Found Out

In spite of twenty-five years in Southern California, [Aldous Huxley] remains an English gentleman. The scientist’s habit of examining everything from every side and of turning everything upside down and inside out is also characteristic of Aldous. I remember him leafing through a copy of Transition, reading a poem in it, looking again at the title of the magazine, reflecting for a moment, then saying, ‘Backwards it spells NO IT ISN(T) ART.’

— Igor Stravinsky, Dialogues, 1982

“Precocity in Pigtails”

This is James Norman Hall. He co-wrote Mutiny on the Bounty, operated a machine gun for the Royal Fusiliers, flew with the Lafayette Escadrille, and spent months as a German POW.

And he wrote the poetry of a 9-year-old girl.

Literally. In 1938 a girl came to Hall in a troubled dream and began dictating poems to him about life in his childhood home of Colfax, Iowa. “She told me things about people in our hometown that I had completely forgotten, or thought I had.”

He typed them up and published them under the title Oh, Millersville!, claiming they were the rediscovered work of a turn-of-the-century Iowa farmgirl named Fern Gravel:

Oh, it is wonderful in Millersville
On many a winter night,
When the ground is covered with snow
And the moon is shining so bright.
You can hear the sleigh-bells jingling
Everywhere around.
I don’t think there could be
A more beautiful sound.

Keats it ain’t, but its homely charm brought writeups in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hall let six years elapse before he published a confession in the Atlantic Monthly, explaining that he’d been ruminating on the evils of industrialization when the girl’s voice had entered his thoughts. The voice, it seemed, remained: Hall wrote a dozen more books and moved to Tahiti, but in his autobiography he wrote that “Iowa, for all the years I have been away from it, has always been, and still is, home for me.”

Don’t Call Us

When Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel Prize in 1930, he began to receive fan mail. One young woman proposed becoming his secretary. “I’ll do everything for you,” she wrote. “And when I say everything, I mean everything.”

Lewis’ wife, Dorothy, saw the letter and responded. “My dear Miss,” she wrote. “My husband already has a stenographer who handles his work for him. And, as for ‘everything,’ I take care of that myself — and when I say everything, I mean everything.”

The Great West

But Miss Cooper, the daughter of the novelist, tells a story which is well-nigh incredible. When in Paris, she saw a French translation of ‘The Spy,’ in which a man is represented as tying his horse to a locust. Not understanding that the locust-tree was meant, the intelligent Frenchman translated the word as ‘sauterelle,’ and, feeling that some explanation was due, he gravely explained in a note that grasshoppers grew to an enormous size in America, and that one of them, dead and stuffed, was placed at the door of the mansion for the convenience of visitors on horseback.

— William Shepard Walsh, Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities, 1892


Conclusion of a letter from F. Scott Fitzgerald to his 12-year-old daughter Scottie, away at summer camp, Aug. 8, 1933:

Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship

Things not to worry about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failures unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:

What am I really aiming at?

How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:

(a) Scholarship

(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?

(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

“He didn’t want me to have the fun of making my own mistakes,” she wrote later. “He wanted to make them for me.”

Poetry in Motion

In October 1955, shortly after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Marianne Moore was approached by the Ford Motor Company to help devise a name for a new series of cars. “We should like it to have a compelling quality in itself and by itself,” wrote marketing research manager David Wallace. “To convey, through association or other conjuration, some visceral feeling of elegance, fleetness, advanced features and design.”

Moore accepted the challenge and contributed her suggestions throughout the year that followed. These included:

  • The Resilient Bullet
  • The Intelligent Whale
  • The Ford Fabergé
  • The Arc-en-Ciel
  • The Mongoose Civique
  • The Anticipator
  • The Regna Racer
  • The Aeroterre
  • The Turbotorc
  • The Thunder Crester
  • The Magigravure
  • The Pastelogram
  • The Utopian Turtletop

Ford added these to its own growing list. Finally, in November 1956, Wallace sent her the company’s decision. “We have chosen a name out of the more than six-thousand-odd candidates that we gathered,” he wrote. “It has a certain ring to it. An air of gaiety and zest. At least, that’s what we keep saying. Our name, dear Miss Moore, is — Edsel.”

Pen Fatigue

To autograph seekers, Mark Twain would return a typewritten message:

I hope I shall not offend you; I shall certainly say nothing with the intention to offend you. I must explain myself, however, and I will do it as kindly as I can. What you ask me to do I am asked to do as often as one half-dozen times a week. Three hundred letters a year! One’s impulse is to freely consent, but one’s time and necessary occupations will not permit it. There is no way but to decline in all cases, making no exceptions; and I wish to call your attention to a thing which has probably not occurred to you, and that is this: that no man takes pleasure in exercising his trade as a pastime. Writing is my trade, and I exercise it only when I am obliged to. You might make your request of a doctor, or a builder, or a sculptor, and there would be no impropriety in it, but if you asked either for a specimen of his trade, his handiwork, he would be justified in rising to a point of order. It would never be fair to ask a doctor for one of his corpses to remember him by.


In 1962 James Jones was in Paris, struggling to finish The Thin Red Line, his novelization of his experiences in the Battle of Mount Austen during Guadalcanal.

As Jones was agonizing over a scene in which a member of the company, badly wounded, lay crying for help in no man’s land, the laundry man came to collect his bill. When Jones answered the knock, his face was wet with tears.

Pas nécessaire,” said the man, taken aback. “It’s okay. You no have to pay now.”

Poetry in Motions

Justice Arthur Gilbert of the California Court of Appeal felt that legal motions might be more interesting if they were written in the styles of famous authors. He proposed these motions for continuance:

Ernest Hemingway:

It was busy and there was commotion. I looked out the window where the wind touched the top of the trees and far below, the street, white from the sunlight, and the cars inching forward, but I could feel up here that it would not be good, but there was nothing one could do. Pilar, my secretary, looked at me and her eyes told me that this was as bad as when the bulls are running toward you and there is nowhere to climb and you know you will be trampled, but you know that until they do you can live a good life, a short, happy life. And when I asked her for the file and she said, “What file, Ingles?” I knew that the bulls were loose and there was nowhere to go; there was no yesterday, no tomorrow, but that was then and now is here, Your Honor. There was a time when it was good, but now it is a time when it is bad and you can make it good again, and if you can’t, it’s a rotten shame.

T.S. Eliot:

Thirty days to answer.
It’s the cruelest month.
Dead, dying decay, an apt description
For my brain, withered, not resplendent now,
A supplicant, having been etherized upon a table
During the time to answer.
I ask for relief,
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

James Joyce:

HelpmeohGod Time is creptupandI saidyesohheyesyesyesyesI need relief nowfromignominious default default fault-d de fault is mine ohhelptheteatiscaughtintheproceduralwringer. Relief.

William Faulkner:

Benji had taken the file and went along the fence with it and lost it through the spaces in the fence where the flowers were curling. That’s what they said. I started to cry. Caddy, who smelled like trees, and Quentin, who just smelled, came to find the file, but I didn’t holler ’til mother shouted at Dilsey for bringing me cheap store cake. Dilsey took me up to bed. Quentin told Caddy he had to answer. He had to find the file. Caddy did not know that Benji had taken the file, and Benji could not know that he had taken the file, because this motion is written from Benji’s point of view, and his IQ is 17.

Mail Snail

In December 1924, a postal inspector from Corinth, Miss., leveled a series of charges against the postmaster at the University of Mississippi. “You mistreat mail of all classes,” he wrote, “including registered mail; … you have thrown mail with return postage guaranteed and all other classes into the garbage can by the side entrance,” and “some patrons have gone to this garbage can to get their magazines.”

The slothful postmaster was William Faulkner. He had accepted the position in 1921 while trying to establish himself as a writer, but he spent most of his time in the back of the office, as far as possible from the service windows, in what he called the “reading room.” When he wasn’t reading or writing there he was playing bridge with friends; he would rise grumpily only when a patron rapped on the glass with a coin.

It was a brief career. Shortly after the inspector’s complaint, Faulkner wrote to the postmaster general: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.”