Water Music

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 1925 naturalist Henry Beston built a cottage on Cape Cod and fell in love with the sea:

Sound of surf in these autumnal dunes — the continuousness of it, sound of endless charging, endless incoming and gathering, endless fulfilment and dissolution, endless fecundity, and endless death. I have been trying to study out the mechanics of that mighty resonance. The dominant note is the great spilling crash made by each arriving wave. It may be hollow and booming, it may be heavy and churning, it may be a tumbling roar. The second fundamental sound is the wild seething cataract roar of the wave’s dissolution and the rush of its foaming waters up the beach — this second sound diminuendo. The third fundamental sound is the endless dissolving hiss of the inmost slides of foam. The first two sounds reach the ear as a unisonance — the booming impact of the tons of water and the wild roar of the up-rush blending — and this mingled sound dissolves into the foam-bubble hissing of the third. Above the tumult, like birds, fly wisps of watery noise, splashes and counter splashes, whispers, seethings, slaps, and chucklings. An overtone sound of other breakers, mingled with a general rumbling, fells earth and sea and air.

He left the cottage two years later, moved back to Quincy, and proposed to Elizabeth Coatsworth. When she learned that he had many notes from his stay on the beach but no manuscript, she said, “No book, no marriage,” and The Outermost House was published in 1928.

The sea itself claimed the cottage in 1978.

(Via The Oxford Book of the Sea, 1992.)

“The Artist’s Secret”


There was an artist once, and he painted a picture. Other artists had colours richer and rare, and painted more notable pictures. He painted his with one colour, there was a wonderful red glow on it; and the people went up and down, saying, ‘We like the picture, we like the glow.’

The other artists came and said, ‘Where does he get his colour from?’ They asked him; and he smiled and said, ‘I cannot tell you’; and worked on with his head bent low.

And one went to the far East and bought costly pigments, and made a rare colour and painted, but after a time the picture faded. Another read in the old books, and made a colour rich and rare, but when he had put it on the picture it was dead.

But the artist painted on. Always the work got redder and redder, and the artist grew whiter and whiter. At last one day they found him dead before his picture, and they took him up to bury him. The other men looked about in all the pots and crucibles, but they found nothing they had not.

And when they undressed him to put his grave-clothes on him, they found above his left breast the mark of a wound — it was an old, old wound, that must have been there all his life, for the edges were old and hardened; but Death, who seals all things, had drawn the edges together, and closed it up.

And they buried him. And still the people went about saying, ‘Where did he find his colour from?’ And it came to pass that after a while the artist was forgotten — but his work lived.

— Olive Schreiner, Dreams, 1891

Dead Letters

In James Thurber’s 1957 fairytale book The Wonderful O, two pirates, Black and Littlejack, assail the innocent island of Ooroo, seeking hidden treasure. Frustrated with their unsuccessful search, Black issues an edict banning the letter O, which he hates (his mother had once become wedged in an O-shaped porthole; “we couldn’t pull her in and so we had to push her out”). Accordingly the orchestra loses its violins, cellos, and trombones; the villagers must move from cottages to huts; and so on. One laments:

They are swing chas. What is slid? What is left that’s slace? We are begne and webegne. Life is bring and brish. Even schling is flish. Animals in the z are less lacnic than we. Vices are filled with paths and scial intercurse is baths. Let us gird up ur lins like lins and rt the hrrr and ust the afs.

I’ll leave you to read the resolution yourself.

For a more recent fable about an island beset by a letter shortage, see Mark Dunn’s progressively lipogrammatic 2001 novel Ella Minnow Pea. Maybe it’s the same island!


Striking excerpts from the writings of Scottish novelist Muriel Spark, from Penelope Jardine’s 2018 collection A Good Comb:

  • The superstition of today is the science of yesterday.
  • Providers are often disliked, often despised.
  • I think “waiter” is such a funny word. It is we who wait.
  • It is impossible to persuade a man who does not disagree, but smiles.
  • I’m not lonely before they come. I’m only lonely when they go away.
  • Dangerous people often seem boring.
  • She was astonishingly ugly, one was compelled to look at her.
  • I am an honest man … when treating of the few existing subjects to which honesty is due.
  • Suffering isn’t in proportion to what the sufferer deserves.
  • He exhausted his capacity for conversation when he became an Englishman.

Jardine’s title comes from the observation “It calms you down, a good comb,” remarked by an unnamed character in Spark’s 1960 novel The Ballad of Peckham Rye.

A Late Mystery


In Lloyd C. Douglas’ 1929 novel Magnificent Obsession, a doctor dies of a heart attack, leaving behind a journal written in cipher. The first page is shown here. Can you read it?

Click for Answer

Tale Spinner

William Wallace Cook (1867-1933) claimed to have worn out 25 typewriters in as many years turning out hundreds of nickel and dime novels, all of them written in the same format, 40,000 words divided into 16 chapters of five single-spaced pages each. At the end of his career he published his system for generating plots, billed as “Plotto, an invention which reduces literature to an exact science.”

The “invention” is really a list of story ideas, all molded to Cook’s basic notion of a plot: “Purpose, opposed by Obstacle, yields Conflict.” The protagonist wants to find happiness in love and courtship, married life, or enterprise; he encounters a conflict and must reach a resolution. What makes the book fun is the absurd specificity of some of the ideas. Here’s an example:

(b) (1083)(1287)
A has invented a life preserver for the use of shipwrecked persons*
A, in order to prove the value of the life preserver he has invented, dons the rubber suit, inflates it and secretly, by night, drops overboard from a steamer on the high seas.** (1414b) (1419b)

The numbers refer to elements that might be varied, to related plots, and to character types that might figure in the story. Varying the combinations might produce several million different stories. This is certainly formulaic, but, Cook said, “There are any number of highbrow authors who will ridicule this invention in public and use it in private.” (In fact both Alfred Hitchcock and Erle Stanley Gardner admitted in interviews that they’d read the book, which went through multiple editions.)

The numbered master list gives 1,462 plots, all linked with character symbols and apparently all thought up by the author. The full text is on the Internet Archive.

“Busy as a Fiddler’s Elbow”

Vivid comparisons, from Elyse Sommer and Mike Sommer’s Similes Dictionary, 1988:

  • Love is like the moon; when it does not increase it decreases. (Joseph Alexandre Pierre Segur)
  • Cities, like cats, will reveal themselves at night. (Rupert Brooke)
  • Calm as a virgin discussing flower arrangement. (George MacDonald Fraser)
  • The conversations … behaved like green logs, they fumed but would not fire. (Truman Capote)
  • Fierce as a lobster making one last lunge out of the pot. (Norman Mailer)
  • Dogged as a turtle crossing a road. (Marge Piercy)
  • Confident as a man dialing his own telephone number. (Jack Bell)
  • His mouth felt as if it had been to a party without him. (Peter De Vries)
  • False economy is like stopping one hole in a sieve. (Samuel Johnson)
  • Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders. (Walter Bagehot)

“Strong men are made by opposition,” wrote Frank Harris. “Like kites they go up against the wind.”



In his Comparative Physiognomy of 1852, American physician James Redfield claimed that people of a given nationality tend to resemble a certain animal, and that the animal’s disposition illuminates the national character. For example, Henry VIII, a representative Englishman, resembles a bull: “A ‘bull-neck’ suggests the idea of a tyrannical disposition, or of irresistible desire, and is never spoken of in the way of compliment. … When oxen draw together in a yoke, they lean away from each other, so as to be under the necessity of holding each other up. This is on account of their great repulsiveness — a trait which was mentioned as being a prominent element of the English character.”

The table of contents gives the general tone:

Chapter 2. Resemblances of Germans to Lions
Chapter 14. Resemblances of Laplanders to Reindeers
Chapter 16. Resemblances of Arabs to Camels
Chapter 19. Resemblances of Italians to Horses
Chapter 23. Resemblances of Chinamen to Hogs
Chapter 29. Resemblances of Frenchmen to Frogs and Alligators
Chapter 34. Resemblances of Jews to Goats

He even compares Turks to turkeys. I’m not aware that he ever actually visited these places, but I suppose that’s not necessary to reach these sorts of conclusions.

The whole thing is in the Internet Archive.

03/24/2022 UPDATE: Reader Manuel Saiz sent this video:

A Double Man


I seem to be on a Sherlock Holmes kick lately. A few oddities about Dr. Watson:

  • In A Study in Scarlet he says he was wounded in the shoulder, but in The Sign of Four he says he was wounded in the leg. One theory resolves this by suggesting that he was bending over when hit, and that the bullet passed through his leg and lodged in his shoulder. (The BBC series Sherlock sidesteps the problem by saying that Watson’s limp is a psychosomatic symptom of post-traumatic stress.)
  • He seems uncertain about his first name. In “The Problem of Thor Bridge,” Watson says that his dispatch box is labeled “John H. Watson, M.D.,” but in “The Man With the Twisted Lip” his wife Mary calls him “James.” Dorothy L. Sayers offers another neat resolution: Maybe his middle name is Hamish, the Scottish equivalent of James.
  • It’s not clear how many times he’s been married. He certainly married Mary Morstan, whom he met in The Sign of Four. But then in “The Empty House” he refers to “my own sad bereavement,” and in “The Blanched Soldier” Holmes mentions that “The good Watson had at that time deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action which I can recall in our association.” This seems to suggest that Watson remarried after Mary’s death, but this is never made clear, and a second wife is never named.

At its annual dinner, the Sherlock Holmes literary society the Baker Street Irregulars always toasts the second Mrs. Watson. This was the toast in 2002:

Watson had a second wife
But, did he lead a double life?
He had two wounds; he had two names
(One was John, the other James).
He often claimed he dined alone
Yet quaffed whole bottlesful of Beaune.
He’d disappear for days on end
Accompanying his clever friend,
Then lame excuses where he’d been
Were published in Strand Magazine.
And so to the spouse of this pain in the ass
We raise a toast and lift our glass.

(From Roger Johnson and Jean Upton, The Sherlock Holmes Miscellany, 2012.)