Gold and Dross

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It is in this vein that I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against the attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of sf is crud. The Revelation:

Ninety percent of everything is crud.

Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.

Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field.

— Theodore Sturgeon, “On Hand: A Book,” 1958

(In a 1953 speech he’d said, “When people talk about the mystery novel, they mention The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. When they talk about the western, they say there’s The Way West and Shane. But when they talk about science fiction, they call it ‘that Buck Rogers stuff.'”)

A Reckoning

In the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone,” the narrator declares that “Holmes seldom laughed, but he got as near it as his old friend Watson could remember.”

Is that so? In 1960, Charles E. Lauterbach and Edward S. Lauterbach compiled this “Frequency Table Showing the Number and Kind of Responses Sherlock Holmes Made to Humourous Situations and Comments in His 60 Recorded Adventures”:

Smile 103
Laugh 65
Joke 58
Chuckle 31
Humor 10
Amusement 9
Cheer 7
Delight 7
Twinkle 7
Miscellaneous 19
Total 316

In a 1964 issue of the Sherlock Holmes Journal, A.G. Cooper claimed to have counted 292 instances of Holmes’ laughter. The Lauterbachs suggest that Watson may have been deaf.

(Charles E. Lauterbach and Edward S. Lauterbach, “The Man Who Seldom Laughed,” Baker Street Journal Christmas Annual 1960, 265–271.)

Policy

https://pixabay.com/en/mark-twain-vintage-author-humorist-391120/

Mark Twain received so many letters from would-be authors that he prepared a standard reply:

Dear Sir or Madam,–Experience has not taught me very much, still it has taught me that it is not wise to criticise a piece of literature, except to an enemy of the person who wrote it; then if you praise it that enemy admires you for your honest manliness, and if you dispraise it he admires you for your sound judgment.

Yours truly,

S.L.C.

An Unexpected Party

J.R.R. Tolkien received this letter in March 1956:

Dear Sir

I hope you do not mind my writing to you, but with reference to your story ‘Lord of the Rings’ running as a serial on the radio under the item on the programme ‘for the schools’ Home Service once a week in the afternoons I was rather interested in how you arrived at the name of one of the characters named Sam Gamgee because that happens to be my name. I haven’t heard the story myself not having a wireless but I know some who have, one being my nephew, bearing the same surname, who is a school teacher and it caused a laugh among his class when it came on. Another, my great neice and the latter’s daughter 9 yrs of age a pupil at a different school, also heard it and caused some surprise among the class when it came on at her school. I know it’s fiction, but it is rather a coincidence as the name is very uncommon, but well known in the medical profession.

The above address is my brothers as I have no permanent address.

Yrs faithfully

Sam Gamgee

Tolkien wrote back, “It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment, when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort I hope, that the ‘Sam Gamgee’ of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic. So that perhaps you will not be displeased by the coincidence of the name of this imaginary character (of supposedly many centuries ago) being the same as yours.”

He later said, “For some time I lived in fear of receiving a letter signed ‘S. Gollum’. That would have been more difficult to deal with.”

SRO

A gracious moment between Samuel Johnson and the actress Sarah Siddons:

When Mrs. Siddons came into the room, there happened to be no chair ready for her, which he observing, said with a smile, ‘Madam, you who so often occasion a want of seats to other people, will the more easily excuse the want of one yourself.’

(From Boswell’s Life of Johnson.)

Podcast Episode 281: Grey Owl

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grey_owl_feeding_beaver_a_jelly_roll.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the 1930s the world’s best-known conservationist was an ex-trapper named Grey Owl who wrote and lectured ardently for the preservation of the Canadian wilderness. At his death, though, it was discovered that he wasn’t who he’d claimed to be. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of his curious history and complicated legacy.

We’ll also learn how your father can be your uncle and puzzle over a duplicate record.

See full show notes …

Lost in Translation

A dry footnote from Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian, regarding the Porteous Riots of 1736, in which a guard captain was lynched in Edinburgh:

The Magistrates were closely interrogated before the House of Peers, concerning the particulars of the Mob, and the patois in which these functionaries made their answers, sounded strange in the ears of the Southern nobles. The Duke of Newcastle having demanded to know with what kind of shot the guard which Porteous commanded had loaded their muskets, was answered naively, ‘Ow, just sic as ane shoots dukes and fools with.’ This reply was considered as a contempt of the House of Lords, and the Provost would have suffered accordingly, but that the Duke of Argyle explained, that the expression, properly rendered into English, meant ducks and waterfowl.

(Thanks, Fred.)

All Right Then

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Roland_Barthes.jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

From Roland Barthes’ 1975 autobiography:

I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay (why doesn’t someone with a ‘nose’ make such a perfume), roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, too-cold beer, flat pillows, toast, Havana cigars, Handel, slow walks, pears, white peaches, cherries, colors, watches, all kinds of writing pens, desserts, unrefined salt, realistic novels, the piano, coffee, Pollock, Twombly, all romantic music, Sartre, Brecht, Verne, Fourier, Eisenstein, trains, Médoc wine, having change, Bouvard and Pécuchet, walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France, the bend of the Adour seen from Doctor L.’s house, the Marx Brothers, the mountains at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca, etc.

I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord, Miró, tautologies, animated cartoons, Arthur Rubinstein, villas, the afternoon, Satie, Bartók, Vivaldi, telephoning, children’s choruses, Chopin’s concertos, Burgundian branles and Renaissance dances, the organ, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, his trumpets and kettledrums, the politico-sexual, scenes, initiatives, fidelity, spontaneity, evenings with people I don’t know, etc.