Literature

False Advertising

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written by Alex Haley.

Unimpressed

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Samuel Pepys’ opinions of Shakespeare’s plays, from his diary:

  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I had never seen [it] before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid, ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life.”
  • The Taming of the Shrew: “It hath some very good pieces in it, but generally is but a mean play.”
  • Romeo and Juliet: “It is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard.”
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor: “The humours of the country gentleman and the French doctor very well done, but the rest but very poorly, and Sir J. Falstaffe as bad as any.”
  • Henry IV, Part 1: “It did not please me.”
  • The Two Noble Kinsmen: “No excellent piece.”
  • Twelfth Night: “One of the weakest plays that ever I saw on the stage.”

“August 20th, 1666. To Deptford by water, reading Othello, Moor of Venice, which I ever heretofore esteemed a mighty good play; but … it seems a mean thing.”

Duck Soup

T.S. Eliot was a fan of Groucho Marx. The two maintained a correspondence through the early 1960s, when Groucho accepted a long-offered dinner with the poet.

Eliot wrote: “The picture of you in the newspapers saying that, amongst other reasons, you have come to London to see me has greatly enhanced my credit in the neighborhood, and particularly with the greengrocer across the street. Obviously I am now someone of importance.”

What’s in a Name?

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Any dictionary can call itself Webster’s, and many do.

The name has been in the public domain since the 1800s.

Oh

Dylan Thomas’ 1954 play Under Milk Wood is set in the town of Llareggub.

Is that a real Welsh village? Or is it a stand-in for Laugharne, where Thomas lived in the 1930s?

Neither — read it backward.

Strange Eyes

G.K. Chesterton used the term moor eeffocish to describe the queerness sometimes glimpsed in familiar things. He borrowed the phrase from Charles Dickens, who as an unhappy child would sometimes sit in a coffee shop in St. Martin’s Lane:

In the door there was an oval glass plate with ‘COFFEE ROOM’ painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backwards on the wrong side, MOOR EEFFOC (as I often used to do then in a dismal reverie), a shock goes through my blood.

J.R.R. Tolkien later wrote: “The word Mooreeffoc may cause you to realise that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits.”

Artful Dodge

Benjamin Disraeli often received unsolicited manuscripts from authors seeking his opinion. He had a standard reply:

“Thank you for the manuscript; I shall lose no time in reading it.”

See also Backhanded Letters of Reference.

“Learned Ass”

Singular circumstance — A lady resident in Devonshire, going into one of her parlours, discovered a young ass, who had found its way into the room, and carefully closed the door upon himself. He had evidently not been long in this situation before he had nibbled a part of Cicero’s Orations, and eaten nearly all the index of a folio edition of Seneca in Latin, a large part of a volume of La Bruyere’s maxims in French, and several pages of Cecilia. He had done no other mischief whatever, and not a vestige remained of the leaves that he had devoured. Will it be fair henceforward to dignify a dunce with the name of this literary animal?

— Pierce Egan, Sporting Anecdotes, Original and Selected, 1822

The Two Cultures

Tennyson’s poem “The Vision of Sin” contains this couplet:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

When he published it in 1842, Charles Babbage sent him a note:

I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that, in the next edition of your excellent poem, the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows:–

Every moment dies a man,
And one and a sixteenth is born.

“I may add that the exact figures are 1.167,” he added, “but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.”

Alacke, What Noyse Is This?

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE is an anagram of I AM A WEAKISH SPELLER.

Unquote

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“People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” — Iris Murdoch

Over the Moon

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Jules Verne earned his title as the father of science fiction: His 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon contains eerie similarities to the Apollo program that unfolded a century later.

Like Apollo 11, Verne’s story involved a crew of three being launched from the United States on a trip around the moon. The two spacecraft were of similar dimensions and weight, and both were mostly aluminum. (Verne’s craft was shot from a cannon called the Columbiad; Apollo 11’s command module was called Columbia.) Both were launched from the Florida peninsula after a competition with Texas; Congress resolved a similar contest in the 1960s, choosing Houston as home of Mission Control and Florida as the launch site — indeed, Verne’s craft takes off only 136 miles from today’s Kennedy Space Center. Both crews experienced weightlessness and used retrorockets, both missions were monitored by ground crews using telescopes, and both craft splashed down in the Pacific and were recovered by the Navy.

Some of this was guesswork, but some involved careful thought and intelligent speculation. Verne recognized that a vehicle can be launched into space most easily from low latitudes, and he undertook his own engineering analysis to design the projectile and the cannon that fired it. In his other novels, Verne describes antecedents of helicopters, air conditioning, projectors, automobiles, jukeboxes, the Internet, television, and submarines. “What one man can imagine,” he wrote, “another can do.”

“The Keats of Chess”

Rudolf Charousek had been playing chess for only four years when he found himself facing this position against Jakob Wollner at Kaschau in 1893:

charousek-wollner, kaschau 1893

He found one of the most immortally pretty finishes in chess history — to discover it, read Kester Svendsen’s 1947 short story “Last Round,” which the game inspired.

Three years afterward, Charousek defeated Lasker at Nuremberg. “I shall have to play a championship match with this man someday,” the master remarked, but it was not to be — the Hungarian died of tuberculosis in 1900, at only 26.

Celestial

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Each book in Dante’s Divine Comedy ends with the word stars.

Reference Work

No one knows who compiled the index for George Mivart’s 1889 book The Origin of Human Reason, but apparently he had strong opinions. On page 136 Mivart describes a certain cockatoo that seemed to reply articulately to questions. The indexer made these entries:

Absurd tale about a Cockatoo, 136
Anecdote, absurd one, about a Cockatoo, 136
Bathos and a Cockatoo, 136
Cockatoo, absurd tale concerning one, 136
Discourse held with a Cockatoo, 136
Incredibly absurd tale of a Cockatoo, 136
Invalid Cockatoo, absurd tale about, 136
Mr. —– and tale about a Cockatoo, 136
Preposterous tale about a Cockatoo, 136
Questions answered by a Cockatoo, 136
R—–, Mr. and tale about a Cockatoo, 136
Rational Cockatoo as asserted, 136
Tale about a rational Cockatoo, as asserted, 136
Very absurd tale about a Cockatoo, 136
Wonderfully foolish tale about a Cockatoo, 136

The same index contains entries for “Opening of oysters by monkeys” and “Dough, parrot up to its knees in.” Perhaps the man was just very thorough.

Coming and Going

A curious episode from Goethe’s autobiography:

I rode along the footpath towards Drusenheim, and here one of the most singular forebodings took possession of me. I saw, not with the eyes of the body, but with those of the mind, my own figure coming towards me, on horseback, and on the same road, attired in a dress which I had never worn ; — it was pike-grey with some gold about it. But as I shook myself out of this dream, the figure had entirely disappeared. It is strange, however, that eight years afterwards, I found myself on that very road, on my way to pay one more visit to Frederica, wearing the dress of which I had dreamed, and that, not from choice, but by accident.

“Whatever one may think on such matters in general,” he wrote, “in this instance my strange illusion helped to calm me in this farewell hour.” So there’s that.

A Very Grand Thing

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En route to a training camp in Quebec during World War I, Canadian army lieutenant Harry Colebourn bought a bear cub for $20 from a hunter in White River, Ontario.

He named her Winnipeg, after his hometown, and smuggled her to England, where “Winnie” became the mascot of his militia regiment.

Eventually he donated her to the London Zoo, where she became a great favorite of Christopher Robin Milne, the son of a local playwright.

You know the rest.

Child’s Play

In 1890, Daisy Ashford wrote The Young Visiters, a novella parodying upper-class English society. That might seem unremarkable—but the author was 9 years old:

They all went out by a private door and found themselves in a smaller but gorgous room. The Prince tapped on the table and instantly two menials in red tunics appeared. Bring three glasses of champaigne commanded the prince and some ices he added majestikally. The goods appeared as if by majic and the prince drew out a cigar case and passed it round.

One grows weary of Court Life he remarked.

The whole immortal thing is here.

Unquote

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“I saw the book, but I didn’t read it at all — didn’t think it worth reading. Mother thought as I did.” — Walt Whitman’s brother George, on Leaves of Grass

And Many More

In 1891, Robert Louis Stevenson received a letter from a Vermont girl named Annie Ide. Her birthday fell on Christmas, she said, and she seldom received birthday presents.

He replied with a document decreeing that “I, Robert Louis Stevenson, … in consideration that Miss Annie H. Ide, … was born, out of all reason, upon Christmas Day, and is therefore out of all justice denied the consolation and profit of a proper birthday; and considering that I, the said Robert Louis Stevenson, have attained an age when we never mention it, and that I have now no further use for a birthday of any description; … HAVE TRANSFERRED, and DO HEREBY TRANSFER, to the said Annie H. Ide, ALL AND WHOLE my rights and privileges in the thirteenth day of November, formerly my birthday, now, hereby, and henceforth, the birthday of the said Annie H. Ide, to have, hold, exercise, and enjoy the same in the customary manner, by the sporting of fine raiment, eating of rich meats, and receipt of gifts, compliments, and copies of verse, according to the manner of our ancestors.”

He charged her to add “Louisa” to her name, “at least in private,” and to use the birthday “with moderation and humanity”—and he directed that if she neglected these conditions the birthday would revert to the president of the United States. She didn’t.

The Wreck of the Titan

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Art doesn’t just imitate life — sometimes it anticipates it. Fourteen years before the Titanic was built, the American Morgan Robertson wrote a novel called The Wreck of the Titan that prefigured the real ship’s destiny with remarkable precision.

The Titanic and the Titan were both triple-screwed British passenger liners with a capacity of 3,000 and a top speed of 24 knots. Both were deemed unsinkable; both carried too few lifeboats. And both sank in April in the North Atlantic after colliding with an iceberg on the forward starboard side.

In another novel, Beyond the Spectrum (1914), Robertson forecast a war between the United States and Japan, including a Japanese sneak attack (on San Francisco). There’s no way to know what more he had in store — he died the following year.

A Little Culture

In 1959, Ed Zern reviewed Lady Chatterley’s Lover for Field & Stream:

This fictional account of the day-by-day life of the English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoor-minded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant-raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways to control vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savour these sidelights on the management of a Midlands shooting estate, and in this reviewer’s opinion this book cannot take the place of J.R. Miller’s Practical Gamekeeping.

He wasn’t serious. On another occasion, a reader complained that his wife wanted him to give up outdoor sports: “If this keeps on I’m going to blow my brains out. Please give me whatever advice you can.” Zern responded: “Since trajectory isn’t important here, our recommendation would be a .35 Remington with 200-grain soft-nose bullet.”

A Devil’s Distinction

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Terror and horror, from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.

Ann Radcliffe wrote: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.”

Or, in Devendra Varma’s words, “The difference between Terror and Horror is the difference … between the smell of death and stumbling against a corpse.”

Forewarned

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In 1858 Mark Twain had a vivid dream in which he saw his brother Henry lying in a metal burial case. On Henry’s chest lay a bouquet of white flowers with a red rose at its center.

A month later, Henry lost his life when his steamboat’s boiler exploded. A grieving Twain arrived to discover his brother’s body in a metal case—the other victims had been given wooden coffins, but the ladies of Memphis had taken up a fund for Henry, touched by his youth and good looks.

As Twain stood there, an elderly woman approached and placed a bouquet of white flowers on Henry’s chest. At its center was a single red rose.

See also A Premonition.