“20 Rules For Writing Detective Stories” By S.S. Van Dine, One of T.S. Eliot’s Favorite Genre Authors (1928)

ss dine rules for writing detective fiction

Every generation, it seems, has its preferred bestselling genre fiction. We’ve had fantasy and, at least in very recent history, vampire romance keeping us reading. The fifties and sixties had their westerns and sci-fi. And in the forties, it won’t surprise you to hear, detective fiction was all the rage. So much so that—like many an irritable contrarian critic today—esteemed literary tastemaker Edmund Wilson penned a cranky New Yorker piece in 1944 declaiming its popularity, writing “at the age of twelve… I was outgrowing that form of literature”; the form, that is, perfected by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Wilkie Collins, and imitated by a host of pulp writers in Wilson’s day. Detective stories, in fact, were in vogue for the first few decades of the 20th century—since the appearance of Sherlock Holmes and a derivative 1907 character called “the Thinking Machine,” responsible, it seems, for Wilson’s loss of interest.

Thus, when Wilson learned that “of all people,”Paul Grimstad writes, T.S. Eliot “was a devoted fan of the genre,” he must have been particularly dismayed, as he considered Eliot “an unimpeachable authority in matters of literary judgment.” Eliot’s tastes were much more ecumenical than most critics supposed, his “attitude toward popular art forms… more capacious and ambivalent than he’s often given credit for.” The rhythms of ragtime pervade his early poetry, and “in his later years he wanted nothing more than to have a hit on Broadway.” (He succeeded, sixteen years after his death.) Eliot peppered his conversation and poetry with quotations from Arthur Conan Doyle and wrote several glowing reviews of detective novels by writers like Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie during the genre’s “Golden Age,” publishing them anonymously in his literary journal The Criterion in 1927.

One novel that impressed him above all others is titled The Benson Murder Case by an American writer named S.S. Van Dine, pen name of an art critic and editor named Willard Huntington Wright. Referring to an eminent art historian—whose tastes guided those of the wealthy industrial class—Eliot wrote that Van Dine used “methods similar to those which Bernard Berenson applies to paintings.” He had good reason to ascribe to Van Dine a curatorial sensibility. After a nervous breakdown, the writer “spent two years in bed reading more than two thousand detective stories, during with time he methodically distilled the genre’s formulas and began writing novels.” The year after Eliot’s appreciative review, Van Dine published his own set of criteria for detective fiction in a 1928 issue of The American Magazine. You can read his “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” below. They include such proscriptions as “There must be no love interest” and “The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit.”

Rules, of course, are made to be broken (just ask G.K. Chesterton), provided one is clever and experienced enough to circumvent or disregard them. But the novice detective or mystery writer could certainly do worse than take the advice below from one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite detective writers. We’d also urge you to see Raymond Chandler’s 10 Commandments for Writing Detective Fiction.

THE DETECTIVE story is a kind of intellectual game. It is more — it is a sporting event. And for the writing of detective stories there are very definite laws — unwritten, perhaps, but none the less binding; and every respectable and self-respecting concocter of literary mysteries lives up to them. Herewith, then, is a sort Credo, based partly on the practice of all the great writers of detective stories, and partly on the promptings of the honest author’s inner conscience. To wit:

1. The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

2. No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself.

3. There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.

4. The detective himself, or one of the official investigators, should never turn out to be the culprit. This is bald trickery, on a par with offering some one a bright penny for a five-dollar gold piece. It’s false pretenses.

5. The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

6. The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic.

7. There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better. No lesser crime than murder will suffice. Three hundred pages is far too much pother for a crime other than murder. After all, the reader’s trouble and expenditure of energy must be rewarded.

8. The problem of the crime must he solved by strictly naturalistic means. Such methods for learning the truth as slate-writing, ouija-boards, mind-reading, spiritualistic se’ances, crystal-gazing, and the like, are taboo. A reader has a chance when matching his wits with a rationalistic detective, but if he must compete with the world of spirits and go chasing about the fourth dimension of metaphysics, he is defeated ab initio.

9. There must be but one detective — that is, but one protagonist of deduction — one deus ex machina. To bring the minds of three or four, or sometimes a gang of detectives to bear on a problem, is not only to disperse the interest and break the direct thread of logic, but to take an unfair advantage of the reader. If there is more than one detective the reader doesn’t know who his codeductor is. It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.

10. The culprit must turn out to be a person who has played a more or less prominent part in the story — that is, a person with whom the reader is familiar and in whom he takes an interest.

11. A servant must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. This is begging a noble question. It is a too easy solution. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person — one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion.

12. There must be but one culprit, no matter how many murders are committed. The culprit may, of course, have a minor helper or co-plotter; but the entire onus must rest on one pair of shoulders: the entire indignation of the reader must be permitted to concentrate on a single black nature.

13. Secret societies, camorras, mafias, et al., have no place in a detective story. A fascinating and truly beautiful murder is irremediably spoiled by any such wholesale culpability. To be sure, the murderer in a detective novel should be given a sporting chance; but it is going too far to grant him a secret society to fall back on. No high-class, self-respecting murderer would want such odds.

14. The method of murder, and the means of detecting it, must be be rational and scientific. That is to say, pseudo-science and purely imaginative and speculative devices are not to be tolerated in the roman policier. Once an author soars into the realm of fantasy, in the Jules Verne manner, he is outside the bounds of detective fiction, cavorting in the uncharted reaches of adventure.

15. The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent — provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face-that all the clues really pointed to the culprit — and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

16. A detective novel should contain no long descriptive passages, no literary dallying with side-issues, no subtly worked-out character analyses, no “atmospheric” preoccupations. such matters have no vital place in a record of crime and deduction. They hold up the action and introduce issues irrelevant to the main purpose, which is to state a problem, analyze it, and bring it to a successful conclusion. To be sure, there must be a sufficient descriptiveness and character delineation to give the novel verisimilitude.

17. A professional criminal must never be shouldered with the guilt of a crime in a detective story. Crimes by housebreakers and bandits are the province of the police departments — not of authors and brilliant amateur detectives. A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.

18. A crime in a detective story must never turn out to be an accident or a suicide. To end an odyssey of sleuthing with such an anti-climax is to hoodwink the trusting and kind-hearted reader.

19. The motives for all crimes in detective stories should be personal. International plottings and war politics belong in a different category of fiction — in secret-service tales, for instance. But a murder story must be kept gemütlich, so to speak. It must reflect the reader’s everyday experiences, and give him a certain outlet for his own repressed desires and emotions.

20. And (to give my Credo an even score of items) I herewith list a few of the devices which no self-respecting detective story writer will now avail himself of. They have been employed too often, and are familiar to all true lovers of literary crime. To use them is a confession of the author’s ineptitude and lack of originality. (a) Determining the identity of the culprit by comparing the butt of a cigarette left at the scene of the crime with the brand smoked by a suspect. (b) The bogus spiritualistic se’ance to frighten the culprit into giving himself away. (c) Forged fingerprints. (d) The dummy-figure alibi. (e) The dog that does not bark and thereby reveals the fact that the intruder is familiar. (f)The final pinning of the crime on a twin, or a relative who looks exactly like the suspected, but innocent, person. (g) The hypodermic syringe and the knockout drops. (h) The commission of the murder in a locked room after the police have actually broken in. (i) The word association test for guilt. (j) The cipher, or code letter, which is eventually unraveled by the sleuth.

You can find S.S. Van Dine’s detective novels on Amazon.

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

The Very First Coloring Book, The Little Folks’ Painting Book (Circa 1879)


Funny how not that long ago coloring books were considered the exclusive domain of children. How times have changed. If you are the sort of adult who unwinds with a big box of Crayolas and pages of mandalas or outlines of Ryan Gosling, you owe a debt of gratitude to the McLoughlin Brothers and illustrator Kate Greenaway.

First Coloring Book 1

Their Little Folks’ Painting Book burst onto the scene in around 1879 with such fun-to-color outline engravings as “The Owl’s Advice,” “A Flower Fairy,” and “Little Miss Pride,” each accompanied by nursery rhymes and stories. The abundance of mob caps, pinafores, and breeches are of a piece with Greenaway’s enduring takes on nursery rhymes, though grown up manual dexterity seems almost mandatory given the tiny patterns and other details.

First Coloring Book 2

Seeing as how there was no precedent, the publishers of the world’s first coloring book went ahead and filled in the frontispiece so that those tackling the other hundred drawings would know what to do. (Hint: Stay inside the lines and don’t get too creative with skin or hair color.)

First Coloring Book 3

Also note: the copy represented here has been carefully hand-colored by the previous owners, with one contributing some exuberant scribbles in pencil. See the full book, and download it in various formats, at Archive.org.

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coloring book 1

In early February 2016, museums and libraries worldwide took part in #ColorOurCollections–a campaign where they made available free coloring books, letting you color artwork from their collections and then share it on Twitter and other social media platforms, using the hashtag #ColorOurCollections. Below you can find a collection of free coloring books, which you can download and continue to enjoy. If you see any that we’re missing, please let us know in the comments, and we’ll do our best to update the page.

You can find a list of other participants on Twitter. The image above comes from The Huntington. Happy coloring.

H/T goes to Heather for making us aware of this project.

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The Wisdom & Advice of Maurice Ashley, the First African-American Chess Grandmaster

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve thought of chess grandmasters, I’ve often thought of Russians, northern Europeans, the occasional American, the guy on the Chessmaster box — purely by stereotype, in other words. I’ve never thought of anyone from, say, Jamaica, the country of birth of Maurice Ashley, not just a chess grandmaster but a chess commentator, writer, app and puzzle designer, speaker and Fellow at the Media Lab at MIT. Since we’ve only just entered February, known in the United States as Black History Month, why not highlight the Brooklyn-raised (and Brooklyn-park trained) Ashley’s status as, in the words of his official web site, “the first African-American International Grandmaster in the annals of the game”?

Given the impressiveness of his achievements, we might also ask what we can learn from him, whether or not we play chess ourselves. You can learn a bit more about Ashley, the work he does, and the work his students have gone on to do, in The World Is a Chess Board, the five-minute Mashable documentary at the top of the post. Even in that short runtime, he has much to say about how the game (which, he clarifies, “we consider an art form”) not only reflects life, and reflects the personalities of its players, but teaches those players — especially the young ones who may come from less-than-ideal beginnings — all about focus, determination, choice, and consequence. Perhaps the most important lesson? “You’ve got to be ready to lose.”

Ashley expounds upon the value of chess as a tool to hone the mind in “Working Backward to Solve Problems,” a clip from his TED Ed lesson just above. He begins by waving off the misperception, common among non-chess-players, that grandmasters “see ahead” ten, twenty, or thirty moves into the game, then goes on to explain that the sharpest players do it not by looking forward, but by looking backward. He provides a few examples of how using this sort of “retrograde analysis,” combined with pattern recognition, applies to problems in a range of situations from proofreading to biology to law enforcement to card tricks. If you ever have a chance to enter into a bet with this man, don’t.

That’s my advice, anyway. As far as Ashley’s advice goes, if we endorse any particular takeaway from what he says here, we endorse the first step of his chess-learning strategy for absolute beginners, which works equally well as the first step of a learning strategy for absolute beginners in anything: “The best advice I could give a young person today is, go online and watch some videos.” Stick with us, and we’ll keep you in all the videos you need.

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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.

AC/DC Plays a Short Gig at CBGB in 1977: Hear Metal Being Played on Punk’s Hallowed Grounds

Punk rock and heavy metal were two genres that evolved over the ‘70s, but seemed to run parallel to each other, despite sharing common fashion, sounds, and attitudes. But then there are moments in history, where everybody plays together in the same sandbox. For example, the above audio, which captures the Australian band AC/DC on their first American tour, playing New York’s CBGB, synonymous now with punk and new wave music.

The date is August 24, 1977, and AC/DC were on a cross-country trip that had taken in both club dates and arenas, where they supported—yes, hard to believe, I know—REO Speedwagon. Their album Let There Be Rock had just dropped in June. The band would be in the States until the winter.

This CBGB gig finds them on the same bill as Talking Heads and the Dead Boys, according to a poster from the time. And while there’s no video for this show, there are plenty of tasty photos over at Dangerous Minds, showing lead singer Bon Scott working the crowd and Angus Young—at the spritely age of 22—being carried through the crowd on the shoulders of Scott himself. You can feel the muggy New York summer in these photos, but also the excitement of an unforgettable gig.

At 15 minutes, the set is short, but still three minutes longer than the Ramones’ first set at the same club three years earlier. That’s pretty metal, man.

via Dangerous Minds

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Hear the Experimental Music of the Dada Movement: Avant-Garde Sounds from a Century Ago


When we think of Dada, we think of an art movement—or anti-art movement—that embraced chance operations, futurism, and experimentation and rejected all of the previous doctrines of the formal art world as moribund and fraudulent. As Dada artist and theorist Tristan Tzara wrote in his 1918 manifesto, the aims of the establishment art world had been “to make money and cajole the nice nice bourgeois.” This new breed would have none of it. In their attack on bourgeois artistic and political values, artists like Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Hans Richter, Kurt Schwitters and others willfully trespassed formal boundaries, using any means or medium they happened to find of interest in the moment. We have Dada painting, sculpture, typography, and film; Dada poetry, theater, dance, and even Dadaist politics, so well represented by Tzara’s manifesto.

One medium we don’t often associate with Dada, however, is music. And yet, those same artists who waged war on the establishment with readymade urinals and rambling manifestos also did so with musical compositions that were as influential as the painting, film, and poetry. Dada, and its immediate successor, surrealism, “exerted a pervasive influence on 20th-century music,” writes Matthew Greenbaum at New Music Box, but “the presence of Dada and surrealism is generally unrecognized or forgotten” in discussions of “mid-century avant-garde composers” in New York, like Stefan Wolpe, Morton Feldman, and John Cage. And yet, the repetitive, machine-like qualities we associate with mid-century minimalism come more or less directly from the Dadaists, as does the high concept experimentation.

Dada artists, adds Greenbaum, “paid close attention to advanced and developing technology, and the repetitive beauty of machines was a ubiquitous image.” Works like Marcel Duchamp’s conceptual musical “assemblages cunningly obscure the boundaries of text, music, representation, and notation a half-century before John Cage’s experiments in indeterminacy.” Greenbaum’s essay makes a strong case for this lineage, but the most direct way to trace the steps from Duchamp, et al., to Cage is to listen to the Dada artists’ experiments with music firsthand, and you can hear a selection of them here, excerpted from the 1985 compilation Dada For Now and brought to us courtesy of Ubuweb, who host the full album. Many of these compositions are experiments with language, theatrical performance, and text (the album is shelved in the “Spoken Word” category), though none of the composers would have drawn any lines between word and music.

At the top of the post, hear Antonio Russolo’s 1921 composition “Corale and Serenata,” which sounds like a rather traditional march, but for the ominous roaring that shadows the orchestration and occasionally breaks in to disrupt it entirely, sounding like the rush of tires on a highway or workings of a huge, industrial machine. Next is Hugo Ball’s 1916 composition “Karawane,” in which a trio of vocalists—Trio Exvoco—grows louder and more guttural as they chant in unison, their only accompaniment what sounds like a trolley bell. Further down, in Tristan Tzara and others’ “L’amiral cherche une maison a louer,” also from 1916, that same trio performs some sort of exuberant comedy, with accompanying whiz-bang sound effects that one would hear in radio plays of the succeeding decades. And just above, in Kurt Schwitters’ 1919 “Simultangedicht kaa gee dee,” Trio Exvoco begins a chant that soon devolves into staccato vocalizations and gibberish.

A few of these pieces, like the Russolo at the top, are original recordings. The rest are reconstructions. All of them are strange, as is to be expected, but it’s impossible to hear just how strange—and how tasteless and absurd, perhaps—they would have sounded to audiences one hundred years ago. As Greenbaum argues, what was once revolutionary in Dada became normative as it was integrated into the American art establishment in the later 20th century. But to hear it with fresh ears is to recapture how Dadaist art sounded as radical as it looked.

Hear more Dadaist music over at Ubu.

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

Animated Interview: Sally Ride Tells Gloria Steinem About the Challenge of Being the First American Women in Space (1983)

Blank on Blank returned this week with the latest episode in “The Experimenters,” a miniseries highlighting the icons of STEM. This new animation brings to life a 1983 interview featuring one trailblazer, Gloria Steinem, talking with another, Sally Ride, a physicist who became the first American woman in space, and endured a lot of gender stereotyping along the way. Other episodes in “The Experimenters” series have focused on Buckminster Fuller, Richard Feynman, and Jane Goodall.

Note: Gloria Steinem recently published a new memoir called My Life on the Road. You can download it as a free audiobook if you head over to Audible.com and register for a 30-day free trial. The trial lets you download two audiobooks for free. Then, when the trial is over, you can continue your subscription, or cancel it, and still keep the audio books. The choice is yours. Get more info here.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. And if you want to make sure that our posts definitely appear in your Facebook newsfeed, just follow these simple steps.

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How Stanley Kubrick Became Stanley Kubrick: A Short Documentary Narrated by the Filmmaker

Stanley Kubrick, the director of such beloved films as Dr. Strangelove2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Shining, a man whose name remains, more than fifteen years after his death, almost a byword for the cinematic auteur, got into filmmaking because of a misunderstanding. While working as a photojournalist in his early twenties, he befriended an even younger fellow named Alex Singer, who would go on to become a well-known director of film and television himself, but back then he held a lowly position in the office of The March of Time newsreels. Singer happened to mention that each newsreel cost the company something like $40,000 to produce, which got Kubrick researching the price of film and camera rentals, then thinking: couldn’t I make a documentary of my own for less?

Indeed; he and Singer put together $1,500 and collaborated on the boxing short-subject Day of the Fight, which played in theaters in 1951. But it didn’t turn a profit, since no distribution company offered the $40,000 he expected — nor had they ever offered The March of Time, whose newsreel business went under before long, enough to cover their own exorbitant costs. So Kubrick didn’t make money on his first film, but he did make a career, going on to do two more documentaries, then the low-budget features Fear and DesireKiller’s Kiss, and The Killing. Then came the critically acclaimed Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas, which eventually brought about an offer to Kubrick from the iconic actor to take the directorial reins on Spartacus. Next came LolitaDr. Strangelove2001, and the rest is cinema history.

Of course, Kubrick didn’t know the full extent of the cinema history he would make back in 1966, on the set of 2001, when he sat down with physicist-writer Jeremy Bernstein, doing research for a New Yorker profile. The filmmaker brought out one of his tape recorders (devices he adopted early and used to write scripts) and recorded 77 minutes of his and Bernstein’s conversations, almost a half hour of which Jim Casey uses as the narration of the short documentary Stanley Kubrick: The Lost Tapes. Only recently rediscovered, these recordings feature Kubrick’s first-hand stories of growing up indifferent to all things academic and literary, honing his “general problem-solving method” as a photographer, getting into movies as a result of the aforementioned misconception, and building the career that film fans and scholars scrutinize to this day. It does make you wonder: what glorious work have we missed the chance to create because we ran the numbers a little too rigorously?

via Devour

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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.

Hunter S. Thompson Talks with Keith Richards in a Very Memorable and Mumble-Filled Interview (1993)

Here’s a variation on the parlor game question, “what famous person would you most like to have dinner with, and why?” What two famous people would you like to stick in a room together for ten minutes, and why? I imagine a fair number of readers might think of Hunter S. Thompson and Keith Richards, and the why is pretty obvious. Both impress us, writes Flavorwire, for “having remained alive” for oh so many years “after all those drugs” and crazed exploits. If Thompson was gonzo, Thompson plus Richards equals “double gonzo.”

Well, your wish is granted, in the almost ten-minute video above, in which Thompson and Richards have a mumble-off, discussing such subjects as J. Edgar Hoover’s reincarnation (he would return as “a fart,” Keith says), the Hell’s Angels, The Beatles, drugs, blood transfusions, and that Altamont incident.

In the first minute of tape, we have a rambling solo introduction from Thompson, and he assures us that he and Keith “have a sense of history you don’t.” Having put the viewer in their place (or the cameraman—more on that anon), Thompson promptly segues to the interview, which took place at the Ritz Carleton in Aspen.

Unfortunately, no one has thought to add subtitles to this bizarre exchange, which has circulated on Youtube for some time now. That was where the man who shot the interview, Wayne Ewing, first saw the grainy video of footage he shot for a 1993 ABC series called “In Concert.” The project was fraught from the beginning. The original plan was to have the two meet in New York, then have MTV shoot the interview and Ewing shoot the whole scene with a third camera “while Keith and Hunter emptied the mini-bar and chatted.” Instead, Thompson “came down with a virulent flu,” and the producers had to later lure Richards to Colorado.

So remembers Ewing in a 2009 introduction to notes he took down the day after the March 15th shoot. The journal reveals Thompson’s agitated state of mind in the week leading up to the shoot, as he lashed out at his staff, at Ewing, and at “college sophomores on ski vacations demanding autographs… holding out soiled napkins with pens for a record of their momentary brush with fame.” He’s clearly nervous about Richards’ arrival, obsessing over the state of the local shooting range, and when Ewing suggested “goofy ideas for the video with Keith,” Thompson growled, “it’s not your movie! It’s Keith’s!” Ewing’s notes are both amusing and a little distressing, given the position of Thompson’s beleaguered assistants.

Both of these figures represent the epitome of our tendency to romanticize writer/musician-addicts, but the effects on those around them don’t generally make for great stories (just ask their kids). And in Thompson’s case especially here, we can see the toll his drinking had taken on him at this stage in his life. But Richards is surprisingly lucid, as he continues to oftentimes be, remembering specific dates and details, and the whole interview is an interesting exercise in following the free-associative logic of two addled, but still brilliant and always entertaining personalities. No need to say more. Watch the tape.

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

Gandhi Writes Letters to Hitler: “We Have Found in Non-Violence a Force Which Can Match the Most Violent Forces in the World” (1939/40)

Gandhi Hitler

It must come up in every single argument, from sophisticated to sophomoric, about the practicability of non-violent pacifism. “Look what Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were able to achieve!” “Yes, but what about Hitler? What do you do about the Nazis?” The rebuttal implies future Nazi-like entities looming on the horizon, and though this reductio ad Hitlerum generally has the effect of nullifying any continued rational discussion, it’s difficult to imagine a satisfying pacifist answer to the problem of naked, implacable hatred and aggression on such a scale as that of the Third Reich. Even Gandhi’s own proposal sounds like a joke: in 1940, Adolph Hitler abandons his plans to claim Lebensraum for the German people and to displace, enslave, or eradicate Germany’s neighbors and undesirable citizens. He adopts a posture of non-violence and “universal friendship,” and German forces withdraw from Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, France, agreeing to resolve differences through international conference and committee.

Hitler may have been a vegetarian, but that’s likely where any sympathy between him and Gandhi began and ended.  And yet, the above is precisely what Mahatma Gandhi asked of the Fuhrer, in a letter dated December 24, 1940. Engaged fully in the struggle for Indian independence, Gandhi found himself torn by the entry of Britain into the war against Germany. On the one hand, Gandhi initially pledged “nonviolent moral support” for the war, sensing an enemy–Germany–even more threatening to world peace and stability. (That stance would change in short order as the Indian National Congress revolted and resigned en masse rather than participate in the war). On the other hand, Gandhi did not see the British Empire as categorically different from the Nazis. As he put it in his letter to Hitler, whom he addresses as “Friend” (this is “no formality,” he writes, “I own no foes”): “If there is a difference, it is in degree. One-fifth of the human race has been brought under the British heel by means that will not bear scrutiny.”

Gandhi acknowledges the absurdity of his request: “I am aware,” he writes, “that your view of life regards such spoliations as virtuous acts.” And yet, he marshals a formidable argument for nonviolence as a force of power, not weakness, showing how it had weakened British rule: “The movement of independence has been never so strong as now,” he writes, through “the right means to combat the most organized violence in the world which the British power represents”:

It remains to be seen which is the better organized, the German or the British. We know what the British heel means for us and the non-European races of the world. But we would never wish to end the British rule with German aid. We have found in non-violence a force which, if organized, can without doubt match itself against a combination of all the most violent forces in the world. In non-violent technique, as I have said, there is no such thing as defeat. It is all ‘do or die’ without killing or hurting. It can be used practically without money and obviously without the aid of science of destruction which you have brought to such perfection. It is a marvel to me that you do not see that it is nobody’s monopoly. If not the British, some other power will certainly improve upon your method and beat you with your own weapon. You are leaving no legacy to your people of which they would feel proud. They cannot take pride in a recital of cruel deed, however skillfully planned. I, therefore, appeal to you in the name of humanity to stop the war.

As an alternative to war, Gandhi proposes an “international tribunal of your joint choice” to determine “which party was in the right.” His letter, Gandhi writes, should be taken as “a joint appeal to you and Signor Mussolini…. I hope that he will take this as addressed to him also with the necessary changes.”

Gandhi also references an appeal he made “to every Briton to accept my method of non-violent resistance.” That appeal took the form of an open letter he published that July, “To Every Briton,” in which he wrote:

You will invite Herr Hitler and Signor Mussolini to take what they want of the countries you call your possessions. Let them take possession of your beautiful island, with your many beautiful buildings. You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds. If these gentlemen choose to occupy your homes, you will vacate them. If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.

When Gandhi visited England that year, he found the viceroy of colonial India “dumbstruck” by these requests, writes Stanley Wolpert in his biography of the Indian leader, “unable to utter a word in response, refusing even to call for his car to take the now more deeply despondent Gandhi home.”

Gandhi’s 1940 letter to Hitler was actually his second addressed to the Nazi leader. The first, a very short missive written in 1939, one month before the ill-fated Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, strikes a conciliatory tone. Gandhi writes that he resisted requests from friends to pen the letter “because of the feeling that any letter from me would be an impertinence,” and though he calls on Hitler to “prevent a war which may reduce humanity to a savage state,” he ends with, “I anticipate your forgiveness, If I have erred in writing to you.” But again, in this very brief letter, Gandhi appeals to the “considerable success” of his nonviolent methods. “There is no evidence,” The Christian Science Monitor remarks, “to suggest Hitler ever responded to either of Gandhi’s letters.”

As the war unavoidably raged, Gandhi redoubled his efforts at Indian independence, launching the  “Quit India” movement in 1942, which—writes Open University—“more than anything, united the Indian people against British rule” and hastened its eventual end in 1947. Non-violence succeeded, improbably, against the British Empire, though certain other former colonies won independence through more traditionally warlike methods. And yet, though Gandhi believed non-violent resistance could avert the horrors of World War II, those of us without his level of total commitment to the principle may find it difficult to imagine how it might have succeeded against the Nazis, or how it could have appealed to their totalizing ideology of domination.

Related Content:

Tolstoy and Gandhi Exchange Letters: Two Thinkers’ Quest for Gentleness, Humility & Love (1909)

Hear Gandhi’s Famous Speech on the Existence of God (1931)

Watch Gandhi Talk in His First Filmed Interview (1947)

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