Horse
- Munchausen’s Modern Miracles
- On the Use of Mercury by the Ancient Poets
And Hansard’s Guide to Refreshing Sleep, “as many volumes as are required to fill up.”
In 1977, a gravely ill 19-month-old Qatari girl was flown to a London hospital, where her condition continued to worsen, baffling her doctors.
On the sixth day, the observing nurse was startled to see that the girl began to lose her hair. She realized that the patient’s symptoms were strikingly similar to those in Agatha Christie’s novel The Pale Horse, which she had been reading.
In Christie’s novel, the murder victims had been killed by thallium poisoning. Tests confirmed elevated levels of thallium in the girl’s urine, and doctors treated her accordingly. Three weeks later she was well enough to go home.
Visiting Rome in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain reflects on “the unsubstantial, unlasting character of fame.” He imagines how the people of 5868 A.D. will remember Ulysses S. Grant:
URIAH S. (or Z.) GRAUNT — popular poet of ancient times in the Aztec provinces of the United States of British America. Some authors say flourished about A.D. 742; but the learned Ah-ah Foo-foo states that he was a contemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet, and flourished about A.D. 1328, some three centuries after the Trojan war instead of before it. He wrote ‘Rock me to Sleep, Mother.’
“These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed.”
Laid up in the hospital, James Thurber passed the time doing crossword puzzles.
One day he asked a nurse, “What seven-letter word has three u’s in it?”
She said, “I don’t know, but it must be unusual.”
While adapting The Big Sleep for the screen, a confused Howard Hawks wired Raymond Chandler asking who was supposed to have killed General Sternwood’s chauffer in the novel. Chandler responded:
When a Paris news editor asked Ernest Hemingway for an accounting of his expenses, he cabled:
SUGGEST YOU UPSTICK BOOKS ASSWARDS
A movie studio once approached Eugene O’Neill to write a screenplay for a Jean Harlow film. They asked him to reply in a collect telegram of no more than 20 words. He wrote:
NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO O’NEILL
When Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize in in 1969, he received a telegram from a Parisian named Georges Godot … apologizing for keeping him waiting.
In The Hunting of the Snark, the Butcher confirms for the Beaver that Two and One are Three:
Taking Three as the subject to reason about–
A convenient number to state–
We add Seven, and Ten, and then multiply out
By One Thousand diminished by Eight.
The result we proceed to divide, as you see,
By Nine Hundred and Ninety and Two:
Then subtract Seventeen, and the answer must be
Exactly and perfectly true.
Fittingly for Carroll, the math works:
In 1947, the University of Chicago rejected Kurt Vonnegut’s master’s thesis, calling it “unprofessional.”
Twenty-four years later, in 1971, they granted the degree — accepting Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle as a thesis in anthropology.
Notice, Hartford Courant, May 20, 1875:
TWO HUNDRED & FIVE DOLLARS REWARD–At the great base ball match on Tuesday, while I was engaged in hurrahing, a small boy walked off with an English-made brown silk UMBRELLA belonging to me, and forgot to bring it back. I will pay $5 for the return of that umbrella in good condition to my house on Farmington avenue. I do not want the boy (in an active state) but will pay two hundred dollars for his remains.
Samuel L. Clemens
H.G. Wells’ 1914 novel The World Set Free is not his best known, but it’s certainly his most prescient — he predicted nuclear weapons:
She felt torn out of the world. There was nothing else in the world but a crimson-purple glare and sound, deafening, all-embracing, continuing sound. Every other light had gone out about her, and against this glare hung slanting walls, pirouetting pillars, projecting fragments of cornices, and a disorderly flight of huge angular sheets of glass.
The novel imagines an invention that accelerates radioactive decay, producing unthinkably powerful bombs. (Wells even dedicated the novel “to Frederick Soddy’s interpretation of radium.”)
This application was far ahead of the science of the time — physicist Leó Szilárd later said it helped inspire his own conception of a nuclear chain reaction.
If that’s not impressive enough: In Wells’ novel, allies drop an atomic bomb on Germany during a world war in the 1940s!
“If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.” — Anatole France
Curiously, when France died in 1924, doctors found that his brain was two-thirds normal size. But, said surgeon Louis Guillaume, “It was the most beautiful brain one could dream of seeing. Its convolutions were marvelous.”
Only four days ago, right in the next farm house to the one where I am spending the summer, a grandmother, old and gray and sweet, one of the loveliest spirits in the land, was sitting at her work, when her young grandson crept in and got down an old, battered, rusty gun which had not been touched for many years and was supposed not to be loaded, and pointed it at her, laughing, and threatening to shoot. In her fright she ran screaming and pleading toward the door on the other side of the room; but as she passed him he placed the gun almost against her very breast and pulled the trigger! He had supposed it was not loaded. And he was right: it wasn’t. So there wasn’t any harm done.
— Mark Twain, “Advice to Youth,” 1882
(“An Unpublished Poem by Burns”)
O mickle yeuks the keckle doup,
An’ a’ unsicker girns the graith,
For wae and wae! the crowdies loup
O’er jouk an’ hallan, braw an’ baith
Where ance the coggie hirpled fair,
And blithesome poortith toomed the loof,
There’s nae a burnie giglet rare
But blaws in ilka jinking coof.
The routhie bield that gars the gear
Is gone where glint the pawky een.
And aye the stound is birkin lear
Where sconnered yowies wheeped yestreen,
The creeshie rax wi’ skelpin’ kaes
Nae mair the howdie bicker whangs,
Nor weanies in their wee bit claes
Glour light as lammies wi’ their sangs.
Yet leeze me on my bonny byke!
My drappie aiblins blinks the noo,
An’ leesome luve has lapt the dyke
Forgatherin’ just a wee bit fou.
And Scotia! while thy rantin’ lunt
Is mirk and moop with gowans fine,
I’ll stowlins pit my unco brunt,
An’ cleek my duds for auld lang syne.
— Punch, collected in James Parton, The Humorous Poetry of the English Language, 1884
In 1917, when a young T.S. Eliot was working at Lloyds Bank in London, one of his superiors met the critic I.A. Richards on holiday in Switzerland.
The banker was relieved to hear that Richards thought Eliot a good poet. Some of his colleagues had feared that poetry was a poor grounding for a career in finance, but if the young man really enjoyed his hobby then perhaps it could help him in his work.
In fact, the banker said, “I don’t see why — in time, of course, in time — he mightn’t even become a branch manager.”
“The Travelling Egg”
Procure a goose’s egg, and after opening and cleaning it, put a bat into the shell, and then glue a piece of white paper fast over the aperture. The motions of the poor little prisoner in struggling to get free, will cause the egg to roll about in a manner that will excite much astonishment.
— Samuel Williams, The Boy’s Treasury of Sports, Pastimes, and Recreations, 1847
“How to Melt Steel”
Heat a piece in the fire till it is red hot; then holding it with a pair of pinchers or tongs, take in the other hand a stick of brimstone, and touch the piece of steel with it; immediately after the contact, you will see the steel melt and drop like a liquid.
— “Uncle George,” Parlour Pastime for the Young, 1857
“The Gun Trick”
Provide yourself with a fowling piece or musket; permit any one to load it, only retaining for yourself the privilege of putting in the ball. But instead of loading it with a real ball, retain the latter in your possession, having had a recognisable mark put upon it, and load with an artificial one made of black lead. On the application of the ramrod the latter will, of course be easily reduced to powder. When you are fired at, you produce the marked ball, holding it between your thumb and finger.
— Alfred Elliott, The Playground and the Parlour, 1868
Selected winners of the Bookseller/Diagram prize for oddest book title of the year:
- Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice (1978)
- The Joy of Chickens (1980)
- The Theory of Lengthwise Rolling (1983)
- Versailles: The View From Sweden (1988)
- How to Avoid Huge Ships (1992)
- Highlights in the History of Concrete (1994)
- Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996)
- The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2003)
- Bombproof Your Horse (2004)
- People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It (2005)
- The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (2006)
Last year’s winner, The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais, is the subject of some controversy, as it was written by an automatic authoring machine rather than a human being. But, said awards administrator Philip Stone, “Given the number of celebrity memoirs out there that are ghostwritten, I don’t think it’s too strange.”