The Magazine

Among the Lions

Writers don't necessarily make the best stories.

Jun 4, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 36 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes

Edited by John Gross

Oxford, 400 pp., $29.95

Some books, as Bacon might have put it, are to be nibbled. This is one of them, the third gathering of literary anecdotes to bear the Oxford imprint--an excess, one might fear, except that the editor explains that the overlap with the last is only just over 20 percent.

In any case, this, like all collections of the sort, suggests that really good stories about really important writers are less plentiful than one might hope. Writing is solitary work; and while one can count on the usual plenitude concerning such sociable souls as Dr. Johnson, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde, the vein is not so rich as it ought to be.

In fact, the impression after a week's snacking is that it is personalities, not the events, that make for savor. With striking exceptions, of course. What happened to Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," for instance, shouldn't happen to an Eddie Guest rhymelet. According to the poet, he fell into a drugged sleep after reading an exotic book "during which he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than two or three hundred lines." But when he awoke and began to transcribe the dream visions, a meddlesome visitor from Porlock took an hour of his time, after which, "to his no small surprise and mortification," he could recall only eight or ten lines. Has there ever been a greater literary vandal than that (unidentified) visitor from Porlock?

Gross arranges his gathering chronologically, by birth dates, and doesn't otherwise categorize. The reviewer must proceed accordingly, for the most part in space-saving snippets. Here are some highlights, at random:

The imprisoned Marie Antoinette shed tears over Burke's noble lament for her fate, but the writer of those words so feared that his remains would be desecrated if the French revolutionists conquered England that he arranged their transfer from wooden to lead coffin and the latter's concealment. The philosopher-historian Hume believed there could be no afterlife because it would be so crowded with spirits as to require the creation of new worlds. He said this to Boswell, who protested that spirits take up no space. But was Hume ribbing his perhaps-gullible fellow young Scot? Gibbon's plump cheek was mistaken by a French lady for a baby's bottom. George III gave his mixed review of Shakespeare to Fanny Burney, then laughed and said: "One should be stoned for saying so."

Whistler wanted to paint Disraeli, but Disraeli refused to sit for fear that he would look like the famous picture of Whistler's mother. Poe regarded his "Raven" as "the greatest poem" ever written. Seriously! Swinburne, who seems to have been tone-deaf, was fooled into believing that the "Three Blind Mice" tune was "a very ancient Florentine retournelle." The great Scribner's editor Maxwell Perkins could not bring himself to use the word "cocksucker."

The understanding of some stories demands some historical context. For instance, no two contemporaneous poets were ever more distinct in subject or style than Tennyson and Browning. Tennyson was once asked whether Browning's "writing at large [his dramatic monologues?] is poetry or no." He asked for a week to consider. Walking with the same companion a week later he suddenly declared, "I have thought and it is." He did not identify the reference to his mystified companion.

Dyed-in-the-wool Trollopeans relish, in Trollope's otherwise dry and businesslike autobiography, the story of how he killed off Mrs. Proudie, the officious evangelical bishop's wife in The Last Chronicle of Barset. While writing one day at the Athenaeum Club, he heard two clergymen complaining of some of his characters, especially Mrs. Proudie. He approached and "acknowledged myself to be the culprit. 'As to Mrs. Proudie,' I said, 'I will go home and kill her before the week is over.' And so I did." The story is plausible, since Mrs. Proudie's exit (of a stroke) does seem abrupt and unforeshadowed. But we who love the story tend to forget Trollope's ensuing confession that he still lives "much in company with her ghost."

No Oxford anthology would be complete without a Spooner story. Spooner, of the reversed consonants and other verbal mixups, and warden of New College, was "walking with a friend in North Oxford and meeting a lady dressed in black, to whom he lifted his hat. . . . 'Poor soul,' he said, 'very sad; her late husband, you know, a very sad death--eaten by missionaries.'"

And there is the matter of Conrad's eye. He who said in one of his prefaces that his aim was "above all, to make you see," was sitting one evening in a London café with his friend Edward Garnett: "I asked him after a painted lady had brushed haughtily past our table, what he had specially noticed about her. 'The dirt in her nostril,' he replied instantly."

These are among the exceptional anecdotes, for not even the literary immortals can render a mere humdrum event interesting. Does anyone care, for instance, that Dickens once lost his balance and fell, fully clothed, into a tub of water? Or that Gray of the churchyard elegy was afraid of fire? Moreover, one's distinct impression is that interest fades as one nears the present. Perhaps a dozen or so of the recent figures represented here (it would be rude to name them) would be unremarkable if they walked on water. Perhaps the trouble is that they are not dead--or dead enough.

Finally, an alert reader may find to his pleasant surprise, as this reviewer did, that he can improve upon authorized recollection. "A group went to the Old Cheshire Cheese," writes William Van O'Connor in his biography of Ezra Pound, "where Yeats held forth . . . on the ways of bringing music and poetry together. Pound sought attention by eating two red tulips." I was at a seminar table in the English Department in Chapel Hill fifty years ago when Robert Frost, who seems to have been present at Pound's unusual salad dish, told the same story more vividly: "Ezra ate the tulips leaf by leaf," said Frost in his inimitable Down East growl, adding: "Ezra always was a kind of pretty boy."

Small world!

Edwin M. Yoder Jr., a former editor and columnist in Washington, has invented a number of literary anecdotes in his forthcoming novel about Freud and Henry James.