In March 2002, a group of authors and critics told Book mag that lit’s top fictional dog, post-1900, was good old Jay Gatsby, from that status-conscious Ivy chap’s 1925 book. Not a big shock to most; but 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?”
John Gadsby, “Youth’s champion,” is the hero of Ernest Vincent Wright’s 1939 Gadsby, fearlessly subtitled A Novel of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter “E.” Like the paragraph above, the book eschews our tongue’s bedrock letter. The absence creates a tone alternately lofty (“It is an odd kink of humanity which cannot find any valuation in spots of natural glory”) and rambunctious (“Books!! Pooh! Maps! BAH!!”), and demands comical circumlocutions for the simplest things—a turkey dubbed the “Thanksgiving National Bird,” a wedding cake rechristened “an astonishing loaf of culinary art.” The languorous tale shows how Gadsby harnesses the energy and ideas of young people to turn the backwater of Branton Hills into a bustling city. Children stump for civic projects, such as the establishment of a park and a library, and Gadsby soon becomes mayor.
Wright was born in 1872 and died in 1939—legend has it, on the day the Wetzel Publishing Co. brought out Gadsby. Some accounts say he was English, or a sailor, or both, though the former claim seems dubious. He had written three previous books, two of which involve fairies, and is also known for a comic poem, “When Father Carves the Duck.” A 1937 Associated Press item states that he lived at the National Military Home in Los Angeles, served in the World War as a musician, and had graduated from M.I.T. in 1889. In fact, he attended M.I.T.’s School of Mechanic Arts, essentially a two-year high school program for local youth, which replaced familiar subjects with such shop-type skills as carpentry and metalwork. It is unclear whether Wright graduated. The school catalog lists him as a first-year student in 1888, but he’s a “special” student the next year. After that, his M.I.T. record is blank.
In any case, the school’s name is fitting, for nothing better describes the method of Gadsby‘s composition than “mechanic arts.” As Wright states in his introduction, he tied down the E bar of his typewriter to prevent any of the verboten vowels from asserting themselves, though “many did try to do so!” The restriction forced him to hunt for synonyms and assay lucid contortions, and he modestly submits that the book “may prove a valuable aid to school children in English composition.” His motivation for embarking on the project is at once explicit and murky. To the AP, he claimed the eureka came upon reading that “the letter ‘e’ occurred five times more than any other and after seeing a four-stanza poem without an ‘e,’ ” while the novel’s introduction tells how his “balky nature” chafed at “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.” But perhaps his reasons are more private, less explicable. As author William Poundstone, a Gadsby fan, drolly points out, “When was the last time you ever heard some blowhard going off about how you can’t say anything without using E? The last time I heard it was never.”
In the world of Branton Hills, a face is a “physiognomy,” and eyes are invariably “orbs.” Some traditional sayings get playfully altered—music can “calm a wild bosom,” while Keats’s notion that “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” turns into “a charming thing is a joy always.” (The polymorphous, anything-goes ethos is literalized in Gadsby’s son Bill, who designs girls’ skirts that can be turned inside-out in foul weather.) Every so often, Wright lets loose a refreshing blast of authorial hot air, noting how the novel’s “strict orthographical taboo” hinders his full eloquence. Yet for all his self-consciousness, Ernest Wright writes earnestly enough. He maintains a moral stance, inveighing against animal, child, and alcohol abuse and alluding to the horrors of war. For all his radical invention, and the contumely heaped upon “minds as rigid as rock,” the social order is preserved: Characters are barely introduced before Wright has them tie the knot—no less than eight couples wed in the course of the novel, thanks to rascally “Dan Cupid.”
Thirty years on, French writer Georges Perec would publish a similarly 250-plus-page absent-E ballad, La disparition (Englished, with the same restriction, by Gilbert Adair as A Void, 1994). Perec was a literary magician, a key member of the Oulipo, famous for its embrace of compositional constraints. La disparition nods respectfully to its Anglo-Saxon predecessor: a “grand anglais savant,” an Oxford instructor of the novel’s missing protagonist (A. Vowl) is named Lord Gadsby V. Wright, and one of Vowl’s English compositions is in fact an uncredited extract from Gadsby. That the passage is the same one quoted in Oulipian Raymond Queneau’s 1964 essay “Potential Literature,” wherein Queneau admits he hasn’t been able to acquire a copy of Gadsby, suggests that Perec may have only known of this rare book by reputation. Queneau himself lifted his exemplary dab of Gadsby from John Pierce’s An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals and Noise (1961); Pierce, in turn, credits cryptanalyst William F. Friedman with digging up the prose. Thus, ironically, this swatch of text has been passed down like the received wisdom (the “worn out notion that ‘a child don’t know anything’ “) which Wright professes intolerable.
Alas, the 1998 Oulipo Compendium dismisses Gadsby as “an important example of the lipogram but, unfortunately, one of little interest.” It also cites Jacques Roubaud’s 1991 assertion that Perec’s lipogram is superior to its predecessors because it follows the Oulipian axiom, “A text written according to a constraint describes the constraint.” La disparition indeed concerns the disappearance of the letter E, but Gadsby is also thematically permeated with its constraint: Being told that it can’t be done, Gadsby and his young friends go ahead and do it all the same. (To convince the old codgers to donate cash for worthy causes, the group has “to work its linguistic ability and captivating tricks full blast.”) It’s poignant to think of Wright in his mid sixties, composing this testament to childhood vigor over five and a half months in 1937. A Times photo that year shows a stooped man with Whitmanesque beard and large glasses, peeling a page from his typewriter—an image at odds with the book’s dedication “TO YOUTH!”
Book called Fitzgerald’s Gatsby “an American dreamer of a certain crass kind . . . One admires him while seeing what he admires is a preposterous part of the American Dream.” Beautiful in its preposterousness, Gadsby is the work of a dreamer who, like its hero, rearranges the world to his liking. Wright found in his infernal machine the seed for a supreme fiction; language, minted anew, hermetically seals Branton Hills. (Do E-laden things even exist in this atmosphere? Though monkeys are memorably rendered as “a ‘big gang’ of that amusing, tiny mimic always found accompanying hand-organs,” a visitor to the zoo “might miss a customary inhabitant or two,” due to abecederian restrictions.) Far from playing off The Great Gatsby (Poundstone notes that the novel was hardly a classic then), the title suggests an act of awesome demiurgical control: Transposed, it reads By Gads—that is, by God. If one thinks of the invisible vowel hovering in front, a mild oath—Egads!—can be heard at the start of this audacious creation.
A copy of Gadsby is on display at the New York Public Library’s “Cabinet of Curiosities” exhibit (through August 24), but the English tongue’s premier E-visceration should be read, not relegated under glass. Would kids’ grammar skills turn amazing without that catalyst of passivity homophonically known as “2B”? The influence of Wright’s lexical gumption can be felt in James Thurber’s whimsical The Wonderful O (1957) and Walter Abish’s astonishing Alphabetical Africa (1974)—even if those authors never read Gadsby. More recently, Mark Dunn’s amusing “progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable” Ella Minnow Pea (2001) and this year’s homovocalic Eunoia, by Canadian poet Christian Bök, share their forebear’s diverting monomania. (Not to mention “Food Box—Go or No Go?,” Homer Simpson’s E-less foray into restaurant reviewing.) Three cheers, then, for the enduring charm of the lipogram—or to do right by Wright, “a trio of our customary huzzahs”!