By Mark Jacob and Stephan Benzkofer
June 8, 2014
There's no mystery about the best place for book lovers to gather this weekend — it's the Printers Row Lit Fest in the South Loop. But here are other questions about literature that have confounded many:
1/ In September 1849, Edgar Allan Poe left Richmond, Va., headed for New York. A week later, he was found delirious on a Baltimore street and was taken to a hospital, where he died. The cause of death is unknown, but some have suggested it was alcoholism or epilepsy or heart disease or rabies or carbon monoxide poisoning or murder by men who disapproved of Poe's relationship with their sister. There's even an intriguing theory that since it was Election Day, Poe was a victim of "cooping," a practice in which gangs kidnapped potential voters, threatened them and fed them drugs and drink, and then took them to the polls to vote a certain way.
2/ Thomas Pynchon, whose postmodernist masterpiece "Gravity's Rainbow" was deemed by the Pulitzer Prize board to be unreadable when it declined to honor the novel in 1974, is so famously elusive that some have rumored him not to exist. He refuses all interviews and avoids all cameras. But the author deigned to appear twice on "The Simpsons" — with a bag over his cartoon face.
3/ A young William Faulkner desperately wanted to fight in World War I. After being rejected by the U.S. military, he lied his way into the Canadian Air Force. Fortunately for literature, the war ended during his training. That didn't stop him from later telling tall tales about harrowing acts of derring-do, stories that proved embarrassing when he gained fame as an author. But he never really disowned them. Why? His brother John explained, "Anyone who writes spends a lot of his time in an imaginary world. ... It's even enough for him to become someone he is not. ... Bill was about the best at it I ever saw."
4/ Did Ernest Hemingway really win a bet at the Algonquin round table by producing a story in only six words — "For sale, baby shoes, never worn"? It's doubtful. Those who have investigated the anecdote, including snopes.com and quoteinvestigator.com, note that the story linking the quote to Hemingway cropped up in the 1990s, three decades after his death. Similar quotes attributed to others were common decades earlier.
5/ J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame began writing detective novels as Robert Galbraith because "I was yearning to go back to the beginning of a writing career in this new genre, to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback." Agatha Christie, likewise, took the pen name Mary Westmacott for six romantic novels unlike her murder mysteries. Christie's secret lasted nearly 20 years; Rowling's only three months. Dr. Seuss, aka Ted Geisel, employed the name Theo LeSieg ("Geisel" backward) for books that he wrote but did not illustrate.
6/ A catchphrase in the film "All the President's Men" was "Follow the money," but it never appeared in the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. So who put those words in the mouth of anonymous source Deep Throat? At first, scriptwriter William Goldman said he thought Woodward had told him about it, but Woodward checked his notes and the phrase was not there. More recently, Goldman has acknowledged inventing the phrase, but his inspiration is unclear. Some think the phrase should be credited to the late Henry Peterson, a Justice Department official involved in the Watergate investigation, who urged his staffers to follow the money.
7/ When James Tiptree Jr. burst on the science fiction scene in the late 1960s, he was acclaimed for not only his action-packed stories of aliens, sex and alien sex but also for his nuanced handling of relationships and gender issues. In 1976, the science fiction community was shocked to learn he was "nothing but an old lady in Virginia" named Alice Sheldon. It's unlikely anyone was more shocked than Robert Silverberg, who was one of Tiptree's close correspondents. Just the year before, in rejecting rumors that Tiptree was a woman, he wrote that it was "a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing."
8/ The "Iliad" and "Odyssey" are credited to the Greek poet Homer, but some scholars question whether Homer ever existed.
9/ Clement Clarke Moore wrote "The Night Before Christmas," right? Well, maybe. Nearly two centuries after the poem was first published anonymously in a New York newspaper, scholars are still arguing about the authorship. A rival claim comes from the family of Col. Henry Livingston Jr., who died in 1828, a few years after the poem's first publication and before Moore publicly claimed the work. Some experts say the poem's style matches Livingston's more than Moore's, but others dispute that.
10/ As the story goes, Percy Shelley's heart simply refused to burn during his cremation, and a friend grabbed it from the smoldering remains. True or not, Mary Shelley, the famous Englishman's wife and the author of "Frankenstein," believed the tale. Odder still, Leigh Hunt, a popular writer of the day who was a close friend of the Shelleys, obtained the alleged organ and for a time refused to give it up. By some accounts, after Mary did get a hold of the Romantic poet's heart, she kept it in her home as a sort of personal relic. It is believed to be buried with their son who died in 1889.
Mark Jacob is a deputy metro editor at the Tribune; Stephan Benzkofer is the Tribune's weekend editor.
Sources: "Safire's Political Dictionary," by William Safire; "Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous," by Don Foster; "Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel: A Biography," by Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan; "James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon," by Julie Phillips; "William Faulkner: His Life and Work," edited by David Minter; "Faulkner: A Biography;" by Joseph Blotner; "The Life & Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley;" "Virtuous Vice: Homoeroticism and the Public Sphere," by Eric O. Clarke; "The Encyclopedia of Cremation," edited by Douglas J. Davies and Lewis H. Mates; Frank Rich in the New York Times; Daniel Schorr on National Public Radio; New York magazine, New York Times; poemuseum.org; quoteinvestigator.com; snopes.com; crimelibrary.com; cbsnews.com; agathachristie.com; sethkaller.com; Newsweek.
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