Elbert Hubbard died on the Lusitania. Ernest Cowper, a survivor of the sinking, described the writer’s last moments in a letter to Hubbard’s son the following year:
I can not say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.
Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms — the fashion in which they always walked the deck — and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’
They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’
The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.
It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.
In 1937 Wolcott Gibbs drew up a list of 31 rules for new fiction editors at the New Yorker. “The average contributor to this magazine is semi-literate,” he wrote. “That is, he is ornate to no purpose, full of senseless and elegant variations, and can be relied on to use three sentences where a word would do.” Some of his rules:
1. “Writers always use too damn many adverbs. On one page, recently, I found eleven modifying the verb ‘said’: ‘He said morosely, violently, eloquently,’ and so on. Editorial theory should probably be that a writer who can’t make his context indicate the way his character is talking ought to be in another line of work. Anyway, it is impossible for a character to go through all these emotional states one after the other. Lon Chaney might be able to do it, but he is dead.”
2. “Word ‘said’ is O.K. Efforts to avoid repetition by inserting ‘grunted,’ ‘snorted,’ etc., are waste motion, and offend the pure in heart.”
3. “Our writers are full of clichés, just as old barns are full of bats. There is obviously no rule about this, except that anything that you suspect of being a cliché undoubtedly is one, and had better be removed.”
12. “[Style editor Hobie] Weekes said the other night, in a moment of desperation, that he didn’t believe he could stand any more triple adjectives. ‘A tall, florid and overbearing man called Jaeckel.’ Sometimes they’re necessary, but when every noun has three adjectives connected with it, Mr. Weekes suffers and quite rightly.”
20. “The more ‘as a matter of facts,’ ‘howevers,’ ‘for instances,’ etc., you can cut out, the nearer you are to the Kingdom of Heaven.”
“I would be delighted to go over the list of writers, explaining the peculiarities of each as they have appeared to me in more than ten years of exasperation on both sides,” he wrote. “By going over the list, I can give a general idea of how much nonsense each artist will stand for.”
Cottle, in his life of Coleridge, relates the following amusing incident:–’I led my horse to the stable, where a sad perplexity arose. I removed the harness without difficulty; but, after many strenuous attempts, I could not remove the collar. In despair, I called for assistance, when Mr. Wordsworth brought his ingenuity into exercise; but, after several unsuccessful efforts, he relinquished the achievement as a thing altogether impracticable. Mr. Coleridge now tried his hand, but showed no more skill than his predecessor; for, after twisting the poor horse’s neck almost to strangulation, and the great danger of his eyes, he gave up the useless task, pronouncing that the horse’s head must have grown since the collar was put on; for he said, ‘it was a downright impossibility for such a huge os frontis to pass through so narrow an aperture.’ Just at this instant, a servant-girl came near, and understanding the cause of our consternation, ‘Ha! master,’ said she, ‘you don’t go about the work in the right way: you should do like this,’ when, turning the collar upside down, she slipped it off in a moment, to our great humiliation and wonderment, each satisfied afresh that there were heights of knowledge in the world to which we had not yet attained.
– William Evans Burton, The Cyclopædia of Wit and Humor, 1898
Longfellow thought that Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Victorian poet and painter, was two different people. On leaving Rossetti’s house he said, “I have been very glad to meet you, Mr. Rossetti, and should like to have met your brother also. Pray tell him how much I admire his beautiful poem, ‘The Blessed Damozel.’”
In Philosophical Troubles, Saul A. Kripke offers a related puzzle. Peter believes that politicians never have musical talent. He knows of Paderewski, the great pianist and composer, and he has heard of Paderewski the Polish statesman, but he does not know that they are the same person. Does Peter believe that Paderewski had musical talent?
In 1855 American publisher James T. Fields made the mistake of taking William Thackeray to a dull scientific lecture:
During his second visit to Boston I was asked to invite him to attend an evening meeting of a scientific club, which was to be held at the house of a distinguished member. I was very reluctant to ask him to be present, for I knew he could be easily bored, and I was fearful that a prosy essay or geological speech might ensue, and I knew he would be exasperated with me, even although I were the innocent cause of his affliction. My worst fears were realized. We had hardly got seated, before a dull, bilious-looking old gentleman rose, and applied his auger with such pertinacity that we were all bored nearly to distraction. I dared not look at Thackeray, but I felt that his eye was upon me. My distress may be imagined, when he got up quite deliberately from the prominent place where a chair had been set for him, and made his exit very noiselessly into a small anteroom leading into the larger room, and in which no one was sitting. The small apartment was dimly lighted, but he knew that I knew he was there. Then commenced a series of pantomimic feats impossible to describe adequately. He threw an imaginary person (myself, of course) upon the floor, and proceeded to stab him several times with a paper-folder which he caught up for the purpose. After disposing of his victim in this way, he was not satisfied, for the dull lecture still went on in the other room, and he fired an imaginary revolver several times at an imaginary head. Still, the droning speaker proceeded with his frozen subject (it was something about the Arctic regions, if I remember rightly), and now began the greatest pantomimic scene of all, namely, murder by poison, after the manner in which the player King is disposed of in Hamlet. Thackeray had found a small phial on the mantel-shelf, and out of it he proceeded to pour the imaginary ‘juice of cursed hebenon’ into the imaginary porches of somebody’s ears. The whole thing was inimitably done, and I hoped nobody saw it but myself; but years afterwards a ponderous, fat-witted young man put the question squarely to me: ‘What was the matter with Mr. Thackeray that night the club met at M—-’s house?’
Some years ago, when Macready was performing in Chicago, he was unfortunate enough to offend one of the actors. This person, who was cast for the part of Claudius in ‘Hamlet,’ resolved to pay off the star for many supposed offenses. So, in the last scene, as Hamlet stabbed the usurper, that monarch reeled foward, and after a most spasmodic finish, stretched himself out precisely in the place Hamlet required for his own death. Macready, much annoyed, whispered:–
‘Die further up the stage, Sir!’
The monarch lay insensible. Upon which, in a still louder voice, Hamlet growled:–
‘Die further up the stage, Sir!’
Hereon Claudius, sitting up, observed:–
‘I bleeve I’m King here, and I’ll die where I please.’
– Olive Logan, Before the Footlights and Behind the Scenes, 1870
Unusual book titles collected by Russell Ash and Brian Lake for Bizarre Books (1998):
Jokes Cracked by Lord Aberdeen by Lord Aberdeen, 1929
The Romance of Proctology by Charles Elton Blanchard, 1938
Atomic Bombing: How to Protect Yourself by Watson Davis, 1950
God Drives a Flying Saucer by R.L. Dione, 1973
The Fangs of Suet Pudding by Adams Farr, 1944
The Benefit of Farting Explain’d by “Don Fart-inhando Puffindorst” (Jonathan Swift), 1727
Handbook for the Limbless by Geoffrey Howson, 1922
A Toddler’s Guide to the Rubber Industry by D. Lowe, 1947
Be Married and Like It by Bernarr Macfadden, 1937
Hand Grenade Throwing As a College Sport by Lewis Omer, 1918
In 1963 the Athens publisher Harmi Press published an edition of Oliver Twist by “Mark Twain.” They managed to credit it to Charles Dickens on the title page.
A letter received by 12-year-old Enid Stevens, April 7, 1891:
So you think you’ve got the courage to come a walk by yourself with me? Indeed! Well, I shall come for you on April 31st at 13 o’clock, and first I will take you to the Oxford Zoological Gardens, and put you into a cage of LIONS, and when they’ve had a good feed, I’ll put whatever is left of you into a cage of TIGERS. Then I’ll bring you to my rooms, and give a regular beating, with a thick stick, to my new little friend. Then I’ll put you into the coal-hole, and feed you for a week on nothing but bread and water. Then I’ll send you home in a milk-cart, in one of the empty milk-cans. And after that, if ever I come for you again, you’ll scream louder than a COCKATOO!
Your Loving friend,
Once upon a time, a long while ago, there were four little people whose names were
and they all thought they should like to see the world. So they bought a large boat to sail quite round the world by sea, and then they were to come back on the other side by land. The boat was painted blue with green spots, and the sail was yellow with red stripes: and, when they set off, they only took a small Cat to steer and look after the boat, besides an elderly Quangle-Wangle, who had to cook the dinner and make the tea; for which purposes they took a large kettle.
For the first ten days they sailed on beautifully, and found plenty to eat, as there were lots of fish; and they had only to take them out of the sea with a long spoon, when the Quangle-Wangle instantly cooked them; and the Pussy-Cat was fed with the bones, with which she expressed herself pleased, on the whole: so that all the party were very happy.
During the daytime, Violet chiefly occupied herself in putting salt water into a churn; while her three brothers churned it violently, in the hope that it would turn into butter, which it seldom if ever did; and in the evening they all retired into the tea-kettle, where they all managed to sleep very comfortably, while Pussy and the Quangle-Wangle managed the boat.
After a time, they saw some land at a distance; and, when they came to it, they found it was an island made of water quite surrounded by earth. Besides that, it was bordered by evanescent isthmuses, with a great gulf-stream running about all over it; so that it was perfectly beautiful, and contained only a single tree, 503 feet high.
When they had landed, they walked about, but found, to their great surprise, that the island was quite full of veal-cutlets and chocolate-drops, and nothing else. So they all climbed up the single high tree to discover, if possible, if there were any people; but having remained on the top of the tree for a week, and not seeing anybody, they naturally concluded that there were no inhabitants; and accordingly, when they came down, they loaded the boat with two thousand veal-cutlets and a million of chocolate-drops; and these afforded them sustenance for more than a month, during which time they pursued their voyage with the utmost delight and apathy.
– Edward Lear, “The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Around the World,” from The Complete Nonsense Book, 1921
Do not suppose that I didn’t write, hundreds of times: the difficulty has been with the directing. I directed the letters so violently at first, that they went far beyond the mark — some of them were picked up at the other end of Russia. Last week I made a very near shot, and actually succeeded in putting ‘Earls Terrace, Kensington,’ only I over-did the number, and put 12,000, instead of 12. If you inquire for the letter at No. 12,000, I dare say they’ll give it you. After that I fell into a feeble state of health, and directed the letters so gently that one of them only reached the other side of the room. It’s lying by the side of the window now.
– Lewis Carroll, letter to Mary MacDonald, Nov. 5, 1864
So much ado, so much stress, so much passion and repetition about an Handkerchief! Why was not this call’d the Tragedy of the Handkerchief? … We have heard of Fortunatus his Purse, and of the Invisible Cloak, long ago worn thread bare, and stow’d up in the Wardrobe of obsolete Romances: one might think, that were a fitter place for this Handkerchief, than that it, at this time of day, be worn on the Stage, to raise every where all this clutter and turmoil. Had it been Desdemona’s Garter, the Sagacious Moor might have smelt a Rat: but the Handkerchief is so remote a trifle, no Booby, on this side Mauritania, cou’d make any consequence from it.
– Thomas Rymer pans Othello in A Short View of Tragedy, 1693
In 1932 C.K. Ogden translated the last four pages of Anna Livia Plurabelle into Basic English, “the International Language of 850 words in which everything may be said.”
Here’s Joyce’s text:
Well, you know or don’t you kennet or haven’t I told you every telling has a tailing and that’s the he and the she of it. Look, look, the dusk is growing. My branches lofty are taking root. And my cold cher’s gone ashley. Fieluhr? Filou! What age is at? It saon is late. ‘Tis endless now senne eye or erewone last saw Waterhouse’s clogh. They took it asunder, I hurd thum sigh. When will they reassemble it? O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace!
And here’s Ogden’s translation:
Well are you conscious, or haven’t you knowledge, or haven’t I said it, that every story has an ending and that’s the he and she of it. Look, look, the dark is coming. My branches high are taking root, And my cold seat’s gone grey. ‘Viel Uhr? Filou! What time is it? It’s getting late. How far the day when I or anyone last saw Waterhouse’s clock! They took it to pieces, so they said. When will they put it together again? O, my back, my back, my back! I would go then to Aix-les-Pains. Ping pong! That the bell for Sachseläute — And Concepta de Spiritu — Pang! Take the water of your cloths! Out with the old, in with the new! Godavari keep off the rains! And give us support!
“The simplest and most complex languages of man are placed side by side,” Ogden wrote. “The reader will see that it has generally been possible to keep almost the same rhythms.” Judge for yourself.
After taking opium at Malta, Coleridge dreamed of the sentence “Varrius thus prophesied vinegar at his door by damned frigid tremblings.”
Delirious with fever in Scotland, Maria Edgeworth was haunted by the words “A soldier of the forty-second has lost his portmanteau.”
In a vision at Lerici, Shelley met his own figure, which asked, “How long do you mean to be content?”
Poet William Mickle regretted that he could not remember the poetry he composed in his dreams, which he said was “infinitely superior to anything he produced in his waking hours.” But his wife recited two lines he had spoken in his sleep:
By Heaven, I’ll wreak my woes
Upon the cowslip and the pale primrose.
Robert Browning dreamed that he attended a performance of Richard III and heard a line “immensely finer than anything else in the play. … When I woke I still had hold of the stupendous line, and it was this:
‘And when I wake my dreams are madness — Damn me!’”
As readers, we remain in the nursery stage so long as we cannot distinguish between taste and judgment, so long, that is, as the only possible verdicts we can pass on a book are two: this I like; this I don’t like.
For an adult reader, the possible verdicts are five: I can see this is good and I like it; I can see this is good but I don’t like it; I can see this is good and, though at present I don’t like it, I believe that with perseverance I shall come to like it; I can see that this is trash but I like it; I can see that this is trash and I don’t like it.
– W.H. Auden, A Certain World, 1970
After Hart Crane’s death in 1932, scholars discovered that his poem “Emblems of Conduct” was largely a collage of lines borrowed from an unsuccessful Austrian poet named Samuel Greenberg, who had died of consumption in a New York hospital in 1917.
Critic William Murrell Fisher had shared some of Greenberg’s work with Crane in the early 1920s, noting that “when his eyes lighted on some of the poems, he became very excited. He flared up in a corner with it.” Crane later called Greenberg “a Rimbaud in embryo” whose work radiated “a quality that is unspeakably eerie.” To a friend he praised the “hobbling yet really gorgeous attempts that boy made without any education or time except when he became confined to a cot.”
Crane borrowed Greenberg’s notebooks from Fisher and began to arrange his favorite lines into a collage, which he called “Emblems of Conduct” after Greenberg’s poem “Conduct,” and Allen Tate and Malcolm Cowley persuaded him to include it in his first book of poems without knowing its origin.
Discovery of the debt raised charges of plagiarism against Crane, but there’s little indication that he intended to take credit for Greenberg’s work, and “Emblems of Conduct” brought attention to Greenberg that he might never have found otherwise. “All artists are plagiarists until they become transcenders,” wrote Clive Fisher in his 2002 biography of Crane, “but the fact remains that although we can never know what Greenberg might have achieved in a fairer world, there is nothing in the corpus of his work to equal even the secondary achievements of his famous admirer.”
H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror tales describe a world that’s literally beyond human understanding — his characters glimpse a universe ruled by monstrous gods whose very aspect imperils our sanity.
For his 2011 experimental poem Cthulhu on Lesbos, David Jalajel reflected this by taking phrases from Lovecraft’s 1928 story “The Call of Cthulhu” and arranging them into Sapphic stanzas without regard to conventional syntax:
Dark to visit faithful But Great had ever
Old The carven idol was great Cthulhu,
None might say or others were like the old but
Things were by word of
Mouth. The chanted secret — was never spoken
Only whispered. chant “In his house at R’lyeh
Dead Cthulhu waits of the found be hanged, and
Rest were committed
It ends, fittingly, on a fearsome but enigmatic note:
Prance and slay around in by sinking black else
World by now be screaming with fright and frenzy.
Knows the end? has risen may sink, and sunk may
Rise. and in deep, and
Once there was a blue Dyspeptic, who attempted to Kill Time by reading Novels, until he discovered that all Books of Fiction were a Mockery.
After a prolonged Experience he came to know that every Specimen of Light Reading belonged to one of the following Divisions:
- The Book that Promises well until you reach the Plot, and then you Remember that you read it Summer before last.
- The book with the Author’s Picture as a Frontispiece. The Author is very Cocky. He has his Overcoat thrown back, so as to reveal the Silk Lining. That Settles it!
- The Book that runs into a Snarl of Dialect on the third Page and never gets out.
- The delectable Yarn about a Door-Mat Thief, who truly loves the Opium Fiend. Jolly Story of the Slums.
- The Book that begins with a twenty-page Description of Sloppy Weather: ‘Long swirls of riven Rain beat somberly upon the misty Panes,’ etc., etc. You turn to the last Chapter to see if it Rains all the way through the Book. This last Chapter is a Give-Away. It condenses the whole Plot and dishes up the Conclusion. After that, who would have the Nerve to wade through the Two Hundred and Forty intermediate Pages?
- The Book in which the Pictures tell the Story. After you have seen the Pictures there is no need to wrestle with the Text.
- The Book that begins with a Murder Mystery — charming Picture of Gray-Haired Man discovered Dead in his Library — Blood splashed all over the Furniture — Knife of Curious Design lying on Floor. You know at once that the most Respected and least suspected Personage in the Book committed the awful Crime, but you haven’t the Heart to Track him down and compel him to commit Suicide.
- The Book that gets away with one Man asking another: ‘By Jove, who is that Dazzling Beauty in the Box?’ The Man who asks this Question has a Name which sounds like the Title of a Sleeping Car. You feel instinctively that he is going to be all Mixed Up with that Girl in the Box before Chapter XII is reached; but who can take any real Interest in the Love Affairs of a Man with such a Name?
- The Book that tells all about Society and how Tough it is. Even the Women drink Brandy and Soda, smoke Cigarettes, and Gamble. The clever Man of the World, who says all the Killing Things, is almost as Funny as Ally Sloper. An irritable Person, after reading nine Chapters of this kind of High Life, would be ready to go Home and throw his Grandmother into the Fire.
- The dull, gray Book, or the Simple Annals of John Gardensass. A Careful Study of American Life. In Chapter I he walks along the Lane, stepping first on one Foot and then on the Other, enters a House by the Door, and sits in a four-legged wooden Chair, looking out through a Window with Glass in it. Book denotes careful Observation. Nothing happens until Page 150. Then John decides to sell the Cow. In the Final Chapter he sits on a Fence and Whittles. True Story, but What’s the Use?
Why continue? The Dyspeptic said that when he wanted something really Fresh and Original in the Line of Fiction he read the Prospectus of a Mining Corporation.
MORAL: Only the more Rugged Mortals should attempt to Keep Up on Current Literature.
– George Ade, Fables in Slang, 1899
In 2005, Chinese novelist Hu Wenliang offered 140,000 yuan ($16,900 U.S.) to the reader who could decipher his novel «?», which consists entirely of punctuation marks:
Hu claimed that the symbols represent a touching love story that took him a year to write, but he told the Beijing Daily Messenger that none of the 20 interpretations that readers had so far offered had satisfied him.
“I have my own answer, which is around 100 Chinese characters,” he said. “The interpretation should cover the description of characters and the plot of the story. I will reward someone who can guess 80 percent the hidden story correct.”
That was in July 2005. If anyone has offered a successful solution, I haven’t been able to discover it.
Jack Kerouac typed the first draft of On the Road in three weeks on a 120-foot scroll of paper.
Truman Capote famously dismissed it, saying, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
In 2008, conceptual artist Simon Morris typed it again, publishing 400 words a day as a blog.
“One would hope for some truly profound response, but really there is none,” he said. “I don’t feel anything at all.”
In 2009 experimental poet Robert Fitterman erased most of The Sun Also Rises, retaining only phrases that begin with the word I. The result can sound strangely like the diary entry of a random Saturday afternoon:
I went up to the flat. I put the mail on the table. I heard the door-bell pull. I put on a bathrobe and slippers. I filled the big earthenware jug with water. I dressed slowly. I felt tired and pretty rotten. I took up the brandy bottle. I went to the door. I found some ash-trays and spread them around. I looked at the count. I had that feeling of going through something that has already happened before. I had the feeling as in a nightmare of it all being something repeated, something I had been through and that now I must go through again. I took a note out of my pocket. I looked back and there were three girls at his table. I gave him twenty francs and he touched his cap. I went upstairs and went to bed.
Of Hemingway, Tom Wolfe said, “People always think that the reason he’s easy to read is that he is concise. He isn’t. The reason Hemingway is easy to read is that he repeats himself all the time, using ‘and’ for padding.”
For her 1974 book Lighter Side of the Library, Janice Glover asked American librarians to recall titles requested by confused patrons, and the books they turned out to want:
Requested: Who Is Your Schoolmaster?
Book wanted: Hoosier Schoolmaster
Requested: Entombed With an Infant
Book wanted: In Tune With the Infinite
Requested: The Missing Hand
Book wanted: A Farewell to Arms
Requested: The Armored Chinaman
Book wanted: The Chink in the Armour
Requested: King of the Ants
Book wanted: Lord of the Flies
Requested: The Wooden Kid
Book wanted: Pinocchio
Requested: Five Pennies and the Sun
Book wanted: The Moon and Sixpence
And so on: From Here to Maternity; The Merchant of Venus; “Allergy in a Country Churchyard”; My Heart Is Wounded, They Buried My Knee. One inspired library staff finally sent a student home with Homer’s Iliad; he had come in asking for Homeless Idiot.
Harold came rushing out of the engine room with dishevelled hair and bulging eyes. We asked him what on earth was the matter. For an answer he pointed to a piece of rope that was caught in a part of the farthest end of a long beam, which extended far over the side of the Seairoplane. Then he said, ‘Unless that rope is gotten out of the curobater we will all be killed.’ These awful words astounded us and we all became frightened at once. Suddenly amid all of our lamentations a cry from Harold was heard and we all looked up. What was our surprise to see James Thurber walking out on the beam. He reached the end safely and then extricated the rope, but when he turned to come back his foot caught and he pitched head foremost towards the deck. His unusual length saved him for he landed safely on the Seairoplane. We were all very joyful that the terrible crisis had been safely passed and afterwards learned that James was a tightrope walker with Barnsells and Ringbaileys circus.
– From an eighth-grade “class prophecy” essay by 14-year-old James Thurber, 1909
An invisible man would have transparent retinas — and thus be blind.
UPDATE: Wells seems to have thought of this! In Chapter XX, shortly after his transformation, the Invisible Man says:
“I struggled up. At first I was as incapable as a swathed infant — stepping with limbs I could not see. I was weak and very hungry. I went and stared at nothing in my shaving-glass, at nothing save where an attenuated pigment still remained behind the retina of my eyes, fainter than mist. I had to hang on to the table and press my forehead against the glass.”
In testing his cat, he had found that “there remained two little ghosts of her eyes … the back part of the eye, tough, iridescent stuff it is, wouldn’t go at all.” (Thanks, Nathaniel.)
John Macnie’s 1883 utopian novel The Diothas describes paved roads on which cars achieve speeds of 20 miles per hour:
When we had fairly emerged into the country, the curricle, gradually increasing its speed, moved over the smooth track like a shadow, obedient to the slightest touch of its guide. Steering was effected much as in the tricycle of the present: the brakes were controlled by the feet. The forefinger, by means of a lever resembling the brake of a bicycle, regulated the amount of force allowed to issue from the reservoir.
That’s not the remarkable part, though. “‘You see the white line running along the centre of the road,’ resumed Utis. ‘The rule of the road requires that line to be kept on the left except when passing a vehicle in front. Then the line may be crossed, provided the way on that side is clear.’”