Given that ‘e’ is the most commonly used letter in English, you might think this would have been impossible, but Wright stated this wasn’t nearly as limiting as one might think. For instance, about half of the top 500 most commonly used words in English were still available to him to use. One of the more difficult aspects was simply having to avoid “-ed” endings and the like. I would think the lack of ability to use the word “the” was also troublesome. Beyond that, he had to come up with clever, non-awkward ways to refer to certain things, such as a ‘Turkey’, which he called a “Thanksgiving National Bird”, and “wedding cake”, which was changed to “an astonishing loaf of culinary art”.
He wrote the book in just under six months starting in 1936 and finishing in February of 1937. In order to prevent himself from accidentally using the letter ‘e’, he disabled the key on his typewriter by tying it down.
As to his motivation for writing Gadsby, he first thought to try writing a book without the letter ‘e’ after learning that the letter ‘e’ supposedly occurs in books and other writings on average about five times more often than any other letter in English. He further became excited about the idea after discussing the matter with people and having everyone tell him that it couldn’t be done unless one threw out grammar and made a habit of creating awkward sentences.
After completing the novel, he wrote:
As I wrote along, in long-hand at first, a whole army of little E’s gathered around my desk, all eagerly expecting to be called upon. But gradually as they saw me writing on and on, without even noticing them, they grew uneasy; and, with excited whisperings amongst themselves, began hopping up and riding on my pen, looking down constantly for a chance to drop off into some word; for all the world like seabirds perched, watching for a passing fish! But when they saw that I had covered 138 pages of typewriter size paper, they slid onto the floor, walking sadly away, arm in arm; but shouting back: “You certainly must have a hodge-podge of a yarn there without *us*! Why, man! We are in every story ever written *hundreds of thousands of times! This is the first time we ever were shut out!
He was unable to find a publishing house willing to publish Gadsby, so after two years, he sought out a vanity publisher to self-publish it, settling on Wetzel Publishing Co. in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for him, two things happened to stop the book from becoming widely published or even reviewed at all. First, the fact that there was a fire at Wetzel’s warehouse, which resulted in not only a firefighter losing his life in the blaze, but also the vast majority of the copies of Gadsby being destroyed. The second thing that happened was Wright himself died just two months after publishing the book at the age of 67.
With no one left to promote it and few copies in existence, it faded into obscurity for a time, but has gradually gained steam over the years and today is something of a classic, albeit in the “oddity” category, rather than for its literative qualities. Nevertheless, thanks to its notoriety and scarcity, today a first edition copy of Gadsby, even one not in that great of shape, tends to cost around $4,000-$5,000.
- Gadsby wasn’t the only classic not to be appreciated in its time. Moby Dick only sold 3000 copies over a 40 year span (during the author, Herman Melville’s, lifetime), making Melville only $556.37. It was also largely overlooked critically. You can read more Moby Dick facts, including the surprisingly fascinating real life story that inspired the novel, here: A Real Life White Whale that Destroyed Over 20 Whaling Ships and Survived Encounters with Another 80
- Works like Gadsby are called lipograms. A lipogram is basically just a form of writing where the author purposefully excludes a letter or symbol from their text. ‘Lipogram’ comes from the Greek ‘leipográmmatos’, meaning, not surprisingly, “leaving a letter out”.
- Another type of lipogram is a pangrammatic lipogram. This is where you write something (usually something very short, like a single sentence) that includes every letter of the alphabet, except one.
- Little is known of Ernest Wright beyond some details surrounding Gadsby and that he wrote three other books, The Wonderful Fairies of the Sun in 1896, The Fairies That Run the World and How They Do It in 1903, and Thoughts and Reveries of an American Bluejacket in 1918. He also wrote a comedic poem that became very mildly popular, “When Father Carves the Duck”. As to what he did with the rest of his life, there are conflicting accounts. He was either English or American, and may or may not have been in the navy or otherwise a sailor. It is known that he attended M.I.T.’s School of Mechanic Arts, which had a two year program for high school students. Instead of taking normal high school classes, this program focused on educating teens with practical skills like metallurgy, carpentry, and the like. It isn’t known whether he graduated though, because they listed him as a “special student” in his second year and no direct record of him graduating exists.
- “Vanity Press” was a term supposedly coined by Johnathon Clifford, referring to the idea that people who can’t get published except by paying for it themselves (self publishing) are doing it out of their own vanity.
- In Gadsby, when Wright occasionally quoted famous sayings that included the letter ‘e’, he would change them, such as: “a thing of beauty is a joy forever” changed to “a charming thing is a joy always”.
- Georges Perec published a 250 page book, La Disparition, in French which also doesn’t contain the letter ‘e’. This book was later translated into English. The English translation conformed to the same restriction as the French version, lacking any instance of the letter ‘e’.
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