Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Great Gadsby: A Rare Book Written The Hard Way, No "E"s

by Stephen J. Gertz

Today is Lipogram Day on Booktryst, and because it is Lipogram Day we celebrate Gadsby, a novel from 1939 whose sole claim to fame is that of its 50,110 words not a single one contains the letter "E." 

Lipograms, which have nothing to do with liposuction unless you're vacuuming avoirdupois letters from a composition that could use a little less around the middle, are simply forms of writing from which the author has omitted a certain letter or letters from the alphabet.

The form dates to the ancient world. The Greek poets Nestor of Laranda and Tryphiodorus wrote lipogrammatic adaptations of Homer, with Nestor composing an Iliad, followed by an Odyssey by Tryphiodorus.

If you're a writer composing in English the most challenging lipogram will involve leaving out our most common vowel, "E." Gadsby novelist Ernest Vincent Wright gave himself a rigorous task: no common English words such as "the" and "he"; plurals in "-es"; past tenses in "-ed"; and even abbreviations like "Mr." (for "Mister") or "Bob" (for "Robert"). In short, he deliberately gave himself a pain in the ass to work through. To ease his E-burden and avoid mistakes he tied down the "E" on his typewriter's keyboard.

Personally, I consider that cheating but shiftless scribe that I am, I once wrote an entire novel without using any letters from the alphabet. It was harder than you think. I had to jerry-rig a shield over my keyboard to prevent all twenty-six letters from being accidentally depressed. It was grueling. The prose was pristine (as well as the paper when printed-out) but the story pointless, as well as invisible. It was an ordeal. I had to take days off to recover and got nothing written at all.

Lipograms are just about the silliest form of writing endeavor I can imagine, the writer held hostage to a form that is more puzzle than novel, an intellectual game of dubious literary value where form trumps content and quality goes down for the count. So it was something of a miracle that Wright not only pulled it off but did so with aplomb. He tells the story well, the necessary substitution of words without "E" flowing smoothly off the page rather than causing the pain associated with a dentist pulling "E"s out of your gums without anesthesia.

An anonymous narrator relates the tale, which begins c. 1906 and continues through World War I, Prohibition, and the presidency of Warren G. Harding. The narrator introduces us to the city of Branton Hills, its history, and sterling citizen John Gadsby's place in it. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts abound, as if a Jamboree hit town and afterward left the scouts behind with sticks, string, and kindling fluff that ignite a political career when middle-aged churchman John Gadsby wakes up his sleepy, isolated community with the help of these youngsters, and soon becomes its Mayor in the process. 

Ernest Vincent Wright was a graduate of M.I.T. and served in the First World War. A warehouse fire shortly after the book's publication accounts for its rarity. With dust jacket it is absolutely scarce. According to the jacket blurb it took Wright 150 days to complete the work, but, apparently it was years in the making; hamstringing your keyboard will only go so far - you have to plan ahead. The novel, such as it is, has become legend in word circles, admired by lexicographers, lipogrammatists, puzzlers, and language freaks.

Gadsby has its own Wikipedia page which notes: "The book's scarcity and oddness has seen original copies priced at $4,000 by book dealers."

Wikipedia needs to update its entry. There is only one copy with dust jacket currently being offered in the marketplace. The asking price is $7,500.


NB: In further honor of Lipogram Day this post was written without "X" being the first letter of a word. This, despite my best efforts to work Xanthans, Xanthate, Xanthein, Xanthene, Xanthine, Xanthins, Xanthoma, Xanthone, Xanthous, Xenogamy, Xenogeny, Xenolith, Xerosere, Xerox, Xiphoid, Xylidine, Xylidins, Xylitols, Xylocarp, Xylotomy, Xanthan, Xanthic, Xanthin, Xenopus, Xerarch, Xeroses, Xerosis, Xerotic, Xeruses, Xiphoid, Xylenes, Xylidin, Xylitol, Xyloses, Xysters, Xebecs, Xenial, Xenias, Xenons, Xylans, Xylems, Xylene, Xyloid, Xylols, Xylose, Xylyls, Xyster, Xystoi, Xystos, Xystus, Xebec, Xenia, Xenic, Xenon, Xeric, Xerus, Xylan, Xylem, Xylol, Xylyl, Xysti, Xyst, Xerostomia, or Xylophone into the narrative. 

No excuse.

WRIGHT, Ernest Vincent. Gadsby. A Story of Over 50,000 Words Without Using the Letter "E." Los Angeles, Wetzel Publishing Co., (1939). First edition. Octavo. 267 pp. Original red cloth stamped in black on upper cover and spine. Dust jacket.

Image courtesy of Rulon-Miller Books, currently offering this title, with our thanks.


  1. Ah, well I have another copy of the same book in stock — without the dust-jacket but with two little treasures laid in:

    (1) an unpublished studio portrait of the author in uniform ca 1920, from one of his sisters, and

    (2) a crude but legible copy of the author’s unpublished typescript 1936–37 page 37 (only), preserving a different and earlier version of the text on pages 82–84, about 300 words.

    My copy comes from the libraries of (1) Nelson Slade Bond (1908–2006) of Roanoke, Virginia, writer and bookseller, “a pioneer in early science fiction and fantasy”, and (2) Fred J. Board (1916–2005) of Stamford, Connecticut, legendary collector of ‘book oddities’ (Basbanes _A gentle madness_ 1995, 404ff).


  2. EV Wright wrote books of poetry about fairies and is best remembered for the poem, "When father carved the duck"!


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