Literature Fun Facts
Authors below are alphabetized by last name.
July 1814, when Sir Walter Scott’s first novel Waverly was published, Jane Austen was a bit jealous. She wrote the following in a letter to her niece:
“Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.—It is not fair.—He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.—I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverly if I can help it—but fear I must.”
Ironically, today Jane Austen is a much more popular author than her contemporary Sir Walter Scott.
John Berryman, the author of The Dream Songs, was an American 20th century poet famous for his confessional poems. He taught at several universities, including Harvard and Princeton.
Like Father, Like Son
When John Berryman was twelve, his father John Smith committed suicide by shooting himself. In 1972, at age 57, John Berryman followed his father’s footsteps. Depression, heavy drinking, and instability dominated Berryman’s life until finally he jumped off of the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The pilgrim Chaucer on his way to Canterbury
Most Expensive Book
The news of an original copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales made it to the Guinness Book of World Records in 1998. The original copies of Canterbury Tales were printed in 1477 by William Caxton, the first printer to introduce the printing press in England. Only one of these first copies is still in private hands and was sold in an auction on July 8, 1998, for £4,621,500, making it the most expensive book ever sold.
Fat Monks and the Sin of Gluttony
Chaucer’s Monk in the Canterbury Tales was described in the Prologue as “a lord ful fat and in good point” (line 200). A new study finds that Chaucer’s description of the Monk as a person who loves to eat and is overweight is accurate. A 2004 study by archaeologists at University College London found that monks during medieval days were actually gluttons. Archaeologists studied one hundred monk skeletons at 3 abbeys dating from the medieval period. The bones were thick; joint problems from obesity were evident; and there were signs of arthritis—all of these proved that monks were actually overweight, as portrayed in paintings and literature of medieval times. Another study estimates that some monks consumed about 6,000 calories a day. Eating was a physical pleasure monks could enjoy!
Chaucer was the first poet to be buried in Westminster Abbey—initiating the Poets’ Corner. Today there are 29 poets buried and 55 poets commemorated in the Poets’ Corner.
Daniel Defoe (Foe)
The famous author of Robinson Crusoe changed his name in 1703 from Foe to Defoe. He believed that Defoe is “more socially and upward sounding” than Foe is.
His most famous story, A Christmas Carol, became more popular than his other classics, such as Oliver Twist, though it received less attention from literary critics than some of the other Dickens’s novels. Dickens, at age 31, wrote the short novel in 6 weeks and rushed it to be published before Christmas. The book was out December 19, 1843—the same year that the first Christmas card on record was sent (go to Christmas, scroll down to "Christmas Cards"). A Christmas Carol was Dickens’s first unserialized work. Most of the characters were based on people he knew personally, including Ebenezer Scrooge—based on Ebenezer Scroggie, a counselor at Edinburgh. Within its first year of publication, A Christmas Carol sold 15,000 copies and inspired the production of about 10 stage dramas.
In Enfield, Connecticut, in 1741, Jonathan Edwards authored and preached America’s most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He is a theologian, who played perhaps the greatest role to bring the Great Awakening to America. But what kind of descendents did he and his wife Sarah Edwards leave behind?
Steven J. Lawson, in his book, The Legacy published by Multnomah Books, 1998 (p. 13-14), cites a study by New York state sociologists who traced Jonathan Edwards’s legacy by tracing his male descendents. The following was the result of Edwards’s male descendents, proving the influence two parents can have on many generations to come:
- 300 clergymen, missionaries, or theological professors
- 120 college professors
- 110 lawyers
- 60 (or more) physicians
- 60 (or more) authors of books
- 30 judges
- 14 presidents of universities
- 3 U.S. congressmen
- 1 U.S. vice president
Writer, politician, scientist, Benjamin Franklin’s accomplishments were numerous. His great literary works are Poor Richard’s Almanack, Father Abraham's Sermon or The Way to Wealth, and Autobiography. Besides his literary and political accomplishments, the following are several more of his achievements:
- He proved that lightening is electricity.
- He invented the lightning rod.
- He invented a special cast iron stove—the Franklin stove.
- He invented a special rocking chair.
- He invented a carriage odometer.
- He discovered the gulf stream, or ocean current.
- He invented the bifocals, which cost in 1785 around $100, just about how much they cost today.
- He invented a glass harmonica.
- He founded a fire department.
- He founded the first lending public library (with a book lending system similar to our modern public libraries’ system).
- He founded the first fire insurance company.
- He helped to open a hospital.
- He helped to create the first efficient postal system in America.
- He helped found the University of Pennsylvania.
Franklin was famous for his proverbs, mostly published in Poor Richard’s Almanack. The following are a few of his proverbs:
- To find out a girl’s faults, praise her to her girl friends.
- If Jack is in love, he is no judge of Jill’s beauty.
- Kill no more pigeons than you can eat.
- To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals.
- Plough deep while sluggards sleep.
- Having been poor is no shame, but being ashamed of it is.
- Genius without education is like silver in the mine.
- A countryman between two lawyers is like a fish between two cats.
- Never confuse motion with action.
- Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.
- If you would persuade, you must appeal to interest rather than intellect.
- Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do.
At age 22, while working as a printer, Benjamin Franklin wrote the following epitaph for his grave:
“The body of Benjamin Franklin, Printer (like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding), lies here, food for worms; but the work shall not be lost, for it will (as he believed) appear once more in a new and more elegant edition, revised and corrected by the Author. He was born Jan. 6. 1706. Died 17—.”
Many years later, he changed his mind. Today the following inscription is on his grave: “Benjamin and Deborah Franklin: 1790.”
Reunited after 140 Years
In 2006, after 142 years of separation, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia were finally reunited—or at least their body remains were. Hawthorne died in 1864 and was buried in the Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts (along with Concord’s finest Romantic writers: Thoreau, Alcott, and Emerson). However, Sophia, who outlived her husband by seven years, died while living in London, and so did their daughter Una. Hawthorne’s great grandchild 93-year old Joan Deming Ensor consented that the bones of Hawthorne’s wife and daughter be brought from England to Concord and buried with Hawthorne. A ceremony took place June 26, 2006.
Author’s Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, Concord, Massachusetts
One of the greatest enlightenment philosophers, Immanuel Kant attempted to bring a compromise between empiricism (John Locke) and rationalism (Rene Descartes and others). His metaphysical philosophy was based on separating the noumenal (that of itself—the true nonphysical reality of things) and the phenomenal (physical) worlds. His three most famous works are Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Practical Reason, and Critique of Judgment.
A Peculiar, Meticulous Man
Kant’s personal life is known for its peculiarity and oddity. The following are a few fun facts about Kant’s personal life:
- The farthest he traveled from his birth place (Königsberg, Germany) was 40 miles. He went that far only because he had to travel with a family for whom he was hired to tutor its children.
- He was a creature of discipline and habit. He took his walk everyday at 3:00 pm sharp. It is said that people set their clocks and watches by his walk. Even on a rainy day, his servant walked along with him to hold the umbrella. It is believed that the only time he was late on his walk was the day he read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, or On Education. His late walk on that day confused the town people!
- He endeavored to be healthy. While outside in public, he tried to breathe through his nose and not his mouth, to filter out germs. Sometimes he even did not respond to greeters for fear of opening his mouth and breathing in a sickness.
- He was less than 5 feet tall with a drooping left shoulder.
- He was very slow and logical in making all his decisions. Twice he thought of marrying, but the time it took him to weigh in all issues and reasons to make a decision was too long. By the time made the decision to marry, he was too late: one woman already married someone else, and the other was no longer in town.
- He opposed reading novels, and expressed a dislike to folk music.
- Toward the end of his life, he used his reason, logic, meticulous calculations, and extensive studies of medical journals to calculate how long he would live.
- Toward the end of his life, he said, “Life is a burden to me; I am tired of bearing it.” He would not commit suicide believing suicide to be morally wrong.
- His last words were, “It is good!” He died February 12, 1804.
John Keats was only about 5 feet tall—nevertheless, by the time he died at age 24, he was a literary giant, surpassing any other 24-year old English writer. We can only wonder if Keats were to live to be an old man if his popularity today would exceed that of Shakespeare.
Height of other British Romantic Authors:
William Blake: 5 feet
William Wordsworth: 5 feet, 9 inches
Percy Shelley: 5 feet, 11 inches
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Two years after Lonfellow's wife’s death in a fire and while still grieving her death, Longfellow received the news that his son Lieutenant Charles Appleton Longfellow was seriously injury fighting in the Battle of New Hope Church, Virginia, for the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War. On Christmas Day in 1863, saddened by the news, he heard the church bell ringing and was inspired to write one of the most popular Christmas songs, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The following are four of its seven original stanzas.
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Assassination or Murder?
The story behind Marlowe’s death at age 29 is controversial. According to traditional history, Marlowe died in a brawl at a local tavern, stabbed to death by another man. However, the fact that Marlowe was somewhat involved with some mysterious issue with Queen Elizabeth makes the reason for his death to be a possible political assassination. Therefore, his temper revealed in his last brawl that caused his death might be just a cover up of an unknown bigger reason for his death. For more information on this topic, check out The World of Christopher Marlowe, by the scholar David Riggs.
Where Would Shakespeare Be without Marlowe?
Marlowe, a Shakespeare contemporary, rose to fame in his twenties, before Shakespeare had accomplished any notable work. Marlowe was a pioneer in composing blank verse (unrhymed poetry) and using iambic pentameter for his two famous plays (Tamberlaine and Dr. Faustus). Shakespeare, who rose to fame soon after Marlowe, copied Marlowe’s style in all of his thirty-seven plays.
John Milton composed the greatest epic in the English language Paradise Lost after he was blind (between 1658 and 1664). He claimed that he received nightly divine inspiration, and during the day he composed his epic. Paradise Lost is packed with biblical and mythological allusions—attesting to Milton’s vast knowledge and incredible memory.
Sir Isaac Newton
The World Will End in 2060!
Sir Isaac Newton wrote a letter in 1704 in which he predicted that the end of the world would be in 2060. The father of modern science had an interest in biblical prophecy as well. Newton came up with this prediction after a detailed study of various biblical texts.
Sylvia Plath, who did not reach her 31st birthday, gained a status with the greatest 20th century American writers—as a children’s author, novelist, poet, and a short story writer. However, it seems today she is most famous for her depression, emotional struggles, and suicide attempts.
Her first suicide attempt was during a summer when she was a college student at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She swallowed sleeping pills under her house.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes
Later she married the English poet Ted Hughes (who in 1984 became the British Poet Laureate until his death in 1998). She had two children and a miscarriage. Losing an unborn child and dealing with an unfaithful husband did not help her emotional instability. Sylvia and her husband separated; she became a single mother dealing with sicknesses and lack of money. Just a few months after separating from her husband and moving into an apartment with her two children, on February 11, 1963, she committed suicide. While her children slept, she went into the kitchen, shut the door, and sealed with towels any cracks. She then turned the oven gas on and stuck her head deep into the oven.
Edgar Allan Poe
“The Raven” is Poe’s most famous poem. It was first published in the Evening Mirror on January 29, 1845, and brought immediate fame to its author, but very little money.
The following is the story behind “The Raven” as told in a lecture by the poet himself. Poe explained how he came up with the idea for the poem through the following steps.
- Length: Poe started with a goal of writing a 100-line poem, believing that poetry (or prose) should not be too long that they could not be read in one sitting (the poem ended up being 108 lines).
- Effect and Tone: Poe wanted beauty to be its effect and melancholy to be its tone.
- Letters: Poe thought of two letters that their sound he thought would fit the melancholy tone, the vowel o and the consonant r.
- Word: Thinking of a word that includes both letters, Poe chose the word “nevermore” to be repeated in the poem.
- Character: Poe wanted a nonhuman creature to repeat the word. His first choice of a parrot did not fit his tone. He settled on a raven.
- Topic: Now that Poe has the tone as melancholy, the word “nevermore,” and the character the raven, he chose the topic to be the death of a woman mourned by a young man.
- Setting: Poe than established the setting: a beautiful room filled with memories of the dead woman. The room will combine both the lover and the raven.
- Plot: Poe than created the plot: late at night, a raven flies to a lit room of a weary student doing school work late into the night and mourning the death of his love Lenore. The raven, reminding the young scholar of Lenore and refusing to leave the bust of pallas it perched on, added much to the scholar's distress.
Samuel Richardson wrote the longest novel in the English language, Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady—about 1 million words. He is known to be the first English modern novelist, and was the first English writer whose main characters were women, not men. Clarissa was published in 1748. It is an epistolary novel—composed entirely of letters written by the characters. These letters reveal plot, conflict, characterization, and themes of the novel. The story is of Clarissa and the young man Lovelace whose desperation to marry Clarissa and not her sister compels him to abduct her hoping she’ll consent to marry him. It is a story of love, abduction, rape, revenge written in what many consider to be endless, tedious letters.
Mary Rowlandson established two important “firsts” in American literary history:
1. She was the first American writer to establish a new indigenous American literary genre (the captivity narrative).
2. She was the first woman in America to have a best seller. Her work A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson went through four editions within its first year of publication in 1682.
The full title of Rowlandson's captivity narrative is among the longest titles of literary works.
Image to the right is the title page for the first publication in 1682.
The following is the title she wrote for the second edition:
The sovereignty and goodness of GOD, together with the faithfulness of his promises displayed, being a narrative of the captivity and restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson, commended by her, to all that desire to know the Lord's doings to, and dealings with her. Especially to her dear children and relations. The second Addition Corrected and amended. Written by her own hand for her private use, and now made public at the earnest desire of some friends, and for the benefit of the afflicted. Deut. 32.39. See now that I, even I am he, and there is no god with me, I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal, neither is there any can deliver out of my hand.
Natives executing a Puritan woman
History of Her Captivity
During the 1670s, in the New England area, tensions between native Americans and European settlers escalated resulting in King Philip’s War (1675-1676). Metacomet (known to the settlers as King Philip), chief of the Wampanoag Indians united with other native tribes in order to fight and protect their lands. On February 10, 1676, a Wampanoag party attacked Mary Rowlandson’s town, Lancaster, Massachusetts (30 miles west of Boston). As a result, Mary was taken captive. Her captivity narrative narrates her 20 removes (marching from one location to another). These removes took her on a journey of 150 miles, until she was ransomed for 20 pounds on May 2, 1676. She saw the death of her daughter and other relatives and friends.
Harry Potter sold about 400 million copies worldwide and has been translated into over 65 languages.
Though before the book's popularity, Joanne Rowling had some difficulty finding a publisher that believed her book could amount to anything. Finally Bloomsburry Press agreed to publish the first edition of Harry Potter, but only printed 500 copies for the first edition for fear of them not selling. Also the publisher requested that the author would not use her first name (Joanne) but rather her initials to make it less obvious that the author is a woman assuming that the book's main audience young boys would not want to read a wizard book written by a woman. Since Joanne Rowling did not have a middle name, she chose K for Kathleen.
Harry Potter, First Edition
Those who bought a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stonecould could make a fortune today! Harry Potter's first edition copies are worth thousands.
- A hardback first edition copy was sold for £10,575 at a Sotheby's auction in 2002.
- Another soft cover first edition copy was sold at the Dallas Auction House for $19,120.
- In August 2005, AbeBooks.com sold a first edition for £20,000.
- Another anonymous bidder paid $40,326 for a first edition at Christie’s auction house in London.
For 2004, the US defense budgeted $1 million to bring productions of William Shakespeare’s Othello to several military bases.
All of Shakespeare’s plays (Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies) were first published in a volume called First Folio in 1623 (seven years after his death). In 1685, the Fourth Folio was printed. With fewer than 80 copies left today of the Fourth Folio, one copy was up for sale by Argosy Book Store, New York, a few years ago for $185,000.
Go to Bible to learn about a possible subliminal message that Shakespeare inserted in the King James translation of the English Bible.
Taylor is a metaphysical lyricist whose greatest poems were forgotten and unknown to the world for about 200 years. Taylor died in 1729; later his grandson Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, brought Taylor’s poetry to Yale University library where they were forgotten until their discovery in 1937 by Thomas H. Johnson. Today he is considered to be the greatest American metaphysical poet. His poetry is full of farfetched and elaborate metaphors and similes, allusions, puns, and paradoxes. His most famous are his Preparatory Meditations before My Approach to the Lord's Supper, 217 poems written as means to meditate to prepare himself to partake of the Lord’s Super.
Painting of Alfred Tennyson, by George Frederic Watts
Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, had a very early poetical talent. He wrote the following about his early gift: “The first poetry that moved me was my own at five years old. When I was eight, I remember making a line I thought grander than Campbell, or Byron, or Scott. I rolled it out, it was this: ‘With slaughterous sons of thunder rolled the flood’—great nonsense of course, but I thought it fine.”
Michel Thaler, a French writer, published a 233-page novel without using any verbs. The novel is Le Train de Nulle Part (The Nowhere Train). Thaler states that verbs are like weeds among flowers; the weeds should be removed.
Henry David Thoreau
Harvard Diploma Not Worth $5
When Thoreau graduated from Harvard, he did think it was worth it to pay the $5 fee to receive his diploma. He left without a diploma.
Thoreau’s last two words while on his death bed were “moose” and “Indian.” The meaning and significance of these two words is still not clear today.
At Walden Pond: a statue of Thoreau and a replica of his Walden Pond cabin
Mark Twain was the first notable American author who placed black and white Americans on the same social rank—Huckleberry Finn and Jim.
“All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it, you must stop where Jim is stolen from the boys. That’s the real end. The rest is just cheating.” Ernest Hemingway
Mark Twain’s Sayings
- Honesty is the best policy—when there is money in it.
- The serpent should have been forbidden, not the apple—because they would have eaten the serpent.
- Habit is not to be thrown out of the window, but it is to be coaxed down the stairs, one step at a time.
- I never smoke more than one cigar–*pause*—at a time.
- Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.
- There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate—when he can’t afford it and when he can.
- The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow.
- Everything in human is pathetic.
- I have seen slower and lazier people [than Mark Twain], but they were dead.
- Clothes make the man; naked people have little or no influence in society.
- Don’t go to sleep; so many people die there.