A letter from Wallace Stevens to his wife, July 19, 1916:
Eminent Vers Libriste Arrives in Town; Details of Reception
St Paul, Minn. July 19, 1916. Wallace Stevens, the playwright and barrister, arrived at Union Station, at 10.30 o’clock this morning. Some thirty representatives of the press were not present to greet him. He proceeded on foot to the Hotel St. Paul, where they had no room for him. Thereupon, carrying an umbrella and two mysterious looking bags, he proceeded to Minnesota Club, 4th & Washington-Streets, St. Paul where he will stay while he is in St. Paul. At the Club, Mr. Stevens took a shower-bath and succeeded in flooding not only the bath-room floor but the bed-room floor as well. He used all the bath-towels in mopping up the mess and was obliged to dry himself with a wash-cloth. From the Club, Mr. Stevens went down-town on business. When asked how he liked St. Paul, Mr. Stevens, borrowing a cigar, said, ‘I like it.’
The above clipping may be of interest to you. Note my address. I am waiting for some papers to be typed — ah! Give my best to the family.
Lewis Carroll discerns a public danger in birthday toasts, from a letter to Gertrude Chataway, Oct. 13, 1875:
I am very much afraid, next time Sybil looks for you, she’ll find you sitting by the sad sea-wave, and crying ‘Boo! hoo! Here’s Mr. Dodgson has drunk my health, and I haven’t got any left!’ And how it will puzzle Dr. Maund, when he is sent for to see you! ‘My dear Madam, I’m very sorry to say your little girl has got no health at all! I never saw such a thing in my life!’ ‘Oh, I can easily explain it!’ your mother will say. ‘You see she would go and make friends with a strange gentleman, and yesterday he drank her health!’ ‘Well, Mrs. Chataway,’ he will say, ‘the only way to cure her is to wait till his next birthday, and then for her to drink his health.’
“And then we shall have changed healths. I wonder how you’ll like mine! Oh, Gertrude, I wish you wouldn’t talk such nonsense!”
This litigious humour is bad enough: but there is one character still worse — that of a person who goes into company, not to contradict, but to talk at you. This is the greatest nuisance in civilised society. Such a person does not come armed to defend himself at all points, but to unsettle, if he can, and throw a slur on all your favourite opinions. If he has a notion that anyone in the room is fond of poetry, he immediately volunteers a contemptuous tirade against the idle jingle of verse. If he suspects you have a delight in pictures, he endeavours, not by fair argument, but by a side-wind, to put you out of conceit with so frivolous an art. If you have a taste for music, he does not think much good is to be done by this tickling of the ears. If you speak in praise of a comedy, he does not see the use of wit: if you say you have been to a tragedy, he shakes his head at this mockery of human misery, and thinks it ought to be prohibited. He tries to find out beforehand whatever it is that you take a particular pride or pleasure in, that he may annoy your self-love in the tenderest point (as if he were probing a wound) and make you dissatisfied with yourself and your pursuits for several days afterwards. A person might as well make a practice of throwing out scandalous aspersions against your dearest friends or nearest relations, by way of ingratiating himself into your favour. Such ill-timed impertinence is ‘villainous, and shows a pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.’
– William Hazlitt, “On the Conversation of Authors,” 1820
George Eliot’s 1859 novel Adam Bede opens in a carpenter’s workshop:
The concert of the tools and Adam’s voice was at last broken by Seth, who, lifting the door at which he had been working intently, placed it against the wall, and said, ‘There! I’ve finished my door to-day, anyhow.’
The workmen all looked up; Jim Salt, a burly, red-haired man known as Sandy Jim, paused from his planing, and Adam said to Seth, with a sharp glance of surprise, ‘What! Dost think thee’st finished the door?’
‘Aye, sure,’ said Seth, with answering surprise; ‘what’s awanting to’t?’
A loud roar of laughter from the other three workmen made Seth look round confusedly. Adam did not join in the laughter, but there was a slight smile on his face as he said, in a gentler tone than before, ‘Why, thee’st forgot the panels.’
The laughter burst out afresh as Seth clapped his hands to his head, and coloured over brow and crown.
“I found out in the first two pages that it was a woman’s writing,” Thomas Carlyle complained to Willliam Allingham. “She supposed that in making a door, you last of all put in the panels!”
A letter from Sydney Smith to Lady Georgiana Morpeth, Feb. 16, 1820:
Dear Lady Georgiana,– Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you. 1st. Live as well as you dare. 2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°. 3rd. Amusing books. 4th. Short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea. 5th. Be as busy as you can. 6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you. 7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you. 8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment. 9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you. 10th. Compare your lot with that of other people. 11th. Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best. 12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence. 13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree. 14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue. 15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant. 16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness. 17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice. 18th. Keep good blazing fires. 19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion. 20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana,
Very truly yours,
Edward Lear’s recipe for Gosky Patties, 1872:
Take a pig three or four years of age, and tie him by the off hind-leg to a post. Place 5 pounds of currants, 3 of sugar, 2 pecks of peas, 18 roast chestnuts, a candle, and 6 bushels of turnips, within his reach: if he eats these, constantly provide him with more.
Then procure some cream, some slices of Cheshire cheese, 4 quires of foolscap paper, and a packet of black pins. Work the whole into a paste, and spread it out to dry on a sheet of clean brown waterproof linen.
When the paste is perfectly dry, but not before, proceed to beat the pig violently with the handle of a large broom. If he squeals, beat him again.
Visit the paste and beat the pig alternately for some days, and ascertain if, at the end of that period, the whole is about to turn into Gosky Patties.
If it does not then, it never will; and in that case the pig may be let loose, and the whole process may be considered as finished.
Mark Twain once entered a contest that offered $10 for the best original poem on the topic of spring, “no poem to be considered unless it should possess positive value.” He submitted this:
“It took the prize for this reason, no other poem offered was really worth more than $4.50, whereas there was no getting around the petrified fact that this one was worth $10. In truth there was not a banker in the whole town who was willing to invest a cent in those other poems, but every one of them said this one was good, sound, seaworthy poetry, and worth its face. … Let other struggling young poets be encouraged by this to go striving.”
- A TOYOTA’S A TOYOTA is a palindrome.
- Lee Trevino was struck by lightning in 1975.
- KILIMANJARO contains IJKLMNO.
- 39343 = 39 + 343
- “Money often costs too much.” — Emerson
Guy Debord’s 1957 autobiography, Mémoires, was bound in a sandpaper cover so that it would destroy any book placed next to it.
- Dorothy Parker left her entire estate to Martin Luther King Jr.
- SOUTH CAMBRIDGE, NY contains 16 different letters.
- 45927 = ((4 + 5) × 9)2 × 7
- STONE AGE = STAGE ONE
- “You cannot be both fashionable and first-rate.” — Logan Pearsall Smith
“The secret of playwriting can be given in two maxims: stick to the point and whenever you can, cut.” — W. Somerset Maugham
“I’ll give you the whole secret of short story writing, and here it is: Rule one, write stories that please yourself. There is no rule two. If you can’t write a story that pleases yourself, you’ll never please the public.” — O. Henry
“One likes people much better when they’re battered down by a prodigious siege of misfortune than when they triumph.” — Virginia Woolf (diary, Aug. 13, 1921)
‘Count Dracula?’ He bowed in a courtly way as he replied:–
‘I am Dracula; and I bid you welcome, Mr. Harker, to my house.’
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, how does Dracula know Harker’s name? Harker bears a letter of introduction from Peter Hawkins, but Dracula has not seen it yet, and it does not identify Harker by name.
For that matter, why does Dracula go to England? He says, “I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is.” Couldn’t this be done, and more safely, in any other European city?
John Sutherland writes, “If he must do it, why not choose Germany, which at least would shorten the distance back to his lair and would not entail passing over the dangerous element of water?”
Letter from E.B. White to Harper & Brothers editor Eugene Saxton, March 1, 1939:
Herewith an unfinished MS of a book called Stuart Little. It would seem to be for children, but I’m not fussy who reads it. You said you wanted to look at this, so I am presenting it thus in its incomplete state. There are about ten or twelve thousand words so far, roughly.
You will be shocked and grieved to discover that the principal character in the story has somewhat the attributes and appearance of a mouse. This does not mean that I am either challenging or denying Mr. Disney’s genius. At the risk of seeming a very whimsical fellow indeed, I will have to break down and confess to you that Stuart Little appeared to me in a dream, all complete, with his hat, his cane, and his brisk manner. Since he was the only fictional figure ever to honor and disturb my sleep, I was deeply touched, and felt that I was not free to change him into a grasshopper or a wallaby. Luckily he bears no resemblance, either physically or temperamentally, to Mickey. I guess that’s a break for all of us.
Saxton pressed for a fall publication, but Stuart Little wouldn’t appear until 1945. “I pull back like a mule at the slightest goading,” White said.
The popular Bulwer–Lytton Fiction Contest challenges entrants to compose “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels”:
As an ornithologist, George was fascinated by the fact that urine and feces mix in birds’ rectums to form a unified, homogeneous slurry that is expelled through defecation, although eying Greta’s face, and sensing the reaction of the congregation, he immediately realized he should have used a different analogy to describe their relationship in his wedding vows.
Less well known is the Lyttle Lytton Contest, which requires that the sentences be short. Winners:
2012 – “Agent Jeffrey’s trained eyes rolled carefully around the room, taking in the sights and sounds.” (Davian Aw)
2011 – “The red hot sun rose in the cold blue sky.” (Judy Dean)
2010 – “‘I shouldn’t be saying this, but I think I’ll love you always, baby, always,’ Adam cried into the email.” (Shexmus Amed)
2009 – “The mighty frigate Indestructible rounded the Horn of Africa and lurched east’ard.” (Pete Wirtala)
2008 – “Because they had not repented, the angel stabbed the unrepentant couple thirteen times, with its sword.” (Graham Swanson)
2007 – “It clawed its way out of Katie, bit through the cord and started clearing.” (Gunther Schmidl)
2006 – “This is the cipher key for all that follows: |||||| || |!” (P. Scott Hamilton)
2005 – “John, surfing, said to his mother, surfing beside him, ‘How do you like surfing?’” (Eric Davis)
2004 – “This is the story of your mom’s life.” (Rachel Lambert)
2003 – “For centuries, man had watched the clouds; now, they were watching him.” (Stephen Sachs)
2002 – “The pain wouldn’t stop, and Vern still had three cats left.” (Andrew Davis)
2001 – “Turning, I mentally digested all of what you, the reader, are about to find out heartbreakingly.” (Top Changwatchai)
Another favorite, offered by Jonathan Blum in a 2007 freeform contest: “Scaling Everest was, by far, the most amazing and transformative experience of my life. Unfortunately, this is a thesis on context-free grammars.”
“Bored silly” one day, science fiction author Damon Knight and his wife invented logogenetics, “the new science of selling stories without actually writing”:
- Get two books and open each to a random page.
- Choose a word from the first book and then another from the second that might reasonably follow it. Write these down.
- Read the next word in each book. Write these down.
- Continue in this way, discarding “lousy” words as necessary, until you’ve spliced together an entire story.
As an example, Knight combined A.E. van Vogt’s The World of Null-A with Ray Bradbury’s “The Golden Apples of the Sun” to produce The World of Null-Apples, by A. Ray Van Vogtbury:
Gosseyn moved, but around the door.
‘Swallow the pills.’ In the sky with great desperate coming-in, danger flowering unreal whistlings, Prescott quietly said, ‘From the women that saw it, helicopters will blizzard.’ The hotels, the private people, cities that rose to strange power. Warm, strangely, with easy pink picture faces, because the race of bound men would sound mysterious. ‘You opposed the assault, man!’
Murder. Two supposed chocolate Gosseyn malteds. He smiled curtly, for the mute problem would slowly, reluctantly untangling, tell him the partial color acceptance. It again was a picture of a mind, dark, closer to sanity, one uneasy white reverie shining down. …
Logogenetic writing seldom makes sense, but Knight points out that it’s ideal for writing little books to go with exhibitions of ultramodern art. And he found it particularly entertaining to combine how-to articles from Woman’s Day:
With a whisk knife, sweep 3/4 inch under crust. Vacuum 1 cup grated pedals or rugs. Spread seats in trunk; put dirt on floor. Bake 1 tablespoon moderate detergent, 325° F., in hot bucket. Break upholstery apart, and serve.
UPDATE: A reader tells me that computer algorithms using Markov chains have been used similarly to marry texts — here’s Alice in Wonderland combined with Genesis and Revelations.
A cynical critic returned the manuscript of friend with the remark, ‘It will be read when Shakspere and Milton are forgotten;’ and he cruelly added, ‘but not till then.’
– Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Newspapers in the World, Dec. 10, 1881
H.G. Wells demonstrates how to dismount a bicycle, June 1895:
“Observe when your left foot is descending & about 30° from the nadir. Stand on left pedal throwing up right leg. Bring this in a graceful curve over the hind mud guard & leap lightly to the ground. The treadle moves against your weight & assists the leap. Then smile. Thus.”
That’s from a letter to an old college friend. “The bicycle in those days was still very primitive,” Wells recalled of the bicycle craze of the 1890s. “The diamond frame had appeared but there was still no freewheel. You could only stop and jump off when the treadle was at its lowest point, and the brake was an uncertain plunger upon the front wheel. … Nevertheless the bicycle was the swiftest thing upon the roads in those days … and the cyclist had a lordliness, a sense of masterful adventure, that has gone from him altogether now.”
“I learnt to ride my bicycle upon sandy tracks with none but God to help me; he chastened me considerably in the process.”
English was Joseph Conrad’s third language. Born in Poland, he learned French as a child but heard no English until he went to sea as a teenager. In 1874 he had just rowed a dinghy alongside an English cargo steamer at Marseilles when a deck hand threw him a rope and called, “Look out there.” “For the very first time in my life, I heard myself addressed in English — the speech of my secret choice, of my future, of long friendships of the deepest affections, of hours of toil and hours of ease, and of solitary hours too, of books read, of thoughts pursued, of remembered emotions — of my very dreams!”
His captivation with the language, he would later say, was “too mysterious to explain,” “a subtle and unforeseen accord of my emotional nature with its genius.” He made his way to England and began to puzzle out newspaper articles with help from a local boat builder. “I began to think in English long before I mastered, I won’t say the style (I haven’t done that yet), but the mere uttered speech,” he wrote to Hugh Walpole in 1918. “You may take it from me that if I had not known English I wouldn’t have written a line for print in my life.”
Though he spoke with a strong Polish accent throughout his life, with “years of devoted practice” his writing advanced him to the first rank of English novelists. Graham Greene declared him the best English stylist of the 20th century; T.E. Lawrence called him “absolutely the most haunting thing in prose that ever was.” Here’s his memory of that morning in Marseilles as he watched the English steamer depart:
Her head swung a little to the west, pointing towards the miniature lighthouse of the Jolliette breakwater, far away there, hardly distinguishable against the land. The dinghy danced a squashy, splashy jig in the wash of the wake and turning in my seat I followed the James Westoll with my eyes. Before she had gone in a quarter of a mile she hoisted her flag as the harbour regulations prescribe for arriving and departing ships. I saw it suddenly flicker and stream out on the flagstaff. The Red Ensign! In the pellucid, colourless atmosphere bathing the drab and grey masses of that southern land, the livid islets, the sea of pale glassy blue under the pale glassy sky of that cold sunrise, it was as far as the eye could reach the only spot of ardent colour — flamelike, intense, and presently as minute as the tiny red spark the concentrated reflection of a great fire kindles in the clear heart of a globe of crystal. The Red Ensign — the symbolic, protecting warm bit of bunting flung wide upon the seas, and destined for so many years to be the only roof over my head.
“The truth of the matter is that my faculty to write in English is as natural as any other aptitude with which I might have been born,” he wrote in A Personal Record. “I have a strange and overpowering feeling that it had always been an inherent part of myself. English was for me neither a matter of choice nor adoption. The merest idea of choice had never entered my head.”
Passages from the writings of Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939), widely considered the worst novelist of all time:
- Heavily laden with the garb of disappointment did the wandering woman of wayward wrong retrace her footsteps from the door for ever, and leisurely walked down the artistic avenue of carpeted care, never more to face the furrowed frowns of friends who, in years gone by, bestowed on her the praises of poetic powers.
- Rising to her feet, and tossing her haughty head as high as she reasonably could without pain, she commenced to pace the floor in deepest agony.
- That she whom he stole from the straight and narrow path upon which she unquestionably trod was not about to walk on the crooked and broad road of destruction, driven thither by his daring desire to stab the life of his chum, Maurice Munro, with the steel of distrust in order to gratify his licentiousness by the purity of his stolen, enforced prey distressed him even to the edge of distraction.
- “I, as you see, am tinged with slightly snowy tufts, the result of stifled sorrow and care concerning you alone; and on the memorable day of our alliance, as you are well aware, the black and glossy locks of glistening glory crowned my brow.”
- Father Guerdo’s face darkened somewhat, his thin lips parted, exposing two rows of irregularly-set yellow-usefuls, while he drew down his brow, instantly impressing her by the fact that he felt displeased.
- But President O’Sullivan, whose well-guided words and fatherly advice had on this evening so sealed the mind of forgiveness with the wax of disinterested intent that Sir John, on his arrival home, at once sent for his solicitors, Messrs. Hutchinson & Harper, and ordering his will to be produced, demanded there and then that the pen of persuasion be dipped into the ink of revenge and spread thickly along the paragraph of blood-related charity to blank the intolerable words that referred to the woman he was now convinced, beyond doubt, had braved the bridge of bigamy.
- On arriving at his destination, he instructed the man to await his return. Then ascending excitedly step by step until reaching the beautifully-kept grounds surrounding his iniquitous wing of Hades during days he now damned he had tracked so often, desirous to expel from the region of his remembrance the thoughts that thrashed his weary brain with the lash of lewdness, concealing himself behind a fat chestnut tree that rose in overgrown majesty within the grounds, he resolved to rest within its massive trunk for a short time until his anger subsided somewhat.
“She cannot be altogether laughed off,” wrote Anthony Powell. “She may be a long way from Shakespeare, but she partakes, in however infinitely minute a degree, of the Shakespearean power over language.” Ros herself had written, “I expect I will be talked about at the end of 1000 years.” She may have been right.
- Holmes and Watson never address one another by their first names.
- Until 1990, the banknote factory at Debden, England, was heated by burning old banknotes.
- The vowels AEIOUY can be arranged to spell the synonyms AYE and OUI.
- 741602 + 437762 = 7416043776
- “In all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane.” — Mark Twain
Two trick questions:
Who played the title role in Bride of Frankenstein? Valerie Hobson — not Elsa Lanchester.
Did Adlai Stevenson ever win national office? Yes — Adlai Stevenson I served as vice president under Grover Cleveland in 1893.
I never deliberately sat down and ‘created’ a character in my life. I begin to write incidents out of real life. One of the persons I write about begins to talk this way and one another, and pretty soon I find that these creatures of the imagination have developed into characters, and have for me a distinct personality. These are not ‘made,’ they just grow naturally out of the subject. That was the way Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and other characters came to exist. I couldn’t to save my life deliberately sit down and plan out a character according to diagram. In fact, every book I ever wrote just wrote itself. I am really too lazy to sit down and plan and fret to ‘create’ a ‘character.’ If anybody wants any character ‘creating,’ he will have to go somewhere else for it. I’m not in the market for that. It’s too much like industry.
– “Mark Twain Tells the Secrets of Novelists,” New York American, May 26, 1907
When she was 15 years old, Jane Austen wrote a history of England:
Henry the 4th ascended the throne of England much to his own satisfaction in the year 1399, after having prevailed on his cousin and predecessor Richard the 2nd, to resign it to him, and to retire for the rest of his life to Pomfret Castle, where he happened to be murdered. It is to be supposed that Henry was married since he had certainly four sons, but it is not in my power to inform the Reader who was his wife. Be this as it may, he did not live for ever, but falling ill, his son the Prince of Wales came and took away the crown; whereupon the King made a long speech, for which I must refer the Reader to Shakespear’s Plays, and the Prince made a still longer. Things being thus settled between them the King died, and was succeeded by his son Henry who had previously beat Sir William Gascoigne.
She signed herself “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian.” “There is … in considering even her crudest early experiments, the interest of looking at a mind and not at a mirror,” observed G.K. Chesterton. “She may not be conscious of being herself; but she is not, like so many more cultivated imitators, conscious of being somebody else.”
In the 18th century, French architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux conceived an ideal city — perhaps too ideal. It contained no hospitals or theaters but included a “shelter of the poor man,” a “Pacifère” where quarrels could be settled peaceably, and, most notably, an “Oïkéma,” or house of sexual instruction, which Allan Braham calls “one of the most extreme instances of Ledoux’s gift for architectural metaphor.”
While we’re on this subject: In William Wycherley’s 1675 comedy The Country Wife, the word china becomes a bawdy metaphor, which makes the dialogue livelier than it first appears:
Lady Fidget: And I have been toiling and moiling, for the prettiest Piece of China, my Dear.
Mr. Horner: Nay, she has been too hard for me, do what I could.
Mrs. Squeamish: Oh, Lord, I’ll have some China too, good Mr. Horner, don’t think to give other People China, and me none, come in with me too.
Mr. Horner: Upon my Honour I have none left now.
Mrs. Squeamish: Nay, nay, I have known you deny your China before now, but you shan’t put me off so, come –
Mr. Horner: This Lady had the last there.
Lady Fidget: Yes indeed, Madam, to my certain Knowledge he has no more left.
Mrs. Squeamish: O, but it may be he may have some you could not find.
Lady Fidget: What d’ye think if he had had any left, I would not have had it too? for we Women of Quality never think we have China enough.
Mr. Horner: Do not take it ill, I cannot make China for you all, but I will have a Roll-waggon for you too, another time.
Mrs. Squeamish: Thank you, dear Toad.
Lady Fidget: (to Horner, aside) What do you mean by that promise?
Mr. Horner: Alas, she has an innocent, literal Understanding.
Ronald Knox reviews Gertrude Stein in the Dublin Review, 1927:
There is oddly not nearly so much difficulty about reading the beginning of a book by Gertrude Stein like this book of hers called Composition as Explanation (Hogarth Essays) as there is in reading it later on when it gets nearer the end. It is all written like this with no punctuation of course but it does sound as if it meant something. Every now and then a word or two is written twice over twice over but of course that may be the printer. It is a little confusing to be told that people are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living, but probably it all works out somehow. She goes on like this for about thirty pages and then she says now that is all. But it isn’t it isn’t it isn’t. It’s only about half. She starts putting in headlines after that to symbolically no doubt make her meaning clearer, but it isn’t clearer. It is ever so much not clearer. SITWELL EDITH SITWELL.
She says that quite suddenly in capitals as if it were a line of Onward Christian Soldiers. And in this part of the book all the parts of speech get mixed up anyhow as if she had been taking a lesson in typewriting. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog lazy dog lazy fox the quick jumps jumps brown. There is only one sentence in this part which is English, it says toasted susie is my ice-cream, and that is not sense, is it? So awfully not sense. I suppose she must either think it looks pretty or think it sounds pretty when you read it but it doesn’t it doesn’t either it really doesn’t.
“At dinner I sat next to James Branch Cabell who asked me, Is Gertrude Stein serious?” remembered Alice B. Toklas. “Desperately, I replied. That puts a different light on it, he said. For you, I said, not for me.”