|Author||Ernest Vincent Wright|
|Genre||Novel, lipogram omitting the letter E|
|Publisher||Wetzel Publishing Co.|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
Gadsby is a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright written as a lipogram, which does not include words that contain the letter "E". The plot revolves around the dying fictional city of Branton Hills, which is revitalized as a result of the efforts of protagonist John Gadsby and a youth group he organizes.
Though vanity published and little noticed in its time, the book is a favourite 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".
Despite Wright's claim, published versions of the book may contain a handful of uses of the letter "e". The version on Project Gutenberg, for example, contains "the" three times and "officers" once.
In the introduction to the book (which, not being part of the story, does contain the letter 'e') Wright says his primary difficulty was avoiding the "-ed" suffix for past tense verbs. He made extensive use of 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.
Wright also turns famous sayings into lipogrammatic form. Instead of William Congreve's original line, "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast", Wright writes that music "hath charms to calm a wild bosom." John Keats' "a thing of beauty is a joy forever" becomes "a charming thing is a joy always". In other respects Wright does not avoid topics which would otherwise require the letter 'e', for example a detailed description of a horse-drawn fire engine is made without using the words horse, fire or engine.
Fifty-year-old John Gadsby is alarmed by the decline of his hometown, Branton Hills, and rallies the city's youth to form an "Organization of Youth" to build civic spirit and improve living standards. Gadsby and his youthful army, despite some opposition, transform Branton Hills from a stagnant municipality into a bustling, thriving city. Toward the conclusion of the book the members of Gadsby's organization receive diplomas in honor of their work. Gadsby becomes mayor and helps increase Branton Hills' population from 2,000 to 60,000.
The story starts around 1906 and continues through World War I, Prohibition, and President Warren G. Harding's administration. Gadsby is divided into two parts: the first, about a quarter of the book's total length, is strictly a history of the city of Branton Hills and John Gadsby's place in it, while the second part of the book fleshes out the book's main characters.
The novel is written from the point of view of an anonymous narrator, who continually complains about his poor writing skills and often uses circumlocution. "Now, naturally, in writing such a story as this, with its conditions as laid down in its Introduction, it is not surprising that an occasional "rough spot" in composition is found", the narrator says. "So I trust that a critical public will hold constantly in mind that I am voluntarily avoiding words containing that symbol which is, by far, of most common inclusion in writing our Anglo-Saxon as it is, today".
The book's opening two paragraphs are:
If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn't constantly run across folks today who claim that "a child don't know anything." A child's brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult's act, and figuring out its purport.
Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. "You can't do this," or "that puts you out," shows a child that it must think, practically, or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of "status quo," as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.
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 self-publishing 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 to $7,500 by book dealers. Wright died the same year of publication, 1939.
In 1937, Wright said writing the book was a challenge and the author of an article on his efforts in The Oshkosh Daily 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!" And in fact, the 1939 printing by the Wetzel Publishing Co. contains four such slips, the word "the" on pages 51, 103 and 124, and the word "officers" on page 213.
An article in the Oshkosh Daily in 1937 wrote (lipogrammatically) that the manuscript was "amazingly smooth. No halting parts. A continuity of plot and almost classic clarity obtains". The Village Voice wrote a humor column about Gadsby. Author Ed Park jokingly aped Wright's style ("Lipogram aficionados—folks who lash words and (alas!) brains so as to omit particular symbols—did in fact gasp, saying, 'Hold that ringing communication tool for a bit! What about J. Gadsby?'"). David Crystal, host of BBC Radio 4's linguistics program English Now, called it "probably the most ambitious work ever attempted in this genre".
La Disparition (A Void) is a lipogrammatic French novel partly inspired by Gadsby that likewise omits the letter "e" and is 50,000 words long. Its author, Georges Perec, was introduced to Wright's book by a friend of his in Oulipo, a multinational constrained-writing group. Perec was aware from Wright's lack of success that publication of such a work "was taking a risk" of finishing up "with nothing [but] a Gadsby". As a nod to Wright, La Disparition contains a character named "Lord Gadsby V. Wright", a tutor to protagonist Anton Voyl; in addition, a composition attributed to Voyl in La Disparition is actually a quotation from Gadsby.
Trevor Kitson, writing in New Zealand's Manawatu Standard in 2006, said he was prompted to write a short lipogram after seeing Wright's book. The attempt gave him an appreciation for how difficult Wright's task was, but he was less impressed with the end result. "I must say that the book leaves me in a state of non-grippedness (to quote Dave Lister from Red Dwarf)", Kitson wrote. "It seems extraordinarily twee (not that it uses that word, of course) and mostly about all-American kids going to church and getting married".
The history of the lipogram dates back to the ancient Greeks. Its many more recent practitioners include Mallarme, Rimbaud, Thomas Hood and an American, Ernest Vincent Wright, who omitted the letter "e" from his novel Gadsby, published in 1939. Indeed, Wright may have served as a model for Perec, for he is referred to a number of times in A Void as "The Boss" to highlight his significance..
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