Can you write a novel without using the letter “E?”
August 9, 2016
I KNOW ALL ABOUT the classics.
I’ve read them.
I’ve studied them.
I’m married to an English teacher.
I know all about the writers of classics.
I’ve read their biographies.
I’ve looked them up in encyclopedias.
As I said, I’m married to an English teacher.
I don’t have a choice.
However, take a moment and forget all about the classics and the authors who wrote them. They don’t count anymore.
Perhaps the most remarkable book ever written was penned by Ernest Vincent Wright?
He wrote the novel Gadsby.
Not The Great Gatsby.
That honor goes to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
And what’s so special about Gadsby?
It’s a novel.
It contains 50,100 words, a little more or a little less.
And you won’t find a single “E” anywhere in the book.
Ernest Vincent Wright removed them all.
And he did it on purpose.
The biggest problem he had, he said, was avoiding the use of past tense words ending in “ed,” which was to be anticipated and expected. (I wrote a fairly simple sentence and used the letter “e” fifteen times.)
And, of course, he was forced to eliminate the word “the” altogether.
Wright worked hard to come up with clever, non-awkward ways to refer to certain words. For example, the word “turkey” became a “Thanksgiving National Bird.” “Wedding cake” was changed to “an astonishing loaf of culinary art.”
And the heavily quoted “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” was revised to read: “a charming thing is a joy always.”
It took Wright six months to finish the book. He wrote his last word without an “e” in February of 1937.
How did he do it?
Wright said that to avoid temptation or an accident, he disabled the “E” key on his typewriter by tying it down.
He explained: “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 seabirds perched, watching for a passing fish!
“But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper, they slid onto the floor, walking sadly away, arm in arm; but shouting back, ‘You certainly must have a hodgepodge of a yarn 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!”
But shut out they were.
Ernest Vincent Wright had written three previous books: The Wonderful Fairies of the Sun in 1896, The Fairies That Run The World and How They Do It in 1903, and Thoughts and Reveries of an American Bluejacket in 1918.
It didn’t matter that Wright was a published author.
No publisher would touch Gadsby.
He knocked on doors for two years. The doors didn’t open.
I don’t know if publishers belonged to the “E Word” union, or if they just didn’t like the story of a California city dying until a band of youths resurrect it and build the city to greatness again.
Sounds dull to me.
Maybe publishers thought the same thing.
But then, the novel was never meant to be mistaken for literature. Wright said he wrote the book simply because he was told that it couldn’t be done.
Wright, as a last resort, eventually chose to self-publish Gadsby with Wetzel Publishing Company in Los Angeles.
The book never had a chance.
Wetzel’s warehouse burned, a firefighter died in the blaze, and most of the copies were destroyed.
Two months after publishing the book, Ernest Vincent Wright was dead.
Old age got him.
He was sixty-seven.
During the past sixty years or so, Gadsby has gained a lot of fame and notoriety.
The book is odd.
And an original copy sells for as much as five thousand dollars each.
So, I guess, there is still hope for us all.