In 1936, after his first wife had left him, Evelyn Waugh sent a letter to her cousin Laura Herbert, asking whether “you could bear the idea of marrying me.”
“I can’t advise you in my favour because I think it would be beastly for you,” he wrote, “but think how nice it would be for me. I am restless & moody and misanthropic & lazy & have no money except what I earn and if I got ill you would starve. In fact it’s a lousy proposition. On the other hand I think I could do a Grant and reform & become quite strict about not getting drunk and I am pretty sure I should be faithful. Also there is always a fair chance that there will be another bigger economic crash in which case if you had married a nobleman with a great house you might find yourself starving, while I am very clever and could probably earn a living of some sort somewhere.”
He added, “All these are very small advantages compared with the awfulness of my character. I have always tried to be nice to you and you may have got it into your head that I am nice really, but that is all rot. It is only to you & for you. I am jealous & impatient — but there is no point in going into a whole list of my vices. You are a critical girl and I’ve no doubt that you know them all and a great many I don’t know myself.”
They were wed the following spring.
French science fiction writer Albert Robida has been lost in the shadow of Jules Verne, but in the 1880s he was widely popular for a trilogy of illustrated novels imagining life in the 20th century. He predicted social upheavals around the time of our two world wars and foresaw transatlantic air travel, home shopping, video telephones, and a feminist revolution. But his greatest innovation was one we haven’t reached yet — a president made of wood:
And he is really well made. See the hand that’s holding the pen? It is secured in position. You can try pushing and pulling it all you want, it won’t budge! There is a secret lock. Absolute security! The mechanism is extremely complex; there are three locks and three keys. The prime minister has one, the president of the chamber has another one, and the president of the senate has the third. A minimum of two keys is requested to activate the mechanism. In case of conflict between the prime minister and the president of the chamber, the president of the senate is summoned with his key. He stands with one side or the other and introduces his key into one of the locks. The mechanism is activated, and the automatic president signs away!
“He shall reign, but not govern,” explains a citizen. “The power will remain in the hands of the nation’s representatives. … The monarchists’ main objection to democracy has always been its inherent instability. With this wooden president, democracy equals stability!”
In 1973, Sheldon Klein of the University of Wisconsin programmed a computer to write a 2,100-word mystery story in 19 seconds:
Wonderful smart Lady Buxley was rich. Ugly oversexed Lady Buxley was single. John was Lady Buxley’s nephew. Impoverished irritable John was evil. Handsome oversexed John Buxley was single. John hated Edward. John Buxley hated Dr. Bartholomew Hume. Brilliant Hume was evil. Hume was oversexed. Handsome Dr. Bartholomew was single. Kind easygoing Edward was rich. Oversexed Lord Edward was ugly. Lord Edward was married to Lady Jane. Edward Liked Mary Jane. Edward was not jealous. Lord Edward disliked John. Pretty jealous Jane liked Lord Edward. …
The plots tend to be haphazard and the narrative unsophisticated … but in this example the butler did it. Perhaps Klein was onto something.
Stage instruction from La Tragedia de Baskerville, a five-act drama mounted in Bilbao in 1915 by Gonzalo Jóver and Enrique Arroyo:
El perro ha de ser de atrezzo, grande, negro, de cabeza achatada, en los ojos dos lámparas eléctricas rojas y otra en la boca, simulando la parte de la lengua. El perro irá montado sobre ballestas arquedas, con las patas extendidas en actitud de galopar. Las dos ballestas se unen por dos travesaños que irán debajo de las patas. Del travesaño delantero se engancha un alambre, del cual se tirará fuertemente, para que el perro corra con el movimiento propio del galope. Para que no se vea el montaje es necesario que los apliques sean más altos que el practicable del camino.
The dog, large and black, with red electric lights for eyes and another to indicate the tongue, is to be mounted on arched crossbows, with paws extended as though running. The crossbows are to be joined by two cross timbers, placed under the feet, and to the foremost cross piece a copper wire is to be attached in such fashion that it may be vigorously pulled, to give the animal a galloping movement. Arrangement of the mechanical mounting is to be such that the appliances are not visible from the audience.
Historian Paul Patrick Rogers notes that the play “seems never to have reached Madrid.”
“The central function of imaginative literature is to make you realize that other people act on moral convictions different from your own.” — William Empson
In June 1857, Hans Christian Andersen arrived at Charles Dickens’ new country home, Gads Hill Place. Andersen was an enormous admirer of Dickens — he had just dedicated a novel to him and was eager to enjoy a fortnight with his “friend and brother.”
Enjoy it he did. He gathered nosegays in the woods, cut figures from paper, invited Dickens’ son Charley to shave him, and explored London in cabs while hiding his valuables in his boots. He found that Dickens had an excellent supply of dinner whiskey and could offer a large tumbler of gin and sherry afterward. He watched Dickens perform in The Frozen Deep, burst into tears at the death scene, drank champagne with the cast, and returned to see it again a week later.
So delighted was he that in the end he stayed five weeks instead of the planned two. “None of your friends can be more closely attached to you than I,” he wrote on the way back to Denmark. “The visit to England, the stay with you, is a bright point in my life. … I understood every minute that you cared for me, that you were glad to see me, and were my friend.”
When Dickens returned to the house, he stole into Anderson’s bedroom and affixed a card to the dressing-table mirror. “Hans Christian Andersen slept in this room for five weeks,” it said, “which seemed to the family AGES.”
On April 18, 1926, Sinclair Lewis mounted the pulpit of a Kansas City church, took out his watch, and defied God to prove his existence within 10 minutes by striking him dead.
God spared him.
George Bernard Shaw had once made the same challenge but gave God only three minutes. “I am a very busy man,” he said.
“The average American loves his family. If he has any love left over for some other person, he generally selects Mark Twain.” — Thomas Edison
In the early 1970s, AI researcher James Meehan tried to teach a computer to retell Aesop’s fables. This was not always successful:
Once upon a time there was a dishonest fox and a vain crow. One day the crow was sitting in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth. He noticed that he was holding the piece of cheese. He became hungry, and swallowed the cheese. The fox walked over to the crow. The end.
Henry Ant was thirsty. He walked over to the river bank where his good friend Bill Bird was sitting. Henry slipped and fell in the river. He was unable to call for help. He drowned.
One day Henry Crow sat in his tree, holding a piece of cheese in his mouth, when up came Bill Fox. Bill saw the cheese and was hungry. He said, ‘Henry, I like your singing very much. Won’t you please sing for me?’ Henry, flattered by this compliment, began to sing. The cheese fell to the ground. Bill Fox saw the cheese on the ground and was very hungry. He became ill. Henry Crow saw the cheese on the ground, and he became hungry, but he knew that he owned the cheese. He felt pretty honest with himself, so he decided not to trick himself into giving up the cheese. He wasn’t trying to deceive himself, either, nor did he feel competitive with himself, but he remembered that he was also in a position of dominance over himself, so he refused to give himself the cheese. He couldn’t think of a good reason why he should give himself the cheese, so he offered to bring himself a worm if he’d give himself the cheese. That sounded okay, but he didn’t know where any worms were. So he said to himself, ‘Henry, do you know where any worms are?’ But of course, he didn’t, so he …
“The program eventually ran aground for other reasons,” Meehan writes. “I was surprised it got as far as it did.”
“I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter.” — Pascal
“It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” — Mark Twain
“If you want me to talk for ten minutes, I’ll come next week. If you want me to talk for an hour I’ll come tonight.” — Woodrow Wilson
Harold Macmillan: “What are you doing, prime minister?”
Winston Churchill: “Rehearsing my impromptu witticisms.”
When Mark Twain took his first job as a newspaper reporter, his editor told him never to report anything as fact unless he could verify it by personal knowledge.
That night Twain covered a social gala. He filed the following story: “A woman giving the name of Mrs. James Jones, who is reported to be one of the society leaders of the city, is said to have given what purported to be a party yesterday to a number of alleged ladies. The hostess claims to be the wife of a reputed attorney.”
In 1937, Max Eastman and Ernest Hemingway found themselves together in Max Perkins’ office at Scribner’s. On Perkins’ desk was Eastman’s Art and the Life of Action, which contained an essay critical of Hemingway. They began to argue. Hemingway bared his chest. Eastman bared his. Hemingway slapped him.
What happened next is unclear. “The trouble with these literary bouts,” opined the New York Times, “is that there is never an official referee on hand. Both sides can claim a decision and a foul at the same time, and usually do.”
But in 1947 the House of Books catalog offered for sale a damaged copy of Art and the Life of Action. On page 95, it said, was a spot caused by contact “with Mr. Eastman’s nose when Mr. Hemingway struck him with it in a gesture of disapproval.” The spot was witnessed by Maxwell Perkins.
Letter from Charles Dodgson to Nellie Bowman, Nov. 1, 1891:
C.L.D., Uncle loving your! Instead grandson his to it give to had you that so, years 80 or 70 for it forgot you that was it pity a what and: him of fond so were you wonder don’t I and, gentleman old nice very a was he. For it made you that him been have must it see you so: grandfather my was, then alive was that, ‘Dodgson Uncle’ only the. Born was I before long was that, see you, then But. ‘Dodgson Uncle for pretty thing some make I’ll now,’ it began you when, yourself to said you that, me telling her without, knew I course of and: ago years many great a it made had you said she. Me told Isa what from was it? For meant was it who out made I how know you do! Lasted has it well how and. Grandfather my for made had you macassar-Anti pretty that me give to you of nice so was it, Nellie dear my
“If you see Nobody come into the room,” he wrote to another girl, “please give him a kiss from me.”
Look before you leap.
He who hesitates is lost.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Out of sight, out of mind.
You’re never too old to learn.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
A word to the wise is sufficient.
Talk is cheap.
Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Actions speak louder than words.
The pen is mightier than the sword.
Many hands make light work.
Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Seek and ye shall find.
Curiosity killed the cat.
Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.
The best things in life are free.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
G.K. Chesterton said, “I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.”
In 1944 a children’s book club sent a volume about penguins to a 10-year-old girl, enclosing a card seeking her opinion.
She wrote, “This book gives me more information about penguins than I care to have.”
American diplomat Hugh Gibson called it the finest piece of literary criticism he had ever read.
- Canada’s coastline is six times as long as Australia’s.
- Rudyard Kipling invented snow golf.
- ENUMERATION = MOUNTAINEER
- Can you see your eyes move in a mirror?
- 26364 = 263 × 6/4
- “I want death to find me planting my cabbages.” — Montaigne
On a television show, Eddie Fisher complained to George S. Kaufman that women refused to date him because he looked so young. Kaufman considered this and replied:
“Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars up to 24 times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed until the construction of the Mount Palomar telescope, an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope. Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to detect my interest in your problem.”
Alexander Woollcott asked that his ashes be scattered at his alma mater, Hamilton College in Utica, N.Y.
Somehow they were misdirected to Colgate University, and they arrived at Hamilton with 67 cents postage due.
He once wrote, “Many of us spend half of our time wishing for things we could have if we didn’t spend half our time wishing.”
When Bennett Cerf published Gertrude Stein’s Geographical History of America or the Relation of Human Nature to the Human Mind in 1936, he included this “Publisher’s Note”:
This space is usually reserved for a brief description of a book’s contents. In this case, however, I must admit frankly that I do not know what Miss Stein is talking about. I do not even understand the title.
I admire Miss Stein tremendously, and I like to publish her books, although most of the time I do not know what she is driving at. That, Miss Stein tells me, is because I am dumb.
I note that one of my partners and I are characters in this latest work of Miss Stein’s. Both of us wish we knew what she was saying about us. Both of us hope too that her faithful followers will make more of this book than we were able to!
Interviewing Stein on his radio program, Cerf said, “I’m very proud to be your publisher, Miss Stein, but as I’ve always told you, I don’t understand very much of what you’re saying.”
She said, “Well, I’ve always told you, Bennett, you’re a very nice boy, but you’re rather stupid.”
“A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task will do him little good.” — Samuel Johnson
“Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” — Plato
“Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” — Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde on Charles Dickens:
“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
Joseph Conrad on Herman Melville:
“He knows nothing of the sea. Fantastic — ridiculous.”
John Dryden on John Donne:
“Were he translated into numbers, and English, he would yet be wanting in the dignity of expression.”
Vladimir Nabokov on Joseph Conrad:
“I cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romantic clichés.”
Henry James on Edgar Allan Poe:
“An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”
H.G. Wells on George Bernard Shaw:
“An idiot child screaming in a hospital.”
Gustave Flaubert on George Sand:
“A great cow full of ink.”
Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac:
“That’s not writing, that’s typing.”
Mark Twain wrote that Jane Austen’s books “madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy. … Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
- Dorothy Parker named her dog Cliche.
- 27639 = 27 × 63 – 9
- Tikitiki cures beriberi.
- Can an object move itself?
- “The best way out is always through.” — Robert Frost
The earliest mention of baseball may be in Northanger Abbey, of all places:
… it was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books.
Jane Austen wrote that passage in 1798, 41 years before Abner Doubleday supposedly invented the game in 1839. Evidence now suggests that “America’s game” evolved in England and was imported to the New World in the 18th century.
UPDATE: A reader alerts me that the town of Pittsfield, Mass., passed an ordinance in 1791 forbidding inhabitants from playing “Baseball” and certain other games near a new meeting house. This is believed to be the first written reference to baseball in North America. But a researcher at the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that the OED now has an example dating from 1748: “Now, in the winter, in a large room, they divert themselves at base-ball, a play all who are, or have been, schoolboys, are well acquainted with.” The letter writer was English, so, for the moment, England has the ball.
In his 1968 novel Enderby Outside, Anthony Burgess contrived to use the word onions four times in a row:
Then, instead of expensive mouthwash, he had breathed on Hogg-Enderby, bafflingly (for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions. ‘Onions,’ said Hogg.
Burgess could take playfulness to excess — the first volume of the Enderby quartet got him into a bit of trouble.