Historical Plaque Memorializes the Time Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs Came to Blows Over the Oxford Comma (Or Not)

Maybe it doesn’t take much to get a grammar nerd in a state of agitation, or even, perhaps, violent rage. While I generally avoid the term “grammar nazi,” it does bluntly convey the severe intolerance of certain grammarians. One of the most popular recent books on grammar, Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, announces itself in its subtitle as a “Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” And sure enough, the main title of the entertaining guide comes from a violent joke, in which a panda enters a bar, eats a sandwich, then shoots up the joint. Asked why, he tells the bartender to look up “panda” in the dictionary: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Truss’s example illustrates not a grammatical point of contention, but a mistake, a misplaced comma that completely changes the meaning of a sentence. But we might refer to many technically correct examples involving the absence of the Oxford comma, the final comma in a series that sets off the last item.




Many people have argued, with particular vehemence, that the “and” at the end of a series satisfies the comma’s function. No, say other strict grammarians, who point to the confusing ambiguity between, say, “I went to dinner with my sister, my wife, and my friend” and “I went to dinner with my sister, my wife and my friend.” We could adduce many more potentially embarrassing examples.

The Oxford comma is so contentious a grammatical issue that it supposedly provoked a drunken fistfight between Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. At least, that is, according to a plaque at Mill No. 5 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a historic textile mill built in 1873 and since revitalized into a performance space with shops and a farmer’s market. “On this site on August 15, 1968,” the plaque reads, Kerouac and Burroughs “came to blows over a disagreement regarding the Oxford comma. The event is memorialized in Kerouac’s 'Doctor Sax' and in the incident report filed by the Lowell Police Department.” The next line should give us a clue as to how seriously we should take this historical tidbit: “According to eyewitnesses, Burroughs corrected the spelling and grammar of the police report.”

The plaque is a hoax, the fight never happened. (And it is one of many such joke historical markers at the mill.) Doctor Sax was written nine years earlier, in 1959, and Kerouac and Burroughs hadn’t even met at the time of that novel’s events. But it’s a great story. “We imagine Burroughs grabbing the policemen’s pen,” writes Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, “lucid as a shaman, and then plopping onto the grass, out cold.” (The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums calls the spurious plaque “an act of historic vandalism.”) We like the story not only because it’s a juicy bit of lore involving two legendary writers, but also because the Oxford comma, for whatever reason, is such a weirdly inflammatory issue. The TED-Ed video above calls it “Grammar’s great divide.” (The comma acquired its name, points out Mental Floss, “because the Oxford University Press style guidelines require it.”)

If it isn’t already evident, I seriously favor the Oxford comma, perhaps enough to defend it in pitched battle. But if you need convincing by gentler means, you might heed the wisdom of The New Yorker’s resident “comma queen,” who, in the video above, serves up another humorous instance of a serial comma faux pas involving strippers, JFK, and Stalin (or “the strippers, JFK and Stalin”). For a much more serious Oxford comma kerfuffle, we might refer to a class action lawsuit involving overtime pay for truckers, a case that “hinged entirely" on the serial comma, "a debate that has bitterly divided friends, families and foes,” writes Daniel Victor at The New York Times, in a sentence that puckishly, or contrarily, leaves out the last comma, and sets the grammar intolerant among us grinding our teeth. But the Oxford comma is no joke. Its lack may cost Maine company Oakhurst millions of dollars, or their employees millions in pay. “The debate over commas is often a pretty inconsequential one,” writes Victor. Until it isn’t, and someone gets sued, shot, or punched in the face. So snub the Oxford comma, I say, at your peril.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

John Steinbeck Has a Crisis in Confidence While Writing The Grapes of Wrath: “I am Not a Writer. I’ve Been Fooling Myself and Other People”

In a 1904 letter, Franz Kafka famously wrote, “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” a line immortalized in pop culture by David Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes.” Where Bowie referred to the frozen emotions of addiction, the arctic waste inside Kafka may have had much more to do with the agony of writing itself. In the year that he composed his best-known work, The Metamorphosis, Kafka kept a tortured journal in which he confessed to feeling “virtually useless” and suffering “unending torments.” Not only did he need to break the ice, but “you have to dive down,” he wrote on January 30th, “and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.”

Whether as writers we find the evidence of Kafka’s crippling self-doubt to be a comfort I cannot say. For many people, no matter how successful, or prolific, some degree of pain inevitably attends every act of writing. And many, like Kafka, have left personal accounts of their most productive periods. John Steinbeck struggled mightily during the composition of his masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath. His journal entries from the period tell the story of a frayed and anxious man overwhelmed by the seeming enormity of his task. But his example is instructive as well: despite his fragile mental state and lack of confidence, he continued to write, telling himself on June 11th, 1938, “this must be a good book. It simply must.” (See some of Steinbeck's handwritten entries in the image above, courtesy of Austin Kleon.)




In setting the bar so high—“For the first time I am working on a real book,” he wrote—Steinbeck often felt crushed at the end of a day. “My whole nervous system in battered,” he wrote on June 5th. “I hope I’m not headed for a nervous breakdown.” He finds himself a few days later “assailed with my own ignorance and inability.” He continues in this vein. “Where has my discipline gone?” he asks in August, “Have I lost control?” By September he’s seeking perspective: “If only I wouldn’t take this book so seriously. It is just a book after all, and a book is very dead in a very short time. And I’ll be dead in a very short time too. So to hell with it.” The weight of expectation comes and goes, but he keeps writing.

The “private fruit” of Steinbeck’s diary entries, writes Maria Popova, "is in many ways at least as important and morally instructive” as the novel itself. At least that may be so for writers who are also beset by devastating neuroses. For Steinbeck, the diary (published here) was “a tool of discipline” and “hedge against self-doubt.” This may sound counterintuitive, but keeping a diary, even when the novel stalls, is itself a discipline, and an acknowledgement of the importance of being honest with oneself, allowing turbulence and doldrums to be a conscious part of the experience.

Steinbeck “feels his feelings of doubt fully, lets them run through him,” writes Popova, “and yet maintains a higher awareness that they are just that: feelings, not Truth.” His confrontations with negative capability can sound like “Buddhist scripture,” anticipating Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing. We needn’t attribute any religious significance to Steinbeck’s journals, but they do begin to sound like confessions of the kind many mystics have recorded over the centuries, including the imposter syndrome many a saint and bodhisattva has admitted to feeling. “I’m not a writer,” he laments in one entry. “I’ve been fooling myself and other people.” Nonetheless, no matter how excruciating, lonely, and confusing the effort, he resolved to develop a “quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established.” A ritual act, of a sort, which “must be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration.”

In the audio above, hear actor Paul Hecht read excerpts from Steinbeck's diaries in an episode of the Morgan Library's Diary Podcast. You can read Steinbeck's diaries in the published volume, Working Days: The Journal of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938-1941.

via Austin Kleon 

Related Content:

Franz Kafka Agonized, Too, Over Writer’s Block: “Tried to Write, Virtually Useless;” “Complete Standstill. Unending Torments” (1915)

John Steinbeck’s Six Tips for the Aspiring Writer and His Nobel Prize Speech

See John Steinbeck Deliver His Apocalyptic Nobel Prize Speech (1962)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

David Sedaris Breaks Down His Writing Process: Keep a Diary, Carry a Notebook, Read Out Loud, Abandon Hope

When did you first hear David Sedaris? Normally in the case of a writer, let alone one of the most famous and successful writers alive, the question would be when you first read him, but Sedaris' writing voice has never really existed apart from his actual voice. He first became famous in 1992 when National Public Radio aired his reading of the "Santaland Diaries," a piece literally constructed from diaries kept while he worked in Santaland, the Christmas village at Macy's, as an elf. Though that break illustrates the importance of what we might call two pillars of Sedaris' writing process, nobody in his enormous fanbase-to-be gave it much thought at the time — they just wanted to hear more of his hilarious storytelling.

A quarter-century later, Sedaris has released more diaries — many more diaries — to his adoring public in the form of Theft by Finding, a hefty volume of selected entries written between 1977 and 2002. They give additional insight into not just the events and characters involved in the personal essays compiled in bestselling books like NakedMe Talk Pretty One Day, and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but also into his writing process itself. "A woman on All Things Considered wrote a book of advice called If You Want to Write and mentioned the importance of keeping a diary," a 26-year-old Sedaris writes in an entry from 1983. "After a while you'd stop being forced and pretentious and become honest and unafraid of your thoughts."




Obviously he didn't need that advice at the time, since even then keeping a diary had already become the first pillar of the David Sedaris writing process. "I started writing one afternoon when I was twenty, and ever since then I have written every day," he once told the New Yorker, also a publisher of his stories. "At first I had to force myself. Then it became part of my identity, and I did it without thinking." Most of what he writes in his diary each and every morning he describes as "just whining," but "every so often there’ll be something I can use later: a joke, a description, a quote."

The entries later cohere, along with other ideas and experiences, into his widely read stories. One such piece began, Sedaris told Fast Company's Kristin Hohenadel, as "a diary entry from a trip to Amsterdam. He met a college kid who told him he’d learned that the first person to reach the age of 200 had already been born." Then, Sedaris said, "I speculated that the first person to reach the age of 200 would be my father. And then I attached it to something else that had been in my diary, that all my dad talks about is me getting a colonoscopy. So I connected the 200-year-old man to my father wanting me to get a colonoscopy, and that became the story.”

Only connect, as E.M. Forster said, but you do need material to connect in the first place. Hence the second pillar of the process: carrying a notebook. To the Missouri Review Sedaris described himself as less funny than observant, adding that "everybody’s got an eye for something. The only difference is that I carry around a notebook in my front pocket. I write everything down, and it helps me recall things," especially for later inclusion in his diary. When he publicly opened his notebook at the request of a redditor while doing an AMA a few years ago, he found the words, "Illegal metal sharks... white skin classy... driver's name is free Time... rats eat coconuts... beautiful place city, not beautiful..."

These cryptic lines, he explained, were "notes I wrote in the Mekong delta a few weeks ago. A Vietnamese woman was giving me a little tour, and this is what I jotted down in my notebook." For instance, "I was asking about all the women whom I saw on motor scooters wearing opera gloves, and masks that covered everything but their eyes. And the driver told me they were trying to keep their skin white, because it's just classier. Tan skin means you're a farmer. So that's something I remembered from our conversation, so when I transcribe my notebook into my diary, I added all of that." And one day his readers may well see this fragment of life that caught his attention appear again, but as part of a coherent, polished narrative whole.

The better part of that polishing happens through the practice of reading, and revising, in front of an audience. "During his biannual multicity lecture tours, Sedaris says he routinely notices imperfections in the text simply through the act of reading aloud to other people," writes Hohenadel. "He circles accidental rhymes or closely repeated words, or words that sound alike — like night and nightlife — in the same sentence, rewriting after each reading and trying out revisions during the next stop on his tour." When a passage gets laughs from the audience, he pencils in a check mark beside it; when one gets coughs (which he likens to "a hammer driving a nail into your coffin"), he draws a skull. "On the page it seems like I’m trying too hard, and that’s one of the things I can usually catch when I’m reading out loud,” he says, whether his writing "sounds a little too obvious" or "like somebody who’s just straining for a laugh."

And the presence of live human beings can't but improve your storytelling skills. It helps to be able to fill Carnegie Hall like Sedaris can, but all of us can find, and learn from, some kind of audience somewhere, no matter how modest. He told Junkee that he began reading out loud back in his art-school days: "I was in a painting class and we had a critique, and you put your work up and talk about it, and most people would talk as if they were alone with a psychiatrist." He realized that "they don’t have any sense of an audience. For some reason, maybe it’s because I have so many brothers and sisters, I was always very acutely aware of an audience," and so for his critiques he prepared in-character monologues from the point of view of invented artists. "People laughed, and it felt amazing to me," which brought about an even bigger realization: "This is what I’m supposed to do. Write my own stuff and read it out loud."

Whatever fears so many of us have about speaking in public, the fourth pillar of the Sedaris process may prove the most difficult to incorporate into your own work methods: abandoning hope. "If I sit at my computer, determined to write a New Yorker story I won’t get beyond the first sentence," he told the New Yorker. "It’s better to put no pressure on it. What would happen if I followed the previous sentence with this one, I’ll think. If the eighth draft is torture, the first should be fun." And anybody who gets stuck can use the writer's-block-breaking strategy he revealed on Reddit: "There are a lot of college writing textbooks that will include essays and short stories, and after reading the story or essay, there will be questions such as 'Have YOU Had any experience with a pedophile in YOUR family?' or 'When was the last time you saw YOUR mother drunk?' and they're just really good at prompting stories."

And though it might seem obvious, the activity that constitutes Sedaris' fifth pillar gets all too much neglect from aspiring writers: constant reading, the active pursuit of which he considers "one of those things that changes your life." At the same time he began writing his diary, he told the Missouri Review, "I started reading voraciously. They go hand in hand, especially for a young person who’s trying to write." Today, when people ask him to have a look at what they've written, "I often want to say to them, 'This doesn’t look like how things in books look.' Reading is important when you’re trying to write because then you can look at what’s in a book and remind yourself, 'Hey, I’m young; I just started, and it’s gonna take me a long time, but boy, look at the difference between this and that.'"

He should know, given the viciousness with which he criticizes his own work. Even now his stories require more than twenty drafts to get right, as he mentions in the PBS NewsHour clip at the top of the post, but when he re-read his first diaries, "it was really painful. Really painful." These early entries revealed that "no one was a worse writer than me. No one was more false. No one was more pretentious. It was just absolute garbage." But some of them hint at things to come. "I stayed up all night and worked on my new story," a 28-year-old Sedaris writes in 1985. "Unfortunately, I write like I paint: one corner at a time. I can never step back and see the full picture. Instead, I concentrate on a little square and realize later that it looks nothing like the real live object. Maybe it's my strength, and I'm the only one who can't see it."

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The Daily Habits of Famous Writers: Franz Kafka, Haruki Murakami, Stephen King & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Charles Darwin & Charles Dickens’ Four-Hour Work Day: The Case for Why Less Work Can Mean More Productivity

We all operate at different levels of ambition: some just want to get by and enjoy themselves, while others strive to make achievements with as long-lasting an impact on humanity as possible. If we think of candidates for the latter category, Charles Darwin may well come to mind, at least in the sense that the work he did as a naturalist, and more so the theory of evolution that came out of it, has ensured that we remember his name well over a century after his death and will surely continue to do so centuries hence. But research into Darwin's working life suggests something less than workaholism — and indeed, that he put in a fraction of the number of hours we associate with serious ambition.

"After his morning walk and breakfast, Darwin was in his study by 8 and worked a steady hour and a half," writes Nautilus' Alex Soojung-kim Pang. "At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters. At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary, greenhouse, or one of several other buildings where he conducted his experiments. By noon, he would declare, 'I’ve done a good day’s work,' and set out on a long walk." After this walk he would answer letters, take a nap, take another walk, go back to his study, and then have dinner with the family. Darwin typically got to bed, according to a daily schedule drawn from his son Francis' reminiscences of his father, by 10:30.




"On this schedule he wrote 19 books, including technical volumes on climbing plants, barnacles, and other subjects," writes Pang, and of course not failing to mention "The Origin of Species, probably the single most famous book in the history of science, and a book that still affects the way we think about nature and ourselves." Another textually prolific Victorian Englishman named Charles, adhering to a similarly non-life-consuming work routine, managed to produce — in addition to tireless letter-writing and campaigning for social reform — hundreds of short stories and articles, five novellas, and fifteen novels including Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations

"After an early life burning the midnight oil," writes Pang, Charles Dickens "settled into a schedule as 'methodical or orderly' as a 'city clerk,' his son Charley said. Dickens shut himself in his study from 9 until 2, with a break for lunch. Most of his novels were serialized in magazines, and Dickens was rarely more than a chapter or two ahead of the illustrators and printer. Nonetheless, after five hours, Dickens was done for the day." Pang finds that may other successful writers have kept similarly restrained work schedules, from Anthony Trollope to Alice Munro, Somerset Maugham to Gabriel García Márquez, Saul Bellow to Stephen King. He notes similar habits in science and mathematics as well, including Henri Poincaré and G.H. Hardy.

Research by Pang and others into work habits and productivity have recently drawn a great deal of attention, pointing as it does to the question of whether we might all consider working less in order to work better. "Even if you enjoy your job and work long hours voluntarily, you’re simply more likely to make mistakes when you’re tired," writes the Harvard Business Review's Sarah Green Carmichael. What's more, "work too hard and you also lose sight of the bigger picture. Research has suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to get lost in the weeds." This discovery actually dates back to Darwin and Dickens' 19th century: "When organized labor first compelled factory owners to limit workdays to 10 (and then eight) hours, management was surprised to discover that output actually increased – and that expensive mistakes and accidents decreased."

This goes just as much for academics, whose workweeks, "as long as they are, are not nearly as lengthy as those on Wall Street (yet)," writes Times Higher Education's David Matthews in a piece on the research of University of Pennsylvania professor (and ex-Goldman Sachs banker) Alexandra Michel. "Four hours a day is probably the limit for those looking to do genuinely original research, she says. In her experience, the only people who have avoided burnout and achieved some sort of balance in their lives are those sticking to this kind of schedule." Michel finds that "because academics do not have their hours strictly defined and regulated (as manual workers do), 'other controls take over. These controls are peer pressure.'" So at least we know the first step on the journey toward viable work habits: regarding the likes of Darwin and Dickens as your peers.

via Nautilus

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Thomas Edison’s Hugely Ambitious “To-Do” List from 1888

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Franz Kafka Agonized, Too, Over Writer’s Block: “Tried to Write, Virtually Useless;” “Complete Standstill. Unending Torments” (1915)

No one sings as purely as those who inhabit the deepest hell—what we take to be the song of angels is their song.

- Franz Kafka, 1920

Poor Kafka, born too early to blame his writer’s block on 21st-century digital excuses:  social media addiction, cell phone addiction, streaming video… 

Would The Metamorphosis have turned out differently had its author had access to a machine that would have allowed him to self-publish, communicate facelessly, and dispense entirely with typists, pens and paper? 

Had Kafka had his way, his friend and fellow writer, Max Brod, would have carried out instructions to burn his unpublished work—including letters and journal entries—upon his death

Instead Brod published them.

How horrified would their author be to read The New Yorker’s opinion that his journals should be regarded as one of his major literary achievements? A Kafka-esque response might be the mildest reaction warranted by the situation:

His life and personality were perfectly suited to the diary form, and in these pages he reveals what he customarily hid from the world.

These once-private pages (available in book format here) reveal a not-unfamiliar writerly tendency to agonize over a perceived lack of output:

JANUARY 20, 1915: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?

JANUARY 29, 1915: Again tried to write, virtually useless.

JANUARY 30, 1915: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.

FEBRUARY 7, 1915: Complete standstill. Unending torments.

MARCH 11, 1915: How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing. It doesn’t come off. A page now and then is successful, but I can’t keep it up, the next day I am powerless.

MARCH 13, 1915: Lack of appetite, fear of getting back late in the evening; but above all the thought that I wrote nothing yesterday, that I keep getting farther and farther from it, and am in danger of losing everything I have laboriously achieved these past six months. Provided proof of this by writing one and a half wretched pages of a new story that I have already decided to discard…. Occasionally I feel an unhappiness that almost dismembers me, and at the same time am convinced of its necessity and of the existence of a goal to which one makes one’s way by undergoing every kind of unhappiness.

Psychology Today identifies five possible underlying causes for such inactivity, and tips for surmounting them. It seems likely the fastidious, self-absorbed Kafka would have rejected them on their breezy tone alone, but perhaps other less persnickety individuals will find something of use: 

1. You’ve Lost Your Way

If you’re stalled because you lost your way, try the opposite of what you usually do—if you’re a plotter, give your imagination free rein for a day; if you’re a freewriter or a pantser, spend a day creating a list of the next 10 scenes that need to happen. This gives your brain a challenge, and for this reason you can take heart, because your billions of neurons love a challenge and are in search of synapses they can form.

2. Your Passion Has Waned

Remember, your writing brain looks for and responds to patterns, so be careful that you don’t make succumbing to boredom or surrendering projects without a fight into a habit. Do your best to work through the reasons you got stalled and to finish what you started. This will lay down a neuronal pathway that your writing brain will merrily travel along in future work.

3. Your Expectations Are Too High

Instead of setting your sights too high, give yourself permission to write anything, on topic or off topic, meaningful or trite, useful or folly. The point is that by attaching so much importance to the work you’re about to do, you make it harder to get into the flow. Also, if your inner critic sticks her nose in (which often happens), tell her that her role is very important to you (and it is!) and that you will summon her when you have something worthy of her attention.

4. You Are Burned Out

You aren’t blocked; you’re exhausted. Give yourself a few days to really rest. Lie on a sofa and watch movies, take long walks in the hour just before dusk, go out to dinner with friends, or take a mini-vacation somewhere restful. Do so with the intention to give yourself—and your brain—a rest. No thinking about your novel for a week! In fact, no heavy thinking for a week. Lie back, have a margarita, and chill.

5. You’re Too Distracted

Take note that, unless you’re just one of those rare birds who always write no matter what, you will experience times in your life when it’s impossible to keep to a writing schedule. People get sick, people have to take a second job, children need extra attention, parents need extra attention, and so on. If you’re in one of those emergency situations (raising small children counts), by all means, don’t berate yourself. Sometimes it’s simply necessary to put the actual writing on hold. It is good, however, to keep your hands in the water. For instance, in lieu of writing your novel:

Read works similar to what you hope to write.

Read books related to the subject you're writing about.

Keep a designated journal where you jot down ideas for the book (and other works).

Write small vignettes or sketches related to the book

Whenever you find time to meditate, envision yourself writing the book, bringing it to full completion.

Make writing the book a priority.

Additionally, you may find some merit in enlisting a friend to publish, I mean, burn the above-mentioned journals posthumously. Just don't write anything you wouldn't want the public to see.

Read author Susan Reynolds’ complete Psychology Today advice for blocked writers here.

Have a peek at Kafka’s Diaries: 1910-1923 here.

via Austin Kleon

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Franz Kafka: An Animated Introduction to His Literary Genius

Metamorfosis: Franz Kafka’s Best-Known Short Story Gets Adapted Into a Tim Burtonesque Spanish Short Film

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine, currently appearing onstage in New York City in Paul David Young’s Faust 3. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hunter S. Thompson Typed Out The Great Gatsby & A Farewell to Arms Word for Word: A Method for Learning How to Write Like the Masters

Image  via Wikimedia Commons

The word quixotic derives, of course, from Miguel Cervantes’ irreverent early 17th century satire, Don Quixote. From the novel’s eponymous character it carries connotations of antiquated, extravagant chivalry. But in modern usage, quixotic usually means “foolishly impractical, marked by rash lofty romantic ideas.” Such designations apply in the case of Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in which the titular academic writes his own Quixote by recreating Cervantes’ novel word-for-word.

Why does this fictional minor critic do such a thing? Borges’ explanations are as circuitously mysterious as you might expect. But we can get a much more straightforward answer from a modern-day Quixote—an individual who has undertaken many a “foolishly impractical” quest: Hunter S. Thompson. Though he would never be mistaken for a knight-errant, Thompson did tilt at more than a few windmills, including Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, from which he typed whole pages, word-for-word “just to get the feeling,” writes Louis Menand at The New Yorker, “of what it was like to write that way.”




“You know Hunter typed The Great Gatsby,” an awestruck Johnny Depp told The Guardian in 2011, after he’d played Thompson himself in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and a fictionalized version of him in an adaptation of Thompson’s lost novel The Rum Diaries. “He’d look at each page Fitzgerald wrote, and he copied it. The entire book. And more than once. Because he wanted to know what it felt like to write a masterpiece.” This exercise prepared him to write one, or his cracked version of one, 1972’s gonzo account of a more-than-quixotic road trip, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Menand points out that Thompson first called the book The Death of the American Dream, likely inspired by Fitzgerald’s first Gatsby title, The Death of the Red White and Blue.

Thompson referred to Gatsby frequently in books and letters. Just as often, he referenced another literary hero—and pugnacious Fitzgerald competitor—Ernest Hemingway. He first began typing out Gatsby while employed at Time magazine as a copy boy in 1958, one of many magazine and newspaper jobs in a “pattern of disruptive employment,” writes biographer Kevin T. McEneaney. “Thompson appropriated armloads of office supplies” for the task, and also typed out Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and “some of Faulkner’s stories—an unusual method for learning prose rhythm.” He was fired the following year, not for misappropriation, but for “his unpardonable, insulting wit at a Christmas party.”

In a 1958 letter to his hometown girlfriend Ann Frick, Thompson named the Fitzgerald and Hemingway novels as two especially influential books, along with Brave New World, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (or “Girls before Girls”), a novel that “hardly belongs in the abovementioned company,” he wrote, and which he did not, presumably, copy out on his typewriter at work. Surely, however, many a Thompson close reader has discerned the traces of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway in his work, particularly the latter, whose macho escapades and epic drinking bouts surely inspired more than just Thompson’s writing.

In Borges’ “Pierre Menard,” the title character first sets out to “be Miguel de Cervantes”—to “Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918….” He finds the undertaking not only “impossible from the outset,” but also “the least interesting” way to go about writing his own Quixote. Thompson may have discovered the same as he worked his way through his influences. He could not become his heroes. He would have to take what he’d learned from inhabiting their prose, and use it as fuel for his literary firebombs–or, seen differently, for his idealistic, impractical, yet strangely noble (in their way) knight's quests.

Not since Thompson's Nixonian heyday has there been such need for a ferocious outlaw voice like his. He may have become a stock character by the end of his life, caricatured as Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, given pop culture sainthood by Depp's unhinged portrayal. But "at its best," writes Menand, "Thompson's anger, in writing, was a beautiful thing, fearless and funny and, after all, not wrong about the shabbiness and hypocrisy of American officialdom." Perhaps even now, some hungry young intern is typing out Fear and Loathing word-for-word, preparing to absorb it into his or her own 21st century repertoire of barbed-wire truth-telling about “the death of the American dream.” The method, it seems, may work with any great writer, be it Cervantes, Fitzgerald, or Hunter S. Thompson.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Hunter S. Thompson Gave Birth to Gonzo Journalism: Short Film Revisits Thompson’s Seminal 1970 Piece on the Kentucky Derby

"In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson went to the Kentucky Derby, and he changed sports journalism and broadcasting forever." Or so claims historian Douglas Brinkley, the oft-imitated but never replicated writer's literary executor, in the short Gonzo @ the Derby. Directed by Michael G. Ratner and first commissioned by ESPN's 30 for 30, the thirteen-minute documentary tells the story of how, having made his name with a book on the Hell's Angels, the 33-year-old, Louisville-born Thompson took a gig with the rebellious and short-lived Scanlan's Monthly to go back to his hometown and report on its famous horse race — and how he almost inadvertently defined a whole new kind of journalism as a result.

As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, the United States looked like a country in serious turmoil: "Everything seemed to be coming unglued in America," says Brinkley. "Kent State and the Black Panthers and the rebellion that's going on around the nation, and yet here is this old-fashioned Kentucky Derby festival going on." The late Warren Hinckle III, who edited Scanlan's, had one question: "Who went to these damn things?" And so Thompson, described here by former Rolling Stone managing editor John Walsh as "the quintessential outsider who likes to make himself the quintessential insider," went — with neither press credentials nor reservations — to find out the answer.




Thompson did not, as every fan knows, find out alone. Scanlan's also flew in, all the way from England, an illustrator by the name of Ralph Steadman. When Thompson and Steadman managed to meet amid the gregarious chaos of Derby-time Louisville, neither man could have known how inextricably the culture would soon associate their work, the former's feverish, impressionistic yet hypersensitive prose and the latter's untamed-looking, distinctively monstrous artwork. Both of them found their voices in presenting reality not as it was, but as grimly heightened as it could feel to them, and both, given the era, occasionally did so with the aid of mind-altering substances.

At the Kentucky Derby, however, they stuck to alcohol — as did, if you believe Thompson's reporting, all the rest of the attendees, and in an at once hellaciously debaucherous and sinisterly genteel way at that. "Unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn't give a hoot in hell what was happening on the track," he writes in the final product of he and Steadman's trip, "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved." (Find it in the collection, The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time.) "We had come there to watch the real beasts perform." Yet even as they gazed, backs to the horses, upon the sheer grotesquerie of what Brinkley calls "the white Southern power elite," they realized that they, too, amid their blustering fakery, half-remembered altercations, and near-constant binging, had become beastly themselves.

After all that, Thompson, back in New York to write up the story, feared that he didn't have a story at all. In desperation, he told not of what happened at the 1970 Kentucky Derby but of how he and Steadman experienced the 1970 Kentucky Derby, leaving plenty of room for speculation, remembrance, artistic license, and unverifiable madness that eventually devolves into the raw notes he scribbled amid the storm of high-society Southern squalor. Could he have possibly suspected what a potent combination that and Steadman's illustrations (described as "sketched with eyebrow pencil and lipstick") would make? Bill Cardoso, then editor of the Boston Globe, understood its power when he first read the article, even coining a word to describe it: "This is it, this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling."

The short documentary, "Gonzo @ the Derby," will be added to our list of Free Online Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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