Saturday, March 24, 2012

Writerly foibles

That many writers are certifiable wackos may be attributed to myriad causes, including childhood trauma, an authorial gene the rest of us lack, monstrous egos (Byron!), or a propensity to alcohol that makes them gulp vast quantities and act out with abandon. For chapter and verse as to some of the most memorable hijinks perpetrated by this colorful community, look no further than Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature's Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes.  
Writers are often quick to take umbrage at real or imagined slights—and to exact revenge for same.
Scottish poet Robert Burns fired off this missive after being accused of uncouthness and incorrect grammar:
Dear Sir:
Thou eunuch of language; thou Englishman, who never was south the Tweed; thou servile echo of fashionable barbarisms; thou quack, vending the nostrums of empirical elocution; thou marriage-maker between vowels and consonants, on the Gretna-green of caprice; thou cobler, botching the flimsy socks of bombast oratory; thou blacksmith, hammering the rivets of absurdity; thou butcher, embruing thy hands in the bowels of orthography; thou arch-heretic in pronunciation; thou pitch-pipe of affected emphasis; thou carpenter, mortising the awkward joints of jarring sentences; thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender; thou Lyon Herald to silly etymology; thou antipode of grammar; thou executioner of construction; thou brood of the speech-distracting builders of the Tower of Babel; thou lingual confusion worse confounded; thou scape-gallows from the land of syntax; thou scavenger of mood and tense; thou murderous accoucheur of infant learning; thou
ignis fatuus, misleading the steps of benighted ignorance; thou pickle-herring in the puppet-show of nonsense; thou faithful recorder of barbarous idiom; thou persecutor of syllabication; thou baleful meteor, foretelling and facilitating the rapid approach of Nox and Erebus. R.B.
Well! That totally settled his hash~
"Exceedingly feeble ... pure insanity!"
Some writers are more forgiving of aspersions on their work: the long-suffering Longfellow, for example, was attacked unfairly and mercilessly in print by Edgar Allen Poe, both under Poe's own name and pseudonymously. Not only did the poet fail to retaliate to charges that he was a "servile imitator" and an "indolent literary thief," but he bought up Poe's works after his death to help his family and commented only that Poe seemed "chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong."
"Dude, get a grip!"
Writer Oscar Wilde and artist James McNeill Whistler were two aesthetes who enjoyed a bit of good-humored raillery. After Punch poked fun at them, they sent each other the following telegrams:
WILDE: Punch too ridiculous. When you and I are together, we never talk about anything except ourselves.
WHISTLER: No, no, Oscar, you forget. When you and I are together, we never talk about anything except me.
WILDE: It is true, Jimmy, we were talking about you, but I was thinking of myself.
Trust Wilde to have the last word!


  1. It figures that a poet who could find fifty ways to love a haggis ("Great chieftain o' the pudding race!) could slam a critic so thoroughly. "Thou squeaking dissonance of cadence; thou pimp of gender"! May I borrow?

  2. I should have said "That settled his haggis!" I was reading about haggis the other day ... although the ingredients sound fairly unappetizing, by the time it's all cooked it apparently has a quite appealing flavor and texture. The Scots can't be all masochists with no taste buds!