“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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Florentine scholar Antonio Magliabechi (1633-1714) has been described as a literary glutton. His house was choked with 40,000 books and 10,000 manuscripts, and he spent hours each day in the Medici library.
The negligent Magliabechi reportedly once forgot to draw his salary for a full year, but his head was “an universal index, both of titles and matter.” When the Duke of Florence asked him for a particular volume he replied, “Signore, there is but one copy of that book in the world; it is in the Grand Signore’s library at Constantinople, and is the eleventh book in the second shelf on the right hand as you go in.”
That memory made him a human search engine for writers of the time. In Curiosities of Human Nature, Samuel Goodrich records that a priest might consult Magliabechi about a panegyric on a particular saint. “He would immediately tell him who had said anything of that saint, and in what part of their works, and that, sometimes, to the number of above a hundred authors. … All this he did with the greatest exactness, naming the author, the book, the words, and often the very number of the page in which the passage referred to was inserted.”
Surrounded by books, he lived to be 81, and in his will he left his library to the public.
Anagrams on Dickens titles:
- THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY = DICKENS: NAIVE ENTER FANCIFUL DOTHEBOYS HALL
- OLD CURIOSITY SHOP = STORY O’ PIOUS CHILD
- OLIVER TWIST, BY CHARLES DICKENS = BOLD CREW SINS AT SLICK THIEVERY
- THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD = FOOD ENDETH MY WEIRD STORY
“We talk about the tyranny of words,” writes David Copperfield, “but we like to tyrannize over them too.”
Vladimir Nabokov composed chess problems. Here’s a clever one from 1932: “White retracts its last move and mates in one.”
This is an instance of retrograde analysis: Of the many legal moves that White might just have made, only one can be revised to yield an immediate mate. Can you find it?
When Charles Lamb’s farce Mr. H failed disastrously on opening night, he joined in the hissing — because, he said, he was “so damnably afraid of being taken for the author.”
During World War I, Wilfred Owen’s younger brother Harold was an officer on the British cruiser HMS Astraea. While anchored off West Africa shortly after the armistice, he claims he had “an extraordinary and inexplicable experience”:
I had gone down to my cabin thinking to write some letters. I drew aside the door curtain and stepped inside and to my amazement I saw Wilfred sitting in my chair. I felt shock run through me with appalling force and with it I could feel the blood draining away from my face. I did not rush towards him but walked jerkily into the cabin–all my limbs stiff and slow to respond. I did not sit down but looking at him I spoke quietly: ‘Wilfred, how did you get here?’ He did not rise and I saw that he was involuntarily immobile, but his eyes which had never left mine were alive with the familiar look of trying to make me understand; when I spoke his whole face broke into his sweetest and most endearing dark smile. I felt not fear–I had none when I first drew my door curtain and saw him there–only exquisite mental pleasure at thus beholding him. He was in uniform and I remember thinking how out of place the khaki looked amongst the cabin furnishings. With this thought I must have turned my eyes away from him; when I looked back my cabin chair was empty … I wondered if I had been dreaming but looking down I saw that I was still standing. Suddenly I felt terribly tired and moving to my bunk I lay down; instantly I went into a deep oblivious sleep. When I woke up I knew with absolute certainty that Wilfred was dead.
He later learned that his brother had been killed the preceding week.
Agonizing over how to put down his ailing cat, Alexander Woollcott consulted Dorothy Parker.
She said, “Try curiosity.”
Browsing in a Paris bookshop in the 1920s, the novelist Anne Parrish came upon an old copy of Jack Frost and Other Stories, a favorite from her childhood in Colorado. When she showed it to her husband, he found it was her own copy, inscribed with her name and address.
George Bernard Shaw once came across one of his own books in a used bookstore in London. He was surprised to find his own inscription inside — he had presented the book “with esteem” to a friend. He immediately bought the book and had it wrapped and delivered again, after adding a second inscription: “With renewed esteem, George Bernard Shaw.”
In 1813 Samuel Coleridge received the news of his own death. A gentleman in black had hanged himself from a tree in Hyde Park; authorities had found no money or papers in his pockets, but his shirt was marked “S. T. Coleridge.”
According to Charles Robert Leslie in Autobiographical Recollections, “Coleridge was at no loss to understand how this might have happened, since he seldom travelled without losing a shirt or two.”
In Don Quixote, Cervantes tells of a bridge at one end of which stand a gallows and a tribunal charged with enforcing this law:
If anyone crosses by this bridge from one side to the other he shall declare on oath where he is going to and with what object; and if he swears truly, he shall be allowed to pass, but if falsely, he shall be put to death for it by hanging on the gallows erected there, without any remission.
The tribunal allows many travelers to pass freely, as it is easy to see that their declarations are truthful. But one day a man appears who swears that he has come expressly to die upon the gallows.
“It is asked of your worship, señor governor, what are the judges to do with this man?”
In 1612, John Donne accompanied Sir Robert Drury to Paris, leaving his pregnant wife in London.
Two days after their arrival there, Mr. Donne was left alone, in that room in which Sir Robert, and he, and some other friends had dined together. To this place Sir Robert return’d within half an hour; and, as he left, so he found Mr. Donne alone; but, in such Extasie, and so alter’d as to his looks, as amaz’d Sir Robert to behold him: insomuch that he earnestly desired Mr. Donne to declare what had befaln him in the short time of his absence? to which, Mr. Donne was not able to make a present answer: but, after a long and perplext pause, did at last say, I have seen a dreadful Vision since I saw you: I have seen my dear wife pass twice by me through this room, with her hair hanging about her shoulders, and a dead child in her arms: this, I have seen since I saw you. To which, Sir Robert reply’d; Sure Sir, you have slept since I saw you; and, this is the result of some melancholy dream, which I desire you to forget, for you are now awake. To which Mr. Donnes reply was: I cannot be surer that I now live, then that I have not slept since I saw you: and am, as sure, that at her second appearing, she stopt, and look’d me in the face, and vanisht.
Donne and Drury immediately sent a messenger to London. He returned to say that Mrs. Donne had borne a dead child at the hour her husband thought he had seen her in Paris.
(From Izaak Walton, Life of Dr John Donne, 1675)
An admirer once wrote to Rudyard Kipling: “I see you get a dollar a word for your writing. I enclose a check for one dollar. Please send me a sample.”
Kipling responded: “Thanks.”
Dante Gabriel Rossetti revered his wife, and when she died in 1862 he laid his journal in her coffin.
Seven years later he decided he needed the poems, so he had her exhumed.
According to Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Parnell once overheard Alexander Pope reading a draft of The Rape of the Lock to Jonathan Swift, memorized the description of the Toilet, and translated it into monkish Latin. The next day he confronted Pope with the counterfeit verse and accused him of plagiarism, “and it was not till after some time that Pope was delivered from the confusion which it at first produced.”
Also: “Mr. Harte told me that Dryden had been imposed on by a similar little stratagem. One of his friends translated into Latin verse, printed, and pasted on the bottom of an old hat-box, that celebrated passage, ‘To die is landing on some silent shore,’ &c. and that Dryden, on opening the box, was alarmed and amazed.”
During World War II, Evelyn Waugh served as a war correspondent in Ethiopia. One day his editor asked him to investigate a rumor that an American nurse had been killed in an explosion during an Italian air raid. The cable read:
REQUIRE EARLIEST NAME LIFE STORY PHOTOGRAPH AMERICAN NURSE UPBLOWN.
Waugh found that the rumor was false, so he wired back:
This is the opening of Chapter 4 of Mark Twain’s A Double Barrelled Detective Story:
It was a crisp and spicy morning in early October. The lilacs and laburnums, lit with the glory-fires of autumn, hung burning and flashing in the upper air, a fairy bridge provided by kind nature for the wingless wild things that have their home in the tree-tops and would visit together; the larch and the pomegranate flung their purple and yellow flames in brilliant broad splashes along the slanting sweep of woodland, the sensuous fragrance of innumerable deciduous flowers rose upon the swooning atmosphere, far in the empty sky a solitary oesophagus slept upon motionless wing; everywhere brooded stillness, serenity, and the peace of God.
Twain later recalled that few readers noticed anything wrong with it.
Plutarch wrote that Homer died of exasperation because he couldn’t solve a fisherman’s riddle:
“What we have caught we threw away; what we could not catch we kept.”
The answer is “fleas.”
“Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” — Henry James
How hard, when those who do not wish
To lend–that’s lose–their books,
Are snared by anglers–folks that fish
With literary hooks;
Who call and take some favorite tome,
But never read it through;
They thus complete their sett at home,
By making one of you.
I, of my Spenser quite bereft,
Last winter sore was shaken;
Of Lamb I’ve but a quarter left,
Nor could I save my Bacon.
They picked my Locke, to me far more
Than Bramah’s patent worth;
And now my losses I deplore,
Without a Home on earth.
Even Glover’s works I cannot put
My frozen hands upon;
Though ever since I lost my Foote,
My Bunyan has been gone.
My life is wasting fast away;
I suffer from these shocks;
And though I’ve fixed a lock on Gray,
There’s gray upon my locks.
They still have made me slight returns,
And thus my grief divide;
For oh! they’ve cured me of my Burns,
And eased my Akenside.
But all I think I shall not say,
Nor let my anger burn;
For as they have not found me Gay,
They have not left me Sterne.
“Sir Walter Scott said that some of his friends were bad accountants, but excellent book-keepers.”
– Charles Carroll Bombaugh, Gleanings for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1890