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
In a historic passage Mallarmé describes the terror, the sense of sterility, that the poet experiences when he sits down to his desk, confronts the sheet of paper on which his poem is supposed to be composed, and no words come to him. But we might ask, why could not Mallarmé, after an interval of time, have simply got up from his chair and produced the blank sheet of paper as the poem that he sat down to write? Indeed, in support of this, could one imagine anything that was more expressive of, or would be held to exhibit more precisely the poet’s feelings of inner devastation than the virginal paper?
— Richard Wollheim, “Minimal Art,” in Minimal Art, ed. Gregory Battcock, 1968
How do I know that I’m not just a fictional character in some imagined story? What could I learn about myself that would prove that I’m real? “I am human, male, brunette, etc., but none of that helps,” writes UCLA philosopher Terence Parsons. “I see people, talk to them, etc., but so did Sherlock Holmes.”
Descartes would say that the very fact that I’m thinking about this shows that I exist: cogito ergo sum. But a fictional character could make the same argument. “Hamlet did think a great many things,” writes Jaakko Hintikka. “Does it follow that he existed?” Robert Nozick adds, “Could not any proof be written into a work of fiction and be presented by one of the characters, perhaps one named ‘Descartes’?”
Tweedledee tells Alice that she’s only a figment of the Red King’s dream. “If that there King was to wake,” adds Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!”
Alice says, “Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.”
“Well, it’s no use YOUR talking about waking him,” replies Tweedledum, “when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.”
“It seems to me that this is a philosophical problem that deserves to be treated seriously on a par with issues like the reality of the external world and the existence of other minds,” Parsons writes. “I don’t know how to solve it.”
(Terence Parsons, Nonexistent Objects, 1980; Charles Crittenden, Unreality, 1991; Robert Nozick, “Fiction,” Ploughshares 6:3 (1980), pp. 74-78; Jaakko Hintikka, “Cogito, Ergo Sum: Inference or Performance?”, The Philosophical Review, 71:1 (January 1962), pp. 3-32.)
In May 1869, Lewis Carroll and 13-year-old Isabel Seymour traveled together by train from Oxford to Reading, where they parted, he to go on to Guildford and she to Paddington, London. After they had separated, he realized that he had forgotten to give her her ticket. He wrote to her:
My dear Isabel,
I was so sorry to hear from Miss Lloyd of your not being well, and I hope you will not think of writing to me about ‘Alice’ till you are well enough to do so. I only write this on the chance of your being in the humour to read it, or to have it read to you. When you are in that state, I should like you to know the real reason of my having carried off your railway-ticket. … Well, you told me, you know, that it was your first railway-journey alone: naturally that set me thinking, ‘Now what can I do to give her a really exciting adventure?’
Now three plans occurred to me. The first was to wait till the train had started from Reading, and then fire a pistol through your carriage-window, so that the bullet might go near your head and startle you a little. But there were two objections to this plan — one, that I hadn’t got a loaded pistol with me, the other, that the bullet might have gone in at a wrong window, and some people are so stupid, they might not have taken it as a joke.
The second plan was to give you, just as the train left Reading, what should look like a Banbury-cake, but should afterwards turn out to be a rattlesnake. The only objection to this plan was, that they didn’t keep that kind at Reading. They had only common Banbury-cakes, which wouldn’t have done at all.
The third plan was to keep the ticket, so that you might be alarmed when you got to London. Of course I arranged thoroughly with the Guard that the thing was not to be overdone. He was to look a little stern at first, and then gradually to let his expressive features kindle into a smile of benevolence. I was very particular on this point and almost my last words to him were, ‘Are you sure you can manage the benevolence?’ and I made him practice it several times on the platform before I would let him go.
Now you know my whole plan for making your journey a real Adventure. I only hope it succeeded. So, hoping much to hear you are better again, I remain very truly yours,
In 1916, after extensive study, French writer Georges Polti announced that all the stories in classical and modern literature could be reduced to 36 essential situations:
- Supplication. The Persecutor accuses the Suppliant of wrongdoing, and the Power makes a judgment against the Suppliant.
- Deliverance. The Unfortunate has caused a conflict, and the Threatener is to carry out justice, but the Rescuer saves the Unfortunate.
- Crime pursued by vengeance. The Criminal commits a crime that will not see justice, so the Avenger seeks justice by punishing the Criminal.
- Vengeance taken for kin upon kin. Two entities, the Guilty and the Avenging Kinsmen, are put into conflict over wrongdoing to the Victim, who is allied to both.
- Pursuit. The Fugitive flees Punishment for a misunderstood conflict.
- Disaster. The Power falls from their place after being defeated by the Victorious Enemy or being informed of such a defeat by the Messenger.
- Falling prey to cruelty/misfortune. The Unfortunate suffers from Misfortune and/or at the hands of the Master.
- Revolt. The Tyrant, a cruel power, is plotted against by the Conspirator.
- Daring enterprise. The Bold Leader takes the Object from the Adversary by overpowering the Adversary.
- Abduction. The Abductor takes the Abducted from the Guardian.
- The enigma. The Interrogator poses a Problem to the Seeker and gives a Seeker better ability to reach the Seeker’s goals.
- Obtaining. The Solicitor is at odds with the Adversary who refuses to give the Solicitor what they Object in the possession of the Adversary, or an Arbitrator decides who gets the Object desired by Opposing Parties (the Solicitor and the Adversary).
- Enmity of kin. The Malevolent Kinsman and the Hated or a second Malevolent Kinsman conspire together.
- Rivalry of kin. The Object of Rivalry chooses the Preferred Kinsman over the Rejected Kinsman.
- Murderous adultery. Two Adulterers conspire to kill the Betrayed Spouse.
- Madness. The Madman goes insane and wrongs the Victim.
- Fatal imprudence. The Imprudent, by neglect or ignorance, loses the Object Lost or wrongs the Victim.
- Involuntary crimes of love. The Revealer betrays the trust of either the Lover or the Beloved.
- Slaying of kin unrecognized. The Slayer kills the Unrecognized Victim.
- Self-sacrifice for an ideal. The Hero sacrifices the Person or Thing for their Ideal, which is then taken by the Creditor.
- Self-sacrifice for kin. The Hero sacrifices a Person or Thing for their Kinsman, which is then taken by the Creditor.
- All sacrificed for passion. A Lover sacrifices a Person or Thing for the Object of their Passion, which is then lost forever.
- Necessity of sacrificing loved ones. The Hero wrongs the Beloved Victim because of the Necessity for their Sacrifice.
- Rivalry of superior vs. inferior. A Superior Rival bests an Inferior Rival and wins the Object of Rivalry.
- Adultery. Two Adulterers conspire against the Deceived Spouse.
- Crimes of love. A Lover and the Beloved enter a conflict.
- Discovery of the dishonour of a loved one. The Discoverer discovers the wrongdoing committed by the Guilty One.
- Obstacles to love. Two Lovers face an Obstacle together.
- An enemy loved. The allied Lover and Hater have diametrically opposed attitudes towards the Beloved Enemy.
- Ambition. The Ambitious Person seeks the Thing Coveted and is opposed by the Adversary.
- Conflict with a god. The Mortal and the Immortal enter a conflict.
- Mistaken jealousy. The Jealous One falls victim to the Cause or the Author of the Mistake and becomes jealous of the Object and becomes conflicted with the Supposed Accomplice.
- Erroneous judgment. The Mistaken One falls victim to the Cause of the Author of the Mistake and passes judgment against the Victim of the Mistake when it should be passed against the Guilty One instead.
- Remorse. The Culprit wrongs the Victim or commits the Sin, and is at odds with the Interrogator who seeks to understand the situation.
- Recovery of a lost one. The Seeker finds the One Found.
- Loss of loved ones. The killing of the Kinsman Slain by the Executioner is witnessed by the Kinsman Spectator.
For example, the Sherlock Holmes stories are an example of situation 3; Madame Bovary of situation 25; Romeo and Juliet of situation 29; and Crime and Punishment of situation 34. (The full text is here.) Correspondingly, he claimed, in life there are only 36 emotions, whose “unceasing ebb and flow … fills human history like the tides of the sea.”
Though he found that 36 categories were enough “to distribute fitly among them the innumerable dramas awaiting classification,” Polti felt that his system shouldn’t inhibit the creativity of future writers. “Any writer may have here a starting-point for observation and creation, outside the world of paper and print, a starting-point personal to himself.”
In the U.S. edition of Thrilling Cities, his 1963 collection of travel pieces written for the Sunday Times, Ian Fleming included a brief section describing a visit to New York by James Bond, who visits the Edwardian Room at the Plaza and orders a dry martini, smoked salmon, and “the particular scrambled eggs he had once instructed them how to make.” And in a footnote, Fleming gives the precise recipe for 007’s scrambled eggs:
Scrambled Eggs “James Bond”
12 fresh eggs
Salt and pepper
5-6 oz. of fresh butter
Break the eggs into a bowl. Beat thoroughly with a fork and season well. In a small copper (or heavy-bottomed) saucepan melt four oz. of the butter. When melted, pour in the eggs and cook over a very low heat, whisking continuously with a small egg whisk.
While the eggs are slightly more moist than you would wish for eating, remove pan from heat, add rest of butter and continue whisking for half a minute, adding the while finely chopped chives or fines herbes. Serve on hot buttered toast in individual copper dishes (for appearance only) with pink champagne (Taittainger) and low music.
It serves “four individualists.”
When chronic illness confined Boston poet Arthur Crew Inman to a darkened room, he turned inward, scribbling his thoughts and feelings into an enormous diary that eventually filled 155 volumes with 17 million handwritten words — most of them peevish:
A Lithuanian came to read to me. I disliked her at once. She was common. Her voice sounded like an ungreased axle. She spoke with a pronounced accent. She would start to read fairly well, but in short order she would become interested in the book, forget me, let the reading go as it might. I began to ask her questions. She answered in monosyllables. She used gutter slang. Her father, she said, had fled from Poland to escape the Russian term of army service. He had come to America where he had stayed for a while in Elizabeth, New Jersey. After saving some money, he took his family to Amsterdam, New York, and started a dry goods store. The girl had been one of six children. She had not learned to speak English until she was thirteen. She had gone to public school. Now she is studying music at the Boston Conservatory.
Harvard professor Daniel Aaron, who edited the diaries for publication in 1985, called them “surely one of the fullest and largest diaries ever kept by any American.” Inman would have agreed with him. “I trust to do in nonfiction what Balzac did in fiction,” he said. Perhaps he succeeded — the diaries were turned into an opera in 2007, and a film version starring John Hurt is in development.
By reducing each chapter of the Bible to a single line and presenting these lines in rhyming quatrains, the Juvenile Bible of 1804 condenses the Old and New Testaments into 69 memorizable pages. By learning a simple system, one can then cite any chapter of the Bible from memory. Here are the first three stanzas of Genesis:
1 All things created, Moses writes,
2 And Paradise displays;
3 Tells Adam’s fall, which ruin’d all:
4 Cain righteous Abel slays.
5 Before the flood man’s life was long:
6 Noah the ark doth frame:
7 The world is drown’d, eight favour found,
8 Out of the ark they came.
9 Cov’nant of rain-bow; Noah drunk,
10 His offspring is increast;
11 They Babel rear, confounded are.
12 Abram is call’d and blest.
To aid in memorization, the stanzas begin with successive letters of the alphabet, so a stanza that starts with A always marks the first chapter of a book, B the 5th, C the 9th, and so on. Once we’ve memorized the stanzas above, we can always name the chapter in Genesis in which the Tower of Babel is described: It’s the third line of the stanza beginning with C, so it’s chapter 11. Conversely, if we’re asked to name the subject of any given chapter, we can produce the answer using the same system.
“This novel and curious arrangement will, it is presumed, gratify the taste of young readers, and not only give them a relish for the Sacred Volume, but even assist their memories when duly acquainted with it,” writes the anonymous author. To his credit, he adds, “No portion of it should ever be allotted as a Task; the Author of this Work being well convinced, it is owing to the modern and impious mode of Education, compelling Children to learn Collects, chapters in the Bible, Hymns, &c. as occasional Exercises, and frequently by way of Punishment that the Word of God is not heard and read with that satisfaction it always should be.”
In 1917 Ben Hecht and Maxwell Bodenheim agreed to debate one another before a Chicago literary society. They chose the topic “Resolved: That People Who Attend Literary Debates Are Imbeciles.”
Hecht took the podium, surveyed the crowd, and said, “The affirmative rests.”
Bodenheim rose and said, “You win.”
A letter from Lewis Carroll to Gertrude Chataway, Oct. 28, 1876:
My Dearest Gertrude,
–You will be sorry, and surprised, and puzzled, to hear what a queer illness I have had ever since you went. I sent for the doctor, and said, ‘Give me some medicine, for I’m tired.’ He said, ‘Nonsense and stuff! You don’t want medicine: go to bed!’ I said, ‘No; it isn’t the sort of tiredness that wants bed. I’m tired in the face.’
He looked a little grave, and said, ‘Oh, it’s your nose that’s tired: a person often talks too much when he thinks he knows a great deal.’ I said, ‘No, it isn’t the nose. Perhaps it’s the hair.’
Then he looked rather grave, and said, ‘Now I understand: you’ve been playing too many hairs on the pianoforte.’ ‘No, indeed I haven’t!’ I said, ‘and it isn’t exactly the hair: it’s more about the nose and chin.’
Then he looked a good deal graver, and said, ‘Have you been walking much on your chin lately?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘Well!’ he said, ‘it puzzles me very much. Do you think it’s in the lips?’ ‘Of course!’ I said. ‘That’s exactly what it is!’
Then he looked very grave indeed, and said, ‘I think you must have been giving too many kisses.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I did give one kiss to a baby child, a little friend of mine.’ ‘Think again,’ he said; ‘are you sure it was only one?’ I thought again, and said, ‘Perhaps it was eleven times.’ Then the doctor said, ‘You must not give her any more till your lips are quite rested again.’ ‘But what am I to do?’ I said, ‘because you see, I owe her a hundred and eighty-two more.’
Then he looked so grave that tears ran down his cheeks, and he said, ‘You may send them to her in a box.’ Then I remembered a little box that I once bought at Dover, and thought I would some day give it to some little girl or other. So I have packed them all in it very carefully. Tell me if they come safe or if any are lost on the way.
Half of Jane Austen’s oeuvre was written on a tiny table in the family parlor, subject to continual interruptions. In his Memoir of Jane Austen, James Edward Austen-Leigh wrote:
The first year of her residence at Chawton seems to have been devoted to revising and preparing for the press ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice'; but between February 1811 and August 1816, she began and completed ‘Mansfield Park,’ ‘Emma,’ and ‘Persuasion,’ so that the last five years of her life produced the same number of novels with those which had been written in her early youth. How she was able to effect all this is surprising, for she had no separate study to retire to, and most of the work must have been done in the general sitting-room, subject to all kinds of casual interruptions. She was careful that her occupation should not be suspected by servants, or visitors, or any persons beyond her own family party. She wrote upon small sheets of paper which could easily be put away, or covered with a piece of blotting paper. There was, between the front door and the offices, a swing door which creaked when it was opened; but she objected to having this little inconvenience remedied, because it gave her notice when anyone was coming.
He adds: “I have no doubt that I, and my sisters and cousins, in our visits to Chawton, frequently disturbed this mystic process, without having any idea of the mischief that we were doing; certainly we never should have guessed it by any signs of impatience or irritability in the writer.”
E.E. Cummings had to borrow $300 from his mother in order to publish 70 Poems, his 1935 collection of poetry. Vindictively he changed its title to No Thanks and dedicated it to the 14 publishing houses that had rejected it:
Their names form the shape of a funeral urn.
Shakespeare dedicated his sonnets to a “Mr. W.H.” No one knows who this was — his identity has remained a mystery for 400 years. Most of the sonnets are addressed to a young man, and some seem to contain puns on the names “Will” and “Hughes” (for example, sonnet 20 refers to “a man in hue all hughes in his controlling”), so the 18th-century scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt suggested that the young man was named William Hughes. Oscar Wilde took this up in his 1889 short story “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” in which he imagines that Mr. W.H. was one Willie Hughes, “a wonderful boy-actor of great beauty” who played women’s roles in Shakespeare’s company. Unfortunately there’s no evidence that such a person actually existed, though Samuel Butler discovered a real-life William Hughes who served as cook on a ship called the Vanguard in 1634.
In Ulysses, Mr. Best calls Wilde’s the “most brilliant” of all theories to explain the mystery. That’s ironic, because Ulysses contains a mysterious character of its own, a “man in a macintosh” who appears repeatedly but is never identified:
Now who is that lankylooking galoot over there in the macintosh? Now who is he I’d like to know? Now I’d give a trifle to know who he is. Always someone turns up you never dreamt of. A fellow could live on his lonesome all his life.
Mr Bloom stood far back, his hat in his hand, counting the bared heads. Twelve. I’m thirteen. No. The chap in the macintosh is thirteen. Death’s number. Where the deuce did he pop out of? He wasn’t in the chapel, that I’ll swear. Silly superstition that about thirteen.
This being Ulysses, he could be almost anyone, and critics have suggested everyone from Satan to Charles Stewart Parnell. Joyce seemed to delight in his own riddle, asking his friends, “Who was the man in the macintosh?” But he never revealed the answer.
- Fathers can mother, but mothers can’t father.
- The Mall of America is owned by Canadians.
- Neil Armstrong was 17 when Orville Wright died.
- LONELY TYLENOL is a palindrome.
- 258402 + 437762 = 2584043776
- “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.” — Plutarch
Edward Gorey’s pen names included Ogdred Weary, Raddory Gewe, Regera Dowdy, D. Awdrey-Gore, E.G. Deadworry, Waredo Dyrge, Deary Rewdgo, Dewda Yorger, and Dogear Wryde. Writer Wim Tigges responded, “God reward ye!”
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