What do these writers have in common?

  • Ernest Hemingway
  • John Dos Passos
  • e.e. cummings
  • Somerset Maugham
  • John Masefield
  • Malcolm Cowley
  • Sidney Howard
  • Robert Service
  • Louis Bromfield
  • Harry Crosby
  • Julian Green
  • Dashiell Hammett
  • William Seabrook
  • Robert Hillyer
  • John Howard Lawson
  • William Slater Brown
  • Charles Nordhoff
  • Sir Hugh Walpole
  • Desmond MacCarthy
  • Russell Davenport
  • Edward Weeks
  • C. Leroy Baldridge
  • Samuel Chamberlain

All drove ambulances during World War I.

Alexander Selkirk
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Robinson Crusoe isn’t entirely fiction — it’s based on the story of a real Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk, who spent four years marooned on an uninhabited island.

Selkirk was sailing with privateer William Dampier in 1703 when he began to doubt the seaworthiness of their galleon, the Cinque Ports. Finally he decided to stay ashore voluntarily on the Juan Fernández islands in the South Pacific with only a musket, gunpowder, carpenter’s tools, a knife, a Bible, and his clothing.

At first Selkirk was wracked with loneliness and regret, but he soon acclimated to island life. He domesticated wild cats to keep rats at bay, grew turnips, cabbage and pepper berries, and built two huts of pimento trees. He hunted wild goats and made clothing of their skins and forged a knife from cast-off barrel rings.

There’s a telling postscript to the story. After four years and four months, Selkirk was rescued by William Dampier, the same man who had left him ashore — but Selkirk was surprised to see he was sailing a different ship. The Cinque Ports had sunk, losing most hands. Selkirk, it seems, had been right to stay on the island.

Pearl Curran

In 1913, Chicago housewife Pearl Curran was messing around with a Ouija board when she claimed to receive the message “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth my name. If thou shalt live, so shall I.”

On investigating the name, she claimed to find that a Patience Worth had lived in Dorsetshire, England, in either 1649 or 1694. Through the Ouija board Patience told Curran that she had moved to the United States and been murdered by Indians. “From England across the sea. Could I but hold your ear for the lessons I could teach!”

So Pearl/Patience began to publish novels, stories and poetry. Critics pointed out that a 17th-century spirit shouldn’t be able to produce a Victorian novel, as Patience did, but supporters argued that the language she used was beyond Pearl’s normal abilities.

That may have spelled the end of their partnership, actually. Apparently frustrated with the intelligence of her host, Patience clammed up, except for the occasional sarcastic comment. She’d gone silent by the time Pearl died in 1937 … and, presumably, joined her.

“What Is This Sea Which Is All Round Me?”

“The next day I was sad and sick at heart, for I felt how dull it was to be thus cut off from all the rest of the world. I had no great wish for work: but there was too much to be done for me to dwell long on my sad lot. Each day as it came, I went off to the wreck to fetch more things; and I brought back as much as the raft would hold.”

— From Robinson Crusoe in Words of One Syllable by Mary Godolphin, 1869

Does This Count as Plagiarism?

Published in 1838, Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket tells of four men who survive a shipwreck. Starving, they draw lots to see which one is to be eaten. The loser is a man named Richard Parker.

Forty-six years later, in 1884, a yacht named the Mignonette sank during a journey from England to Australia. Four survivors were stranded in a dinghy. After 16 days, Captain Dudley and his two mates killed and ate the cabin boy–whose name was Richard Parker.

The three eventually returned to England, where they were convicted of murder.

The Poe Cryptographic Challenge

Edgar Allan Poe was fascinated by cryptograms. He once offered a free magazine subscription to any reader who could stump him, and he claimed to have solved all 100 ciphers that were sent in.

That mania ultimately created a mystery that lasted 150 years after the writer’s death. In 1840 Poe published two ciphers sent in by a “Mr. W.B. Tyler” and challenged readers to solve them. No readers succeeded, and in fact the first cipher wasn’t cracked until 1992, when University of Illinois English professor Terence Whalen decoded a passage from Joseph Addison’s 1713 play Cato.

The second puzzle was even harder, a polyalphabetic substitution cipher using several different symbols for each English letter — and containing several mistakes. It was finally solved in 2000 by Toronto software engineer Gil Broza:

It was early spring, warm and sultry glowed the afternoon. The very breezes seemed to share the delicious langour of universal nature, are laden the various and mingled perfumes of the rose and the –essaerne (?), the woodbine and its wildflower. They slowly wafted their fragrant offering to the open window where sat the lovers. The ardent sun shoot fell upon her blushing face and its gentle beauty was more like the creation of romance or the fair inspiration of a dream than the actual reality on earth. Tenderly her lover gazed upon her as the clusterous ringlets were edged (?) by amorous and sportive zephyrs and when he perceived (?) the rude intrusion of the sunlight he sprang to draw the curtain but softly she stayed him. “No, no, dear Charles,” she softly said, “much rather you’ld I have a little sun than no air at all.”

Probably it’s a quote from a novel of the time.

Interestingly, some scholars think Poe himself composed the ciphers, as city directories show no W.B. Tyler in that period. We’ll never know for sure, but Poe himself once wrote:

Ye who read are still among the living; but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows. For indeed strange things shall happen, and secret things be known, and many centuries shall pass away, ere these memorials be seen of men. And, when seen, there will be some to disbelieve, and some to doubt, and yet a few who will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.