Pen Slips

  • In “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” Keats writes of Cortez discovering the Pacific Ocean. Balboa did.
  • In Ivanhoe, Malvoisin’s first name changes from Philip to Richard.
  • In War and Peace, Vera is 17 in 1805 and 24 in 1809.
  • In Eugene O’Neill’s Where the Cross Is Made, the stage directions call for a one-armed man to sit at a table “resting his elbows, his chin in his hands.”
  • In the Aeneid, Chorinaeus and Numa die and then reappear with no explanation.

In Little Dorrit, Chapter 33, Tattycoram appears with “an iron box some two feet square” in her arms. Writes Ebenezer Brewer in his Reader’s Handbook of Famous Names in Fiction, “She must have been a pretty strong girl, with very long arms.”

The Author’s Eye

Excerpts from Somerset Maugham’s notebook:

  • “No action is in itself good or bad, but only such according to convention.”
  • “People are never so ready to believe you as when you say things in dispraise of yourself; and you are never so much annoyed as when they take you at your word.”
  • “An action is not virtuous merely because it is unpleasant to do.”
  • “The more intelligent a man is the more capable is he of suffering.”
  • “However harmless a thing is, if the law forbids it most people will think it wrong.”
  • “I don’t know why it is that the religious never ascribe common sense to God.”
  • “All this effort of natural selection, wherefore? What is the good of all this social activity beyond helping unessential creatures to feed and propagate?”
  • “I can imagine no more comfortable frame of mind for the conduct of life than a humorous resignation.”


In 1880 Mark Twain invited William Dean Howells to join him in a club in which “the first & main qualification for membership is modesty.”

“At present,” he wrote, “I am the only member; & as the modesty required must be of a quite aggravated type, the enterprize did seem for a time doomed to stop dead still with myself, for lack of further material; but upon reflection I have come to the conclusion that you are eligible.”

Howells responded, “The only reason I have for not joining the Modest Club is that I am too modest: that is, I am afraid that I am not modest enough. … If you think I am not too modest, you may put my name down, and I will try to think the same of you.”

Curious Company

In his autobiography, mathematician Norbert Wiener describes three particular dons he came to know at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1914:

“It is impossible to describe Bertrand Russell except by saying that he looks like the Mad Hatter. … [J.M.E.] McTaggart … with his pudgy hands, his innocent, sleepy air, and his sidelong walk, could only be the Dormouse. The third, G.E. Moore, was a perfect March Hare. His gown was always covered with chalk, his cap was in rags or missing, and his hair was a tangle which had never known the brush within man’s memory.”

The three together became known as the Mad Tea Party of Trinity. Though they appeared 50 years after their fictional counterparts, Wiener wrote, “the caricature of Tenniel almost argues an anticipation on the part of the artist.”

Nothing Doing

In 1873, Lewis Carroll borrowed the travel diary of his child-friend Ella Monier-Williams, with the understanding that he would show it to no one. He returned it with this letter:

My dear Ella,

I return your book with many thanks; you will be wondering why I kept it so long. I understand, from what you said about it, that you have no idea of publishing any of it yourself, and hope you will not be annoyed at my sending three short chapters of extracts from it, to be published in The Monthly Packet. I have not given any names in full, nor put any more definite title to it than simply ‘Ella’s Diary, or The Experiences of an Oxford Professor’s Daughter, during a Month of Foreign Travel.’

I will faithfully hand over to you any money I may receive on account of it, from Miss Yonge, the editor of The Monthly Packet.

Your affect. friend,

C.L. Dodgson

Ella thought he was joking, and wrote to tell him so, but he replied:

I grieve to tell you that every word of my letter was strictly true. I will now tell you more — that Miss Yonge has not declined the MS., but she will not give more than a guinea a chapter. Will that be enough?

“This second letter succeeded in taking me in, and with childish pleasure I wrote and said I did not quite understand how it was my journal could be worth printing, but expressed my pleasure. I then received this letter:–”

My dear Ella,

I’m afraid I have hoaxed you too much. But it really was true. I ‘hoped you wouldn’t be annoyed at my etc.’ for the very good reason that I hadn’t done it. And I gave no other title than ‘Ella’s Diary,’ nor did I give that title. Miss Yonge hasn’t declined it — because she hasn’t seen it. And I need hardly explain that she hasn’t given more than three guineas!

Not for three hundred guineas would I have shown it to any one — after I had promised you I wouldn’t.

In haste,

Yours affectionately,


Palette Trouble

In 1858, William Ewart Gladstone noticed something peculiar in Homer: Both oxen and the sea are compared to the color of wine, sheep are “violet,” honey is “green,” and, while the sky is described as starry, broad, great, iron, and copper, it’s never “blue.” He advanced the idea that “the organ of colour and its impressions were but partially developed among the Greeks of the heroic age.”

Building on this idea 20 years later in Nature, William Pole suggested that Homer might even have been color-blind. “It would be a most interesting fact in physiology and optics,” he wrote, “if we could show, in this way, that dichromatism was an early stage of human vision out of which the present more comprehensive and perfect faculty has been gradually developed in the course of some thousands of years.”

The truth awaited a more sophisticated understanding of the interplay of culture and language, one that’s still evolving. In a way that’s a shame — as Pole points out, if this oddity had been the unique mark of a particular writer, then we’d have “the strongest possible proof, by internal evidence, of the existence of a single author, to whom the whole of the poems are due.”

Checking In

Letter from T.S. Eliot to Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Feb. 3, 1940:

Possum now wishes to explain his silence
And to apologise (as only right is);
He had an attack of poisoning of some violence,
Followed presently by some days in bed with laryngitis.

Yesterday he had to get up and dress–
His voice very thick and his head feeling tetrahedral,
To go and meet the Lord Mayor & Lady Mayoress
At a meeting which had something to do with repairs to Southwark Cathedral.

His legs are not yet ready for much strain & stress
And his words continue to come thick and soupy all:
These are afflictions tending to depress
Even the most ebullient marsupial.

But he would like to come to tea
One day next week (not a Wednesday)
If that can be arranged
And to finish off this letter
Hopes that you are no worse and that Leonard is much better.

Long and Short

Othello doesn’t fit. Act I takes place on Othello’s wedding night, when he is sent to Cyprus. Act II takes place on the day of his arrival there, Acts III and IV occur together on the following day, and Act V takes place that evening. Thus the events on Cyprus appear to unfold within a day and a half.

Yet in this brief period the characters speak as if much more time were passing. Iago suggests that Desdemona has slept with Cassio repeatedly in this time, while Bianca complains that Cassio has kept away from her for “seven days and nights.” Emilia says Iago has “a hundred times / Woo’d me to steal” Desdemona’s handkerchief, and Roderigo complains of having “wasted myself out of my means” since their arrival.

Why? Did Shakespeare compress events into a day and a half for his own convenience in plotting, relying on the hope that the timeline would “feel” longer to casual theatergoers? “I find it very hard to believe that he produced this impossible situation without knowing it,” wrote A.C. Bradley in 1904. “It is one thing to read a drama or see it, quite another to construct and compose it, and he appears to have imagined the action in Othello with even more than his usual intensity.”

“On the Play of Hamlet”

Hamlet was a young man very nervous. He was always dressed in black because his uncle had killed his father by shooting him in his ear. He could not go to the theatre because his father was dead so he had the actors come to his house and play in the front parlor and he learned them to say the words because he thought he knew best how to say them. And then he thought he’d kill the king but he didn’t. Hamlet liked Ophelia. He thought she was a very nice girl but he didn’t marry her because she was going to be a nunnery. Hamlet went to England but he did not like it very much so he came home. Then he jumped into Ophelia’s grave and fought a duel with her brother. Then he died.

English as She Is Taught: Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools, 1887

Breaking In

Gelett Burgess published his first poem through a “literary burglary.” On noticing that most of the “notes and queries” in the Boston Transcript were inquiries about obscure poems, he submitted this letter:

Dear Editor:

Who is the author of the poem commencing ‘The dismal day with dreary pace,’ and can you give me the verses?


Then he submitted a response:

Editor of the ‘Transcript’:

The author of the poem commencing ‘The dreary day’ etc., is Frank Gelett Burgess, and the whole poem is as follows:

The dismal day with dreary pace
Hath dragged its tortuous length along;
The gravestones black, and funeral vase
Cast horrid shadows long.

Oh, let me die, and never think
Upon the joys of long ago;
For cankering thoughts make all the world
A wilderness of woe.


“Of course it was printed,” he wrote later. “You see it’s easy when you know how.”