David Bruce: Authors Anecdotes

Jonathan_Swift_by_Charles_Jervas_detail

Jonathan Swift

Satirist Jonathan Swift did not suffer fools gladly. He opposed astrology, and he disliked astrologers. When an astrologer named Partridge started publishing annual almanacs of prediction, Mr. Swift invented the persona of “famous astrologer Isaac Bikerstaff” and in 1707 published his own almanac—in which he predicted the death of Partridge on March 29, 1708. When March 29 arrived, Mr. Swift printed and distributed a news report he had written on the “illness and demise” of Partridge, although Partridge was still alive and well. After reading of Partridge’s death in the report, the church sexton visited Partridge’s house to find out about funeral arrangements. Partridge’s friends stared at him in the street and told him that he looked exactly like one of their deceased friends. People referred to Partridge’s wife as the “widow Partridge.” When Partridge tried to publish another almanac, his publishers tried to stop an “imposter” from using Partridge’s name. Eventually, Partridge published a pamphlet to prove that he was still alive, but even so six years passed before he was able to publish another almanac.

In 1966, two runaway best-selling books were The Adventurers by Harold Robbins and Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann—depressing news for anyone who loves literature. One person who loved literature was Newsday columnist Mike McGrady, who decided that he and his friends could write a book of that “quality.” He said to his fellow Newsday employees: “Why don’t we all do one? A novel. Everyone could do one chapter and each would write about one specific perversion ….” After coming up with the idea and getting the cooperation of his friends in writing it, Mr. McGrady sought a publisher. He went to the office of Lyle Stuart, explained the project, and listened as Mr. Stuart said, “I’ll publish it.” Mr. McGrady answered, “It should be ready in a year or so. You can read it then.” Mr. Stuart then said, “I mean I’ll publish it sight unseen.” In fact, he did publish the novel, and it became a best seller: Naked Came the Stranger, which was supposedly by housewife Penelope Ashe.

After Alexander Pope completed a translation of Homer’s Iliad, Charles Montagu (the Earl of Halifax) asked him to give a reading at his home. Mr. Pope did so, but unfortunately, the Earl of Halifax told him that parts of the translation needed to be revised. However, fellow poet Samuel Garth gave Mr. Pope some very good advice. Mr. Pope waited a few months, then he visited the Earl of Halifax and read him the passages that the Earl of Halifax had wanted him to revise. The Earl of Halifax happily stated that the revisions were excellent. What the Earl of Halifax did not know—and Mr. Pope did not tell him—was that the passages had not been revised. They were exactly the same lines that Mr. Pope had read aloud a few months earlier.

Robert Fitzgerald was famous for his translations of such ancient classics as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid; however, he worried that the younger generation of his day was not interested in such classics. Fortunately, his wife was able to convince him that he was wrong by recounting a conversation between two young women whom she had overheard. One young woman told the other, “You know what I said to him? I said, ‘You know that scene where Hector got dragged by his ankles through the blood and the dust? Well, I hope that happens to you!’”

Flannery O’Connor became famous as a result of her writing, and so she had to answer many questions from reporters and from the public. Her answers weren’t always completely serious. For example, when she was asked about the significance of a hat worn by one of her characters, she replied, “Its significance is to cover his head.” And when she was asked why she wrote, she replied, “Because I am good at it.”

In 1717, Voltaire was sent to prison after severely and satirically criticizing the regent Philippe d’Orleans. After Voltaire was released, Philippe d’Orleans attempted to make peace with him because he feared the sharpness of his satire. Voltaire told him, “I shall be delighted if your highness will give me my board but beg that you will take no further trouble about my lodging.”

James Joyce once dictated part of Finnegans Wake to Samuel Beckett. At one point, a knock sounded on the door, and Mr. Joyce said, “Come in.” Mr. Beckett wrote those words down. Later, Mr. Beckett read out loud what he had recorded, and Mr. Joyce was surprised to hear the words, “Come in.” However, he thought for a moment, then he decided, “Let it stand.”

Novelist and satirist Evelyn Waugh worked as a journalist covering the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Receiving a telegram that read, “Send two hundred words upblown nurse,” Mr. Waugh investigated the rumor that an English nurse had been killed in an air raid and discovered that the rumor was just that: a rumor. Therefore, he cabled back, “Nurse unupblown.”

The 18th-century eccentric Timothy Dexter, who lived in Newburyport, Massachusetts, wrote a book titled A Pickle for the Knowing Ones. The body of the book contained absolutely no punctuation, but two pages at the end contained nothing but punctuation marks, which Mr. Dexter told his readers to insert into the body of the book as desired.

Sinclair Lewis, author of Babbitt, once spoke at Columbia University about being a writer. He stood up and asked the audience, “How many of you here are really serious about being writers?” Many hands in the audience enthusiastically waved. Mr. Lewis then said, “Well, why the hell aren’t you all at home writing?”

Late in life, Ernest Hemingway began to suffer from paranoia. Passing a bank with a lit window late at night, he told a friend, “See, they’re out to get me. They’re working on my file right now.” His friend replied, “Ernest, that’s a cleaning lady vacuuming the floor.”

Jean Francaix set some bitter satires by Juvenal to music, but his friend Nadia Boulanger joked that the singers ought not to pronounce the words correctly to avoid scandalizing the audience.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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