Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter "E"

Ernest Vincent Wright's Gadsby

Gadsby is a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright. The plot revolves around the dying fictional city of Branton Hills, which is revitalized thanks to the efforts of protagonist John Gadsby and a youth group he organizes.

The novel is written as a lipogram and does not include words that contain the letter "e". Though self-published and little-noticed in its time, the book is a favorite of fans of constrained writing and is a sought-after rarity among some book collectors. Later editions of the book have sometimes carried the alternative subtitle: 50,000 Word Novel Without the Letter "E".

The novel's 50,110 words do not contain a single "e." In Gadsby's introduction Wright says his primary difficulty was avoiding the "-ed" suffix for past tense verbs. He focused on using verbs that do not take the -ed suffix and constructions with "do" (for instance "did walk" instead of "walked"). Scarcity of word options also drastically limited discussion involving quantity, pronouns, and many common words. Wright was unable to talk about any quantity between six and thirty. An article in the linguistic journal Word Ways said that 250 of the 500 most commonly used words in English were still available to Wright despite the omission of words with "e." Wright uses abbreviations on occasion, but only if the full form is similarly lipogrammatic, such as with "Dr.", and "P.S.".
Wright also turns famous sayings into lipogrammatic form. Music can "calm a wild bosom", and Keats' "a thing of beauty is a joy forever" becomes "a charming thing is a joy always."

Wright appears to have worked on the manuscript for a number of years. Though its official publication date is 1939, references in newspaper humor columns are made to his manuscript of a book without an "e" years earlier. Prior to publication he occasionally referred to his manuscript as Champion of Youth. In October 1930, while Wright was living near Tampa, Florida, he wrote a letter to The Evening Independent newspaper, boasted that he had written a fine lipogrammatic work, and suggested the paper hold a lipogram competition, with $250 for the winner. The paper turned him down.
Wright struggled to find a publisher for the book, and eventually used Wetzel Publishing Co., a vanity press. A 2007 post on the Bookride blog about rare books says a warehouse holding copies of Gadsby burned shortly after the book was printed, destroying "most copies of the ill fated novel." The blog post says the book was never reviewed "and only kept alive by the efforts of a few avant garde French intellos and assorted connoisseurs of the odd, weird and zany." The book's scarcity and oddness has seen original copies priced at $4,000 by book dealers Wright died that same year.
In 1937 Wright said writing the book was a challenge and the author of an article on his efforts in The Oshkosh Daily wryly recommended composing lipograms for insomnia sufferers. Wright said in his introduction to Gadsby that "this story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that 'it can’t be done.'" He said he tied down the "e" key on his typewriter while completing the final manuscript. "This was done so that none of that vowel might slip in, accidentally; and many did try to do so!"

via Wikipedia

And now, I present to you:

introduction by the author

THE ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down; thus making it impossible for that letter to be printed. This was done so that none of that vowel might slip in, accidentally; and many did try to do so!
There is a great deal of information as to what Youth can do, if given a chance; and, though it starts out in somewhat of an impersonal vein, there is plenty of thrill, rollicking comedy, love, courtship, marriage, patriotism, sudden tragedy, a determined stand against liquor, and some amusing political aspirations in a small growing town.
In writing such a story, —purposely avoiding all words containing the vowel E, there are a great many difficulties. The greatest of these is met in the past tense of verbs, almost all of which end with “—ed.” Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few. This will cause, at times, a somewhat monotonous use of such words as “said;” for neither “replied,” “answered” nor “asked” can be used. Another difficulty comes with the elimination of the common couplet “of course,” and its very common connective, “consequently ;” which will’ unavoidably cause “bumpy spots.” The numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty? And this restriction on numbers, of course taboos all mention of dates.
Many abbreviations also must be avoided; the most common of all, “Mr.” and “Mrs.” being particularly troublesome; for those words, if read aloud, plainly indicate the E in their orthography.
As the vowel E is used more than five times oftener than any other letter, this story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that “it can’t be done; for you cannot say anything at all without using E, and make smooth continuity, with perfectly grammatical construction—” so ‘twas said.
Many may think that I simply “drop” the E’s, filling the gaps with apostrophes. A perusal of the book will show that this is not so. All words used are complete; are correctly spelled and properly used. This has been accomplished through the use of synonyms; and, by so twisting a sentence around as to avoid ambiguity. The book may prove a valuable aid to school children in English composition.
People, as a rule, will not stop to realize what a task such an attempt actually is. As I wrote along, in long-hand at first, a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen, looking down constantly for a chance to drop off into some word; for all the world like sea-birds perched, watching for a passing fish! But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper, they slid off onto the floor, walking sadly away, arm in arm; but shouting back:
“You certainly must have a hodge-podge of a yarn there without Us! Why, man! We are in every story ever written, hundreds of thousands of times! This is the first time we ever were shut out!”
Pronouns also caused trouble; for such words as he, she, they, them, theirs, her, herself, myself, himself, yourself, etc., could not be utilized. But a particularly annoying obstacle comes when, almost through a long paragraph you can find no words with which to continue that line of thought; hence, as in Solitaire, you are “stuck,” and must go way back and start another; which, of course, must perfectly fit the preceding context.
I have received some extremely odd criticisms since the Associated Press widely announced that such a book was being written. A rapid-talking New York newspaper columnist wanted to know how I would get over the plain fact that my name contains the letter E three times. As an author’s name is not a part of his story, that criticism did not hold water. And I received one most scathing epistle from a lady (woman!) denouncing me as a “genuine fake;” (that paradox being a most interesting one!), and ending by saying: — “Everyone knows that such a feat is impossible.” All right. Then the impossible has been accomplished; ( a paradox to equal hers!) Other criticism may be directed at the Introduction; but this section of a story also is not part of it. The author is entitled to it, in order properly to explain his work. The story required five and a half months of concentrated endeavor, with so many erasures and retrenchments that I tremble as I think of them. Of course anybody can write such a story. All that is needed is a piece of string tied from the E type-bar down to some part of the base of the typewriter. Then simply go ahead and type your story. Incidentally, you should have some sort of a bromide preparation handy, for use when the going gets rough, as it most assuredly will!
Before the book was in print, I was freely and openly informed “there is a trick, or catch, somewhere in that claim that there is not one letter E in the entire book, after you leave the Introduction,” Well; it is the privilege of the reader to unearth any such deception that he or she may think they can find. I have even ordered the printer not to head each chapter with the words “Chapter 2,” etc., on account of that bothersome E in that word.
In closing let me say that I trust you may learn to love all the young folks in the story, as deeply as I have, in introducing them to you. Like many a book, it grows more and more interesting as the reader becomes well acquainted with the characters.

Ernest Vincent Wright
Los Angeles, California
February, 1939
Read the rest here: from 1 to not so far away


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