Mouse Call

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.

Bad Starts

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.”

Zip Lit

“Bored silly” one day, science fiction author Damon Knight and his wife invented logogenetics, “the new science of selling stories without actually writing”:

  1. Get two books and open each to a random page.
  2. Choose a word from the first book and then another from the second that might reasonably follow it. Write these down.
  3. Read the next word in each book. Write these down.
  4. 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.

Wheels of Chance

wells bicycle picshua

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.”

A Foreign Tongue

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Conrad,_Fotografie_von_George_Charles_Beresford,_1904.jpg

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.”

Purple Pen

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.

Misc

  • 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.

Laissez Faire

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mark_Twain_seated.jpg

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

Early Days

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.”