A Good Man


Should other species be regarded as human? In 1779 Lord Monboddo proposed that orangutans should: They walk upright, use weapons, form societies, build shelters, and behave with “dignity and composure.” “If … such an Animal be not a Man, I should desire to know in what the essence of a Man consists, and what it is that distinguishes a Natural Man from the Man of Art?”

Thomas Love Peacock mocked this view in his 1817 novel Melincourt, in which a civilized orangutan (“Sir Oran Hout-ton”) is elected to Parliament. And an anonymous wag objected even to the satire:

The author of a novel lately written,
Entitled “Melincourt,”
(‘Tis very sweet and short),
Seems indeed by some wondrous madness bitten,
Thinking it good
To take his hero from the wood:
And though I own there’s nothing treasonable
In making ouran-outangs reasonable,
I really do not think he should
Go quite the length that he has done,
Whether for satire or for fun,
To make this creature an M.P.
As if mankind no wiser were than he.
However, those who’ve read it
Must give the author credit
For skill and ingenuity,
Although it have this monstrous incongruity.

But today Monboddo’s view is on the ascendancy. In Rattling the Cage (2014), Harvard legal scholar Steven M. Wise argues that orangutans — as well as chimpanzees, bonobos, elephants, parrots, dolphins, and gorillas — deserve legal personhood. “Ancient philosophers claimed that all nonhuman animals had been designed and placed on this earth just for human beings,” he writes. “Ancient jurists declared that law had been created just for human beings. Although philosophy and science have long since recanted, the law has not.”

Sleep Tight!

“For Children Three Years Old,” from Lessons for Children by Anna Laetitia Barbauld, Philadelphia, 1818:

There was a naughty boy; I do not know what his name was, but it was not Charles, nor George, nor Arthur, for those are all very pretty names: but there was a robin came in at his window one very cold morning — shiver — shiver; and its poor little heart was almost frozen to death. And he would not give it the least crumb of bread in the world, but pulled it about by the tail and hurt it sadly, and it died. Now a little while after, the naughty boy’s papa and mamma went away and left him, and then he could get no victuals at all, for you know he could not take care of himself. So he went about to every body — Pray give me something to eat, — I am very hungry. And every body said, No, we shall give you none, for we do not love cruel, naughty boys. So he went about from one place to another, till at last he got into a thick wood of trees; for he did not know how to find his way any where; and then it grew dark, quite dark night. So he sat down and cried sadly; and I believe the bears came and eat him up in the wood, for I never heard any thing about him afterwards.


In 1950, Stanford graduate student Robert E. Young realized that two chapters of Henry James’ novel The Ambassadors had been reversed in every American edition since 1903.

“Various discrepancies in facts and time are apparent on careful reading of the chapters in their present order,” he wrote. “On the other hand, the reversal of the two results in the complete elimination of these discrepancies.”

It turned out that the two chapters appeared in the opposite order in the English editions, and many American publishers adopted that order accordingly.

But James himself had not noted any error in revising the American text in 1909, and it’s possible to view that version as correct and the English text as reversed, if one allows for some chronological inconsistency.

The result is that there is no definitive text. “The mishap is particularly ironic,” Young wrote, “in view of the fact that James regarded The Ambassadors as his most perfectly constructed novel, his masterpiece.”



Many of the characters in Lewis Carroll’s stories were suggested by the illustrated tiles that decorated the fireplace in his study at Christ Church, Oxford:

  • At top is the ship that the Bellman steered, though “the bowsprit got mixed with the rudder sometimes.”
  • At top left is the Lory, who joined in the Caucus-Race in Alice in Wonderland.
  • Below the Lory is the Dodo, who claimed a thimble as his prize.
  • At bottom left is the Fawn that couldn’t remember its name in Through the Looking-Glass.
  • At top right is the Eaglet, another Caucus-Race participant.
  • Below the Eaglet is the Gryphon, also from Wonderland.
  • At bottom right is the Beaver from “The Hunting of the Snark,” the only creature that the Butcher knew how to kill.

One of Carroll’s child-friends, Enid Stevens, supplied these particulars for The Lewis Carroll Picture Book, published in 1899. “As I sat on Mr. Dodgson’s knee before the fire,” she wrote, “he used to make the creatures have long and very amusing conversations between themselves. The little creatures on the intervening tiles used to ‘squirm’ in at intervals. I think they suggested the ‘Little birds are feeding,’ &c., in ‘Sylvie and Bruno.'”

The Book Factory


The Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and Tom Swift were all the product of one man, Edward Stratemeyer, a New Jersey author who wrote more than 1,300 books and eventually founded a syndicate of ghostwriters who pounded out juvenile mysteries based on his instructions.

Stratemeyer conceived the syndicate when his Rover Boys series proved so popular that he could not keep up with the demand for more books. He corralled a stable of hungry young writers, and in 1910 they were producing 10 new series annually. Each writer earned $50 to $250 for a manuscript he could produce in a month, working with characters and plot devised by Stratemeyer. Stratemeyer would review each completed manuscript for consistency and publish it under a pseudonym that he owned — Franklin W. Dixon, Carolyn Keene, Laura Lee Hope, Victor Appleton. Each book in a series mentioned the thrilling earlier volumes and foreshadowed the next book. The formula worked so well that when Stratemeyer died in 1930 his daughter continued the business; when she died in 1982 the syndicate was selling more than 2 million books a year.

This sounds cynical, but it worked because Stratemeyer had a sympathetic understanding of what young readers wanted. “The trouble is that very few adults get next to the heart of a boy when choosing something for him to read,” Stratemeyer wrote to a publisher in 1901. “A wide awake lad has no patience with that which is namby-pamby, or with that which he puts down as a ‘study book’ in disguise. He demands real flesh and blood heroes who do something.”

De Profundis


Woman: What terrible weather we’re having.

Oscar Wilde: Yes, but if it wasn’t for the snow, how could we believe in the immortality of the soul?

Woman: What an interesting question, Mr. Wilde! But tell me exactly what you mean.

Oscar Wilde: I haven’t the slightest idea.

(Quoted in Hesketh Pearson, Oscar Wilde, His Life and Wit, 1946)

Lv Lttr

Confined to an asylum in 1849, poet John Clare made this curious entry in a notebook:

M Drst Mr Cllngwd

M nrl wrn t & wnt t hr frm Nbd wll wn M r hv m t n prc & wht hv dn D knw wht r n m Dbt — kss’s fr tn yrs & lngr stll & Ingr thn tht whn ppl mk sch mstks s t cll m Gds bstrd & whrs p m b shttng m p frm Gds ppl t f th w f cmmn snse & thn tk m hd ff bcs th cnt fnd m t t hrds hrd

Drst Mr r fthfll r d thnk f m knw wht w sd tgthr — dd vst m n hll sm tm bck bt dnt cm hr gn fr t s ntrs bd plc wrs nd wrs nd w r ll Frnchmn flsh ppl tll m hv gt n hm n ths wrld nd s dnt believe n th thr nrt t mk mslf hvn wth m drst Mr nd sbscrb mslf rs fr vr & vr

Jhn Clr

Decoding it is simple enough — Clare had removed all vowels and the letter Y. Evidently it was the draft of a letter:

My Dearest Mary Collingwood

I am nearly worn out and want to hear from you — Nobody will own me or have me at any price and what have I done — Do you know what you are in my Debt — kisses for ten years and longer still and longer than that — when people make such mistakes as to call me God’s bastard and whores pay me by shutting me up from God’s people out of the way of common sense and then take my head off because they can’t find me — it out-Herods Herod.

Dearest Mary are you faithful or do you think of me — you know what we said together — you did visit me in hell sometime back but don’t come here again for it is a notorious bad place worse and worse and we are all turned Frenchmen — foolish people tell me I have got no home in this world and as I don’t believe in the other [? undertake] to make myself heaven with my dearest Mary and subscribe myself yours for ever and ever

John Clare

I almost offered this as a puzzle, but it’s too sad. “This is among the most disturbing letters that Clare ever wrote,” notes biographer Jonathan Bate. “It takes us inside his head during a phase of derangement. Even once one has broken the code, it is impossible to decipher the sub-text, especially as we know nothing about the identity of Mary Collingwood beyond the fact that in another of his lists Clare identified her as a Northampton girl.”

Easy Money


In 1728 the city of Paris defaulted on a large number of municipal bonds. As a way to offer some restitution, the city decided to sponsor a series of lotteries among the disappointed bondholders. There would be only a few winners, but each investor could at least hope to recoup some of his lost money.

That’s very noble, but the city fathers had overlooked two things. First, because the government had sweetened the pot, the value of the lottery prize vastly exceeded the combined cost of the tickets. And second, among the bondholders were Voltaire and Charles Marie de La Condamine, who realized this.

The two organized a syndicate to buy up all of their fellow bondholders’ tickets, essentially guaranteeing themselves a huge profit each month. They did this systematically for half a year before the government caught on; when confronted, they pointed out that they were doing nothing illegal. In all, the syndicate realized 6 to 7 million francs, of which Voltaire kept half a million — enough to leave him independently wealthy for the rest of his life.

An Early Wonder

Image: Peter Tarn

Lewis Carroll’s father was rector at St. Peter’s Church in Croft-on-Tees. On a tour of the church in 1992, Joel Birenbaum noticed a stone carving of a cat’s head on the chancel’s east wall, a few feet above the floor. When he dropped to his knees and looked at it from a child’s perspective, the cat’s mouth assumed a broad grin.

His discovery appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune on July 13, 1992.