Mark Twain’s 3-year-old daughter Susie found this letter waiting for her on Christmas morning 1875:
Palace of St. Nicholas,
In the Moon,
My Dear Susie Clemens:
I have received & read all the letters which you & your little sister have written me by the hand of your mother & your nurses; & I have also read those which you little people have written me with your own hands — for although you did not use any characters that are in grown people’s alphabets, you used the character which all children, in all lands on earth & in the twinkling stars use; & as all my subjects in the moon are children & use no character but that, you will easily understand that I can read your & your baby sister’s jagged & fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother & the nurses, for I am a foreigner & cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you & the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight & when you were asleep, & delivered them all, myself — & kissed both of you, too, because you are good children, well trained, nice-mannered, & about the most obedient little people I ever saw. But in the letters which you dictated, there were some words which I could not make out, for certain, & one or two small orders which I couldn’t fill because we ran out of stock. Our last lot of kitchen furniture for dolls had just gone to a very poor little child in the North Star, away up in the cold country above the Big Dipper. Your mama can show you that star, & you will say, ‘Little Snow Flake (for that is the child’s name,) I’m glad you got that furniture, for you need it more than I.’ That is, you must write that, with your own hand, & Snow Flake will write you an answer. If you only spoke it, she wouldn’t hear you. Make your letter light & thin, for the distance is great & the postage very heavy.
There was a word or two in your mama’s letter which I couldn’t be certain of. I took it to be ‘trunk full of doll’s clothes?’ Is that it? I will call at your kitchen door about nine o’clock this morning to inquire. But I must not see anybody, & I must not speak to anybody but you. When the kitchen door-bell rings, George must be blindfolded & sent to open the door, & then he must go back to the dining room or the china closet & take the cook with him. You must tell George he must walk on tip-toe and not speak — otherwise he will die some day. Then you must go up to the nursery & stand on a chair or the nurse’s bed, & put your ear to the speaking tube that leads down to the kitchen, & when I whistle through it, you must speak in the tube & say, ‘Welcome, Santa Claus!’ Then I will ask whether it was a trunk you ordered or not? If you say it was, I shall ask you what color you want the trunk to be. Your mama will help you to name a nice color, & then you must tell me every single thing, in detail, which you want the trunk to contain. Then when I say ‘Good bye & a Merry Christmas to my little Susie Clemens!’ You must say, ‘Good bye, good old Santa Claus, & thank you very much — & please tell that little Snow Flake I will look at her star to-night & she must look down here — I will be right in the west bay-window; & every fine night I will look at her star & say, I know somebody up there, & like her, too.’ Then you must go down in the library, & make George close all the doors that open into the main hall, & everybody must keep still for a little while. I will go to the moon & get those things, & in a few minutes I will come down the chimney which belongs to the fire-place that is in the hall — if it is a trunk you want, because I couldn’t get such a thing as a trunk down the nursery-chimney, you know.
People may talk, if they want to, till they hear my footsteps in the hall — then you tell them to keep quiet a little while till I go back up the chimney. Maybe you will not hear my foot steps at all — so you may go now & then & peep through the dining room doors, & by & by you will see that thing which you want, right under the piano in the drawing room — for I shall put it there. If I should leave any snow in the hall, you must tell George to sweep it into the fireplace, for I haven’t time to do such things. George must not use a broom, but a rag — else he will die some day. You must watch George, & not let him run into danger. If my boot should leave a stain on the marble, George must not holy-stone it away. Leave it there always in memory of my visit; & whenever you look at it or show it to anybody you must let it remind you to be a good little girl. Whenever you are naughty, & somebody points to that mark which your good old Santa Claus’s boot made on the marble, what will you say, little Sweetheart?
Good-bye, for a few minutes, till I come down to the world & ring the kitchen door-bell.
Whom people sometimes call ‘The Man in the Moon.’
In May 1875, Frederick Law Olmsted received a letter from his 4-year-old son Henry, asking him to send the family dog to Massachusetts, where he and his mother were visiting family friends. Olmsted replied:
The cats keep coming into the yard, six of them every day, and Quiz drives them out. If I should send Quiz to you to drive the cows away from your rhubarb he would not be here to drive the cats out of the yard. If six cats should keeping coming into the yard every day and not go out, in a week there would be 42 of them and in a month 180 and before you came back next November 1260. Then if there should be 1260 cats in the yard before next November half of them at least would have kittens and if half of them should have 6 kittens apiece, there would be more than 5000 cats and kittens in the yard. There would not be any place for Rosanna to spread the clothes unless she drove them all off the grass plot, and if she did they would have to crowd at the end of the yard nearest the house, and if they did that they would make a great pile as high as the top of my windows. A pile of 5000 cats and kittens, some of them black ones, in front of my window would make my office so dark I should not be able to write in it. Besides that those underneath, particularly the kittens, would be hurt by those standing on top of them and I expect they would make such a great squalling all the time that I should not be able to sleep, and if I was not able to sleep, I should not be able to work, and if I did not work I should not have any money, and if I had not any money, I could not send any to Plymouth to pay your fare back on the Fall River boat, and I could not pay my fare to go to Plymouth and so you and I would not ever see each other any more. No, Sir. I can’t spare Quiz and you will have to watch for the cows and drive them off yourself or you will raise no rhubarb.
Your affectionate father.
Lesser-known maxims from Poor Richard’s Almanack:
- Bucephalus, the horse of Alexander, hath as lasting fame as his master.
- Who has deceiv’d thee so oft as thy self?
- We are not so sensible of the greatest Health as of the least Sickness.
- A temper to bear much, will have much to bear.
- Content and riches seldom meet together; riches take thou, contentment I had rather.
- Want of care does us more damage than want of knowledge.
- Vanity backbites more than malice.
- In success be moderate.
- A new truth is a truth, and an old error is an error, tho’ Clodpate won’t allow either.
- What maintains one Vice would bring up two children.
- The Golden Age never was the present Age.
- Quarrels never could last long, if on one side lay the wrong.
- If your riches are yours, why don’t you take them with you t’other World?
“Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful. Nor is a duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.”
In 1880, Sidney Lanier made an important announcement to his 11-year-old son Charley:
West Chester, Pa.
August 15, 1880
My dear Charley:
A young man came to our house yesterday morning who claims that he is a brother of yours and Sidney’s and Harry’s and that he is entitled to all the rights and privileges appertaining unto that honorable connection. … He is a most exemplary young man. He never stays out late at night; neither chews, smokes, nor uses snuff; abstains from all intoxicating liquors, and does not touch even tea or coffee; however much preserves and fruit-cake there may be on the supper-table, he never asks for any; he does no kind of work on the Sabbath; he honors his father and mother, particularly his mother; he plays no games of hazard, not even marbles for winnance; and I am positively certain that in the whole course of his life he has never uttered a single angry or ungentlemanly word. I am bound to admit that he has his shortcomings: he isn’t as particular about his clothes as I would like to see him; he has a way of trying to get both fists in his mouth which certainly does look odd in company; and he wants his breakfast in the morning at four o’clock — an hour at which it is very inconvenient, with our household arrangements, to furnish it to him. …
Earnestly hoping that this lovely little (for I omitted to mention that he is small of stature) brother Rob may find a good warm place in your three hearts without being obliged to resort to extreme measures, and with a hundred embraces for you, me dear big Charley,
Your &c &c &c.
A letter from William James to his 8-year-old daughter Peggy, June 19, 1895:
I am very happy here, and fear that you may already have gone up to Chocorua with your Mamma. Yesterday a beautiful humming bird came into the library and spent two hours without resting, trying to find his way out by the skylight in the ceiling. You never saw such untiring strength. Filled with pity for his fatigue, I went into the garden and culled a beautiful rose. The moment I held it up in my hand under the skylight, the angelic bird flew down into it and rested there as in a nest — the beautifullest sight you ever saw.
In November 1921 Carl Sandburg’s 10-year-old daughter Margaret fell asleep in class and was diagnosed with nocturnal epilepsy. Her mother rushed her to Battle Creek Sanitarium, where her condition would be treated with fasting. Sandburg wrote to her:
This is only a little letter from your daddy to say he thinks about you hours and hours and he knows that there was never a princess or a fairy worth so much love. We are starting on a long journey and hard fight — you and mother and daddy — and we are going to go on slowly, quietly, hand in hand, the three of us, never giving up. And so we are going to win. Slowly, quietly, never giving up, we are going to win.
They did. Margaret’s weight plummeted, but she recovered and went on to edit many of her father’s works. In 1953 Sandburg wrote to a friend, “Margaret has become widely read, a scholar who often surprises me with her erudition, knows the Bible and Shakespeare better than I do.”
Entries in Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary (1911):
CRITIC, n. A person who boasts himself hard to please because nobody tries to please him.
EDUCATION, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
FAMOUS, adj. Conspicuously miserable.
HABIT, n. A shackle for the free.
HERS, pron. His.
IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.
IMPUNITY, n. Wealth.
LABOR, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
LANGUAGE, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.
MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be.
OCEAN, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.
OTHERWISE, adv. No better.
POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
YEAR, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.
He defined nonsense as “the objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.”
John Brunner’s 1965 science fiction novel The Squares of the City concerns a South American metropolis in which two opposing political leaders direct the actions of their followers using “subliminal perception.”
In an afterword, Brunner revealed that he had organized the entire plot to follow a historic chess game, Steinitz-Tchigorin Havana 1892. Each of the 32 pieces and pawns corresponds to a character in the book, and every capture in the Steinitz-Tchigorin game corresponds to an event in the plot. For example, Felipe Mendoza, representing the black king’s bishop, is killed in a duel with Luis Arrio, who represents the white queen’s knight. In the game, Steinitz captured Tchigorin’s king’s bishop with his queen’s knight on move 22.
“The individuals who correspond to the ‘pieces’ have powers roughly commensurate with those of the pawns and officers they represent,” Brunner explained. “The moves are all there, in their correct order and — so far as possible — in precise correspondence with their effect on the original game. That is to say, support of one piece by another on its own side, threatening of one or more pieces by a piece on the other side, indirect threats and the actual taking of pieces, are all as closely represented as possible in the development of the action.”
The book was nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel in 1966.
One day in 1880 John Muir set out to explore a glacier in southeastern Alaska, accompanied by Stickeen, the dog belonging to his traveling companion. The day went well, but on their way back to camp they found their way blocked by an immense 50-foot crevasse crossed diagonally by a narrow fin of ice. After long deliberation Muir cut his way down to the fin, straddled it and worked his way perilously across, but Stickeen, who had shown dauntless courage throughout the day, could not be convinced to follow. He sought desperately for some other route, gazing fearfully into the gulf and “moaning and wailing as if in the bitterness of death.” Muir called to him, pretended to march off, and finally ordered him sternly to cross the bridge. Miserably the dog inched down to the farther end and, “lifting his feet with the regularity and slowness of the vibrations of a seconds pendulum,” crept across the abyss and scrambled up to Muir’s side.
And now came a scene! ‘Well done, well done, little boy! Brave boy!’ I cried, trying to catch and caress him; but he would not be caught. Never before or since have I seen anything like so passionate a revulsion from the depths of despair to exultant, triumphant, uncontrollable joy. He flashed and darted hither and thither as if fairly demented, screaming and shouting, swirling round and round in giddy loops and circles like a leaf in a whirlwind, lying down, and rolling over and over, sidewise and heels over head, and pouring forth a tumultuous flood of hysterical cries and sobs and gasping mutterings. When I ran up to him to shake him, fearing he might die of joy, he flashed off two or three hundred yards, his feet in a mist of motion; then, turning suddenly, came back in a wild rush and launched himself at my face, almost knocking me down, all the while screeching and screaming and shouting as if saying, ‘Saved! saved! saved!’ Then away again, dropping suddenly at times with his feet in the air, trembling and fairly sobbing. Such passionate emotion was enough to kill him. Moses’ stately song of triumph after escaping the Egyptians and the Red Sea was nothing to it. Who could have guessed the capacity of the dull, enduring little fellow for all that most stirs this mortal frame? Nobody could have helped crying with him!
Thereafter, Muir wrote, “Stickeen was a changed dog. During the rest of the trip, instead of holding aloof, he always lay by my side, tried to keep me constantly in sight, and would hardly accept a morsel of food, however tempting, from any hand but mine. At night, when all was quiet about the camp-fire, he would come to me and rest his head on my knee with a look of devotion as if I were his god. And often as he caught my eye he seemed to be trying to say, ‘Wasn’t that an awful time we had together on the glacier?'”
Driven from bed by pain in his toe one October night, Ben Franklin imagined a parley with his tormentor:
FRANKLIN. Eh! Oh! eh! What have I done to merit these cruel sufferings?
GOUT. Many things; you have ate and drank too freely, and too much indulged those legs of yours in their indolence.
FRANKLIN. Who is it that accuses me?
GOUT. It is I, even I, the Gout.
FRANKLIN. What! my enemy in person?
GOUT. No, not your enemy.
FRANKLIN. I repeat it, my enemy; for you would not only torment my body to death, but ruin my good name; you reproach me as a glutton and a tippler; now all the world, that knows me, will allow that I am neither the one nor the other.
GOUT. The world may think as it pleases; it is always very complaisant to itself, and sometimes to its friends; but I very well know that the quantity of meat and drink proper for a man, who takes a reasonable degree of exercise, would be too much for another, who never takes any.
FRANKLIN. I take — eh! oh! — as much exercise — eh! — as I can, Madam Gout. You know my sedentary state, and on that account, it would seem, Madam Gout, as if you might spare me a little, seeing it is not altogether my own fault.
GOUT. Not a jot; your rhetoric and your politeness are thrown away; your apology avails nothing. If your situation in life is a sedentary one, your amusements, your recreation, at least, should be active. …
FRANKLIN. Oh! oh! — for Heaven’s sake leave me! and I promise faithfully never more to play at chess, but to take exercise daily, and live temperately.
GOUT. I know you too well. You promise fair; but, after a few months of good health, you will return to your old habits; your fine promises will be forgotten like the forms of the last year’s clouds. Let us then finish the account, and I will go. But I leave you with an assurance of visiting you again at a proper time and place; for my object is your good, and you are sensible now that I am your real friend.
As the dialogue shows, Franklin had understood the risks he was incurring — at 28 he had written in Poor Richard’s Almanack:
Be temperate in wine, in eating, girls, and slouth;
Or the Gout will seize you and plague you both.
But he accepted the consequences. Three years before his death he wrote, “People who live long, who will drink of the cup of life to the very bottom, must expect to meet with the usual dregs, and when I reflect on the number of terrible maladies human nature is subject to, I think myself favoured in having to my share only the stone and the gout.”
Book One of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise concludes with this italicized passage as Tom and Amory are taking leave of Princeton:
The last light fades and drifts across the land — the low, long land, the sunny land of spires; the ghosts of evening tune again their lyres and wander singing in a plaintive band down the long corridors of trees; pale fires echo the night from tower top to tower: Oh, sleep that dreams, and dream that never tires, press from the petals of the lotus flower something of this to keep, the essence of an hour.
No more to wait the twilight of the moon in this sequestered vale of star and spire, for one eternal morning of desire passes to time and earthy afternoon. Here, Heraclitus, did you find in fire and shifting things the prophecy you hurled down the dead years; this midnight my desire will see, shadowed among the embers, furled in flame, the splendor and the sadness of the world.
In fact this is a sonnet. Fitzgerald had written it originally in rhymed lines of iambic pentameter and decided only afterward to run it into prose. There’s a second such poem (“The February streets, wind-washed by night”) hidden in the section “Looking Backward.” See Prose Poetry.
Speaking of Princeton, I found this photo while researching art for this post — “Princeton students after a freshman vs. sophomores snowball fight in 1893″:
Novelist Simon Raven was known as a bit of a bounder.
When his wife wired him WIFE AND BABY STARVING SEND MONEY SOONEST, he cabled back SORRY NO MONEY SUGGEST EAT BABY.
James Joyce took extraordinary pains in composing Ulysses. By his estimate the book cost him 20,000 hours of labor over eight years, and he told a friend that the resulting research “filled a small valise.” On Nov. 2, 1921, just weeks before the novel went to press, he wrote to his aunt, Josephine Murray:
Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no 7 Eccles street, either from the path or the steps, lower himself from the lowest part of the railings till his feet are within 2 feet or 3 of the ground and drop unhurt. I saw it done myself but by a man of rather athletic build. I require this information in detail in order to determine the wording of a paragraph.
Sure enough, this passage appears in “Ithaca,” the book’s 17th episode, when Leopold Bloom realizes he has forgotten his key:
A stratagem. Resting his feet on the dwarf wall, he climbed over the area railings, compressed his hat on his head, grasped two points at the lower union of rails and stiles, lowered his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement, and allowed his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall.
But time was always pressing. On Oct. 12 he begged Josephine for her recollections of some Dublin acquaintances: “Get an ordinary sheet of foolscap and a pencil,” he wrote, “and scribble any God damn drivel you may remember about these people.”
Oliver Herford opened his Christmas cards in July.
“When other people’s friends have gone away for the summer and neglect them,” he said, “it certainly is gratifying and exciting to be cheerily greeted by everyone you know.”
Masaoka Shiki, the fourth of Japan’s great haiku masters, is a member of the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. Described as “baseball mad,” Shiki first encountered the game in preparatory school in 1884, only 12 years after American teacher Horace Wilson first introduced it to his students at Tokyo University in 1872. Shiki wrote nine baseball haiku, the first in 1890, making him the first Japanese writer to use the game as a literary subject:
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch
like young cats
still ignorant of love
we play with a ball
to ball catching
the willow in a breeze
Throughout his career Shiki wrote essays, fiction, and poetry about the game, and he made translations of baseball terms that are still in use today. Eventually he taught the game to Kawahigashi Hekigotō and Takahama Kyoshi, who themselves became famous haiku poets under his tutelage, and today a baseball field near Bunka Kaikan in Ueno bears his name. He wrote:
under a faraway sky
the people of America
I can watch it
During our life at Tavistock House [1851-60], I had a long and serious illness, with an almost equally long convalescence. During the latter, my father suggested that I should be carried every day into his study to remain with him, and, although I was fearful of disturbing him, he assured me that he desired to have me with him. On one of these mornings, I was lying on the sofa endeavouring to keep perfectly quiet, while my father wrote busily and rapidly at his desk, when he suddenly jumped from his chair and rushed to a mirror which hung near, and in which I could see the reflection of some extraordinary facial contortions which he was making. He returned rapidly to his desk, wrote furiously for a few moments, and then went again to the mirror. The facial pantomime was resumed, and then turning toward, but evidently not seeing, me, he began talking rapidly in a low voice. Ceasing this soon, however, he returned once more to his desk, where he remained silently writing until luncheon time. It was a most curious experience for me, and one of which, I did not until later years, fully appreciate the purport. Then I knew that with his natural intensity he had thrown himself completely into the character that he was creating, and that for the time being he had not only lost sight of his surroundings, but had actually become in action, as in imagination, the creature of his pen.
— Mary Dickens, Charles Dickens by His Eldest Daughter, 1885
Sherlock Holmes is an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
“Holmes did not exist, but he should have existed,” society chief David Giachardi said in bestowing the award in 2002. “That is how important he is to our culture. We contend that the Sherlock Holmes myth is now so deeply rooted in the national and international psyche through books, films, radio and television that he has almost transcended fictional boundaries.”
Mark Twain received this letter from a Danish customs officer in 1879:
Please to excuse that I fall with the door in the house, without first to begin with the usual long ribble-row. I want to become the autograph of the over alle the world well known Mark Twain, whose narratives so apt have procured me a laughter.
If you will answer this letter, I will be very glad. Answer me what you will; but two words. If you will not answer me other so write only, that you do not like to write autographs.
It’s not known whether he responded, but on the envelope Twain wrote, “Please preserve this remarkable letter.” See Lost in Translation.
A bizarre episode from Anthony Trollope’s autobiography, 1872:
I came home across America from San Francisco to New York, visiting Utah and Brigham Young on the way. I did not achieve great intimacy with the great polygamist of the Salt Lake City. I called upon him, sending to him my card, apologising for doing so without an introduction, and excusing myself by saying that I did not like to pass through the territory without seeing a man of whom I had heard so much. He received me in his doorway, not asking me to enter, and inquired whether I were not a miner. When I told him that I was not a miner, he asked me whether I earned my bread. I told him I did. ‘I guess you’re a miner,’ said he. I again assured him that I was not. ‘Then how do you earn your bread?’ I told him I did so by writing books. ‘I’m sure you’re a miner,’ said he. Then he turned upon his heel, went back into the house, and closed the door.
“I was properly punished,” Trollope conceded, “as I was vain enough to conceive that he would have heard my name.”
Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:
“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”
Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.
Several years after publishing Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson was abashed to discover that he had drawn much of the story from Washington Irving’s 1824 book Tales of a Traveller, which he had read many years earlier and forgotten.
“I believe plagiarism was rarely carried farther,” he wrote later. “The book flew up and struck me: Billy Bones, his chest, the company in the parlour, the whole inner spirit, and a good deal of the material detail of my first chapters — all were there, all were the property of Washington Irving. But I had no guess of it then as I sat writing by the fireside, in what seemed the spring-tides of a somewhat pedestrian inspiration; nor yet day by day, after lunch, as I read aloud my morning’s work to the family.”
This is an instance of cryptomnesia, the mistaking of a forgotten memory for an original idea. Stevenson charged himself with plagiarism, but he had honestly believed he was writing a new story: “It seemed to me original as sin; it seemed to belong to me like my right eye.” In reading Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, Carl Jung was surprised to discover “almost word for word” an incident reported in a ship’s log in 1686. Jung recognized the passage from a book published around 1835, about 50 years before Nietzsche was writing. He contacted the philosopher’s sister, who confirmed that the two of them had read the book when Nietzsche was 11 years old.
“I think, from the context, it is inconceivable that Nietzsche had any idea that he was plagiarizing this story,” Jung wrote. “I believe that fifty years later it had unexpectedly slipped into focus in his conscious mind.”
In 1833 a cholera outbreak struck Guanajuato, Mexico, and the dead were buried in a local cemetery. Sixty-three years later, in 1896, city officials levied a fee on burial plots, and poor families had to agree to have their dead relatives disinterred. They were horrified to discover not skeletons but grotesquely preserved bodies, contorted into nightmarish postures and facial expressions. The region’s climate and soil conditions had combined to preserve the corpses.
The city has put 119 of the bodies, some still bearing hair, eyebrows, and folds of skin, on display. Author Tom Weil writes, “In the figures one sees both the living and the departed, death with a human face and humanity with the skull beneath the skin.”
Ray Bradbury, who visited the museum in the 1940s, wrote, “They looked as if they had leaped, snapped upright in their graves, clutched hands over their shriveled bosoms and screamed, jaws wide, tongues out, nostrils flared. And been frozen that way. All of them had open mouths. Theirs was a perpetual screaming.
“The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.”
New Yorker founder Harold Ross was a brilliant magazine editor, but his personal appearance was distinctly unprepossessing. “His hair sticks straight up, his teeth stick straight out, his eyes slant, and his expression is always that of a man who had just swallowed a bug,” wrote Ogden Nash. Alexander Woollcott said he looked like a dishonest Abe Lincoln.
Staff member Janet Flanner remembered, “His face was homely, with a pendant lower lip; his teeth were far apart, and when I first knew him, after the First World War, he wore his butternut-colored thick hair in a high, stiff pompadour, like some gamecock’s crest.”
Indeed, Ross’ first wife said he was the homeliest man she’d ever met. “There was certainly a mismating of his head, his hands and his feet to his gaunt, angular body; his hands, though he learned to use them gracefully, were too large; so were his feet, and his ears and his mouth were also oversized; his tongue was a real problem and he was really more comfortable when he let it hang over his loose lower lip, as he did when he was relaxed or was thinking hard.”
At least it gave fodder to his friends. At a poker game, Franklin Pierce Adams announced that he’d just seen Harold Ross toboganning.
“For God’s sake — Ross toboganning!” said George S. Kaufman. “Did he look funny?”
“Well,” Adams said, “you know how he looks not toboganning.”
There is a game — in the 1950s it used to be played by members of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — called ‘Smoke.’ It works as follows. The player who is ‘it’ chooses some famous person with whom everyone playing is surely acquainted (Harry Truman, Marlon Brando, Chairman Mao, Charles DeGaulle, for instance) and tells the other players, ‘I am a dead American,’ ‘I am a living American,’ ‘I am a dead Asian,’ ‘I am a dead European'; and then each of the other players in turn asks one question of the person who is ‘it,’ such as, ‘What kind of smoke are you?’ (cigarette, pipe, cigar — or, more specifically, L&M, Dunhill, White Owl) or ‘What kind of weather are you?’ ‘What kind of insect are you?’ or ‘What kind of transportation?’ The person who is ‘it’ answers not in terms of what kind of smoke his character would like, if any, but what kind of smoke he would be if, instead of being human, he were a smoke, or what kind of weather, insect, transportation, and so forth, he would be if reincarnated as one of those. Thus, for example, Kate Smith if an insect would be a turquoise beetle; Marlon Brando, if weather, would be sultry and uncertain, with storm warnings out; and as a vehicle of transporation Harry Truman would be (whatever he may in fact have driven) a Model T Ford. What invariably happens when this game is played by fairly sensitive people is that the whole crowd of questioners builds a stronger and stronger feeling of the character, by unconscious association, until finally someone says the right name — ‘Kate Smith!’ or ‘Chairman Mao!’ — and everyone in the room feels instantly that that’s right. There is obviously no way to play this game with the reasoning faculty, since it depends on unconscious associations or intuition; and what the game proves conclusively for everyone playing is that our associations are remarkably similar. When one of the players falls into some mistake, for instance, saing that Mr. Brezhnev of the U.S.S.R. is a beaver instead of, more properly, a crafty old woodchuck, all the players at the end of the game are sure to protest, ‘You misled us when you said “beaver.”‘ The game proves more dramatically than any argument can suggest the mysterious rightness of a good metaphor — the one requisite for the poet, Aristotle says, that cannot be taught.
— John Gardner, On Moral Fiction, 1978