Is Cast Away by Robert Zemeckis Based On A True Story?
It might be a work of fiction, but real-life events and survival stories inspired the Tom Hanks survival drama Cast Away – so, is Cast Away a true story adaptation? While it may not be inspired by one particular individual, the film is based on many real-life experiences. The movie was written by William Boyles Jr., and directed by Back To The Future‘s Robert Zemeckis. It follows a FedEx executive, Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), after he’s stranded on a deserted island in the middle of the South Pacific by a plane crash. Isolated for four years, Noland struggles to survive and stay sane, with his only company being Wilson, a volleyball that was part of the plane’s cargo that has a face painted using Noland’s own bloody handprint.
Noland braved the elements and managed to survive for years, eventually being able to return home. While researching and writing the script for Cast Away, Broyles consulted professional survival experts before taking the significant step of deliberately isolating himself on an island in the Gulf of California, intending to put himself in the shoes of his main character. Broyles’ experiences on the island informed many of the critical moments portrayed in Cast Away.
Broyles discussed his time in isolation and how it later inspired the screenplay in an interview with The Austin Chronicle. Broyles speared and ate stingrays on the island, drank coconut juice, built a tent out of bamboo and palm leaves, and struggled to make his own fire. Recalling his loneliness during his days on the island, Broyles explained how the experience gave him an understanding of “what it means to be truly alone.” When Broyles found a deserted volleyball on the beach one day, he named it Wilson, which served as inspiration for Noland’s only friend during his four years on the island. While the experiences were forged from reality, is Cast Away a true story in the wider narrative sense?
Is Cast Away Based On A True Story?
Cast Away was initially inspired by Robinson Crusoe, and Elvis actor Tom Hanks had the idea to do a modern-day version of Daniel Defoe’s classic adventure story. Hanks told The Hollywood Reporter that he was inspired by a news article about FedEx. “I realized that 747s filled with packages fly across the Pacific three times a day,” said Hanks. He wondered, “what happens if (the plane) goes down?” This question sparked the idea that would evolve into Cast Away. Like Defoe’s historical fiction, Cast Away was inspired by the lives of real-world explorers. Alexander Selkirk is thought to have been the biggest inspiration behind Defoe’s novel, and he was a Scottish castaway who spent four years on a Pacific island in the early 1700s. After being rescued by an English expedition in 1709, Edward Cooke, who was part of the rescue team, wrote about Selkirk in his book, A Voyage to the South Sea, and Round the World.
So, technically speaking, is Cast Away a true story? Sort of. A range of other real-life castaways inspired some of literature’s most famous stories, including Spanish sailor Pedro Serrano, who was reportedly shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Nicaragua in the first half of the 16th century. Ada Blackjack was another, sometimes referred to as a «female Crusoe» – she was a seamstress who became stranded on an island near Siberia in 1921 but was only rescued two years later. These explorers and others like them helped to inspire Tom Hanks’ Chuck Noland and his experiences in his island location in Cast Away.
Is Cast Away a true story? The real-life tales of survival that inspired the Tom Hanks movie
What is Cast Away about?
Tom Hanks stars in the movie as a FedEx worker Chuck Noland, who washes up on a desert island after his plane crash lands.
As he adapts to life alone in the uninhabited spot, he uses what he has around him to stay alive for the next four years.
Key moments include him turning a volleyball into a “friend” he calls Wilson, which becomes the only thing Hanks’ character can talk to.
While the film is primarily centred on Hanks, whose performance won him a Golden Globe award, other cast members include Helen Hunt, Paul Sanchez and Nick Searcy.
It was directed by Robert Zemeckis.
How did the film’s makers research Cast Away?
In the creation of the film, screenwriter William Broyles Jr spent a few days alone on an isolated beach near Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, to get an idea of what it was like.
According to reports in The Austin Chronicle from 2000, the experience taught Broyles more about what it really means to be lonely.
“I realized it wasn’t just a physical challenge. It was going to be an emotional, spiritual one as well,” he told the publication
While there, he made himself find his own food, water, which included breaking open coconuts and eating speared stingrays, and building shelter made of bamboo and palm leaves.
It was during this time, that he also came up with the idea for Wilson the volleyball companion, as a ball washed up on the beach he was staying on and he began to talk to it. The name was Wilson was simply the brand of the ball.
Is is based on a true story?
While the exact story of Cast Away is not thought to be a true story, there are several real-life accounts of people who spent time on uninhabited lands that may have provided inspiration.
Among the most famous is the story of Alexander Selkirk, who is known by some as a real-life Robinson Crusoe, inspiring the Daniel Defoe novel.
Selkirk travelled around the South Pacific in the early 1700s, taking part in buccaneering pursuits.
He chose to be left on the uninhabited Juan Fernández archipelago near Chile, as he feared the ship he had travelled on was too dangerous to continue the journey.
He took a few items with him from the ship, including a knife, bedding and a Bible, and was left to hunt for his own food which included lobsters and feral goats.
The story goes, that he was forced from the shores of the island further inland after masses of sea lions came to the beaches for mating season.
It was not an easy existence, and his time on the deserted land was full of loneliness and remorse, as well as physical challenges such as attacks from rats – though feral cats proved useful in keeping the rodents at bay.
He built huts out of materials he found on the islands, made his own clothes from animal skins and chased prey.
He was eventually rescued in 1709, four years after his arrival, when a ship came by and took him aboard.
He later spent more time at sea, continuing his privateering voyages and returned to London for some time, where his story became well known.
Accounts of Selkirk’s experiences were later published in newspaper articles of the times and in books by his former shipmate Edward Cooke and the leader of the expedition on the ship that had rescued him, Woodes Rogers.
What other real life castaways were there?
There were several more real life castaways over the years, some of whom had ended up in isolation by force, and others of their own accord.
They include Ada Blackjack who was stranded on Wrangel Island near Siberia in 1921 after a mission aboard a ship where she was a seamstress, went wrong.
Unlike Tom Hanks in the film, she was left trying to survive in cold climates, with just a cat who had been aboard the ship for company.
The animals in the area included seals, arctic foxes and polar bears, which would have been all she had to hunt after rations from the ship ran out.
She was eventually rescued in 1923 and became known in some accounts as the female Robinson Crusoe.
Another castaway was a French woman Marguerite de La Rocque, who in 1542 was made to stay on an island near Quebec, Île des Démons, after her uncle caught her sleeping with a man aboard their ship and left them both on the uninhabited land.
According to The Mirror,their time on the island was not a happy one, as while there, the young woman became pregnant but both her child and her partner died.
She was eventually rescued by a boat and returned to France, after roughly two years.
Other people who experienced life as castaways in various ways and may have provided some inspiration for the film, include Tom Neale, a New Zealand bushcraft and survival enthusiast who spent much of his life in the Cook Islands, and a total of 16 years – in three sessions – living alone on the island of Anchorage in the Suwarrow atoll, which was the basis of his popular autobiography An Island To Oneself; Leendert Hasenbosch who was an employee of the Dutch East India Company marooned on Ascension Island in the South Atlantic Ocean as a punishment for sodomy and Narcisse Pelletier, born in Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in the Vendée who was a French sailor. Pelletier was abandoned in 1858 at the age of 14 on the Cape York Peninsula, in Australia, during the dry season.
Golden leaves falling from the trees Covering the streets I’m walking with my restless feet Empty seats, fancy deficiency There’s so much I need
Fucking wish to being overseas Wish your head is lying on my knees Remembering a summer breeze Fucking wish to being overseas Wish your head is lying on my knees Like it used to be
And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And our love will last
Like the storms and the spray of the sea Like the roots of the highest trees Like apologies and it will grow Like the strongest of all the seeds And it will feed our mouth And breath in a summer breeze Our hearts in a steady beat ‘Cause how could I sleep While the storm chops down all the trees Tell me, what are you doing to me? Tell me, what are you doing to me?
And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And our love will last
Like Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last And our love will last And then I dream about Being Robinson Crusoe I hide away on my single raft And then I dream about It will be exactly the same thing that you do And we could stay on a lonely island As long as our love will last
Message in a Bottle by The Police
Message in a Bottle by The Police
ust a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh More loneliness than any man could bear Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah
A year has passed since I wrote my note I should have known this right from the start Only hope can keep me together Love can mend your life Or love can break your heart
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah
Message in a bottle, yeah Oh, message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah
Walked out this morning, I don’t believe what I saw Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore Seems I’m not alone at being alone Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home
I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I’ll send an S.O.S to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my
I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, oh Message in a bottle, yeah
Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S Sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S I’m sending out an S.O.S
Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle, creator of the most famous detective in English literature, was born on May 22, 1859, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Charles Altamont Doyle, was a chronic alcoholic, while his mother, Mary, passed her gift for storytelling to her son. Arthur recalled his mother’s habit of “sinking her voice to a horror-stricken whisper” as she reached the climax of a tale. Her stories overshadowed the hardships of a home with little money and an erratic father. “In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all,” Arthur said, “the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.”
Any innocence that was salvaged from that childhood ended during Arthur’s early education. Beginning at age nine, wealthier Doyle family members paid his way through the Jesuit boarding school Hodder Place, where he spent seven unhappy years in Stonyhurst, England, plagued by bigotry in academic subjects and the brutal corporal punishment common to such schools of the period. His only relief came in corresponding with his mother and practicing sports, mainly cricket, at which he excelled. He also discovered his own aptitude for storytelling during these years, drawing upon his innate sense of humor to delight younger students, who would crowd around to listen.
After graduating in 1876, Arthur returned to Scotland, determined not to follow in his father’s footsteps. “Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full blooded and a trifle reckless. But the situation called for energy and application so that one was bound to try to meet it. My mother had been so splendid that I could not fail her,” he wrote years later. The first necessary action was to co-sign the committal papers of his father, who was by then seriously demented, to a lunatic asylum.
Aside from Charles, the Doyle family held a prominent position in the world of art, and it would have been natural for Arthur to have immediately carried on in that tradition. But he chose medicine instead, attending the University of Edinburgh to complete his training. At the university he met several fellow students who would later become major British authors, including James Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson. But the man with the greatest influence over seventeen-year-old Arthur was a teacher, Dr. Joseph Bell, who ultimately inspired the character of Sherlock Holmes. One can clearly see the qualities Arthur most admired in Dr. Bell in the detective. “It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes,” he wrote the doctor. “…[R]ound the centre of deduction and inference and observation which I have heard you inculcate I have tried to build up a man.”
Holmes would not appear for several years, but it was during medical school that Arthur began to write short stories. The first piece, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley, was reminiscent of his favorite authors, Edgar Alan Poe and Bret Harte, and was accepted for publication in Chamber’s Journal, an Edinburgh magazine. The next story, The American Tale, was published the same year in London Society. “It was in this year,” he wrote later, “that I first learned that shillings might be earned in other ways than by filling phials.”
At the age of twenty and in his third year of medical school, Arthur boarded the whaling boat Hope as the ship’s surgeon, traveling to the shores of Greenland for the crew’s seal and whale hunts. “I went on board the whaler a big straggling youth. I came off a powerful well-grown man,” he reflected. The trip had “awakened the soul of a born wanderer.” He returned to school in 1880, and while he struggled with his medical studies after his Arctic adventure, he nevertheless completed his Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degree a year later, officially becoming Dr. Arthur Conan Doyle.
The new doctor opened his first private practice in Portsmouth. Although it is said he only had £10 to his name when he began, by the end of three years he was starting to make a living for himself. In 1885 he married Louisa Hawkins, a “gentle and amiable” young woman. In the midst of his medical practice and new marriage, he also spent time developing his writing career. In 1886 he began A Tangled Skein, a novel featuring characters named Sheridan Hope and Ormond Stacker. When it was published two years later in Beeton’s Christmas Annual, he had changed the title to A Study in Scarlet and now introduced readers to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson.
Sherlock Holmes quickly became world famous, and so began a dichotomy in Conan Doyle’s life. He struggled between the commercial success of the Holmes stories and his preference for writing historical novels, poems, and plays, which he believed would bring him recognition as a serious author. Another disparity arose between Conan Doyle’s brilliant use of logic and deduction, on one hand, and his fascination with the paranormal and spiritualism, a practice to which he became devoted later in life, on the other.
By the late 1880s, Conan Doyle was better known in the United States than in England. But in 1889 the publisher of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in Philadelphia came to London to create a British edition of the magazine. He arranged a dinner with Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde. The two writers got along famously. (“It was indeed a golden evening for me,” Conan Doyle wrote), and the publisher commissioned a short novel from Conan Doyle, which was published in 1890 in both England and the U.S. This story, The Sign of Four, played a significant role in elevating the profile of Sherlock Holmes and his creator in literary history.
In order to write The Sign of the Four, however, the young author had to put aside an historical novel on which he had been working, The White Company. As this was the type of literature he most enjoyed writing, he felt he would never find as much satisfaction in or accomplishment in the Holmes series. “I was young and full of the first joy of life and action,” he remarked about writing The White Company, “and I think I got some of it into my pages. When I wrote the last line, I remember that I cried: ‘Well, I’ll never beat that’ and threw the inky pen at the opposite wall.”
After a brief move to Austria, Conan Doyle relocated to London, opening an ophthalmology practice in Upper Wimpole Street. Lacking any patients, however, he had plenty of time to contemplate the next step in his career. He decided to write a series of short stories featuring Sherlock Holmes. It turned out to be the most profitable decision of his life. His agent made a deal with The Strand Magazine to publish the stories, and the visual likeness of Holmes was immortalized by illustrator Sidney Paget, who used his brother Walter as a model. The artistic collaboration between Conan Doyle and Paget would last for many decades, branding both the persona and the image of Sherlock Holmes worldwide.
Conan Doyle’s medical career came to an end after a near-death bout of influenza in 1891, which helped to clarify his priorities. “With a rush of joy” he chose to step away from his medical career. “I remember in my delight taking the handkerchief which lay upon the coverlet in my enfeebled hand, and tossing it up to the ceiling in my exultation,” he recalled. “I should at last be my own master.”
Being his own master, however, involved making artistic choices that did not always meet with public approval. Conan Doyle felt burdened by Sherlock Holmes. In November 1891 he wrote to his mother,
“I think of slaying Holmes…and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things.” In December 1893 he did the deed, killing off Sherlock Holmes in The Final Problem by sending the detective and his nemesis, Professor Moriarty, plummeting to their deaths at the Reichenbach Falls. The author was now free of the character that had eclipsed what he considered his better work. But his mother had warned him, “You may do what you deem fit, but the crowds will not take this lightheartedly,” and indeed, twenty thousand readers expressed their disapproval by cancelling their subscriptions to The Strand Magazine.
The Hound of Baskervilles, serialized in The Strand Magazine beginning in 1901, was inspired by a stay on the Devonshire moors in southwest England. The real-life Fox Tor Mires were supposedly the inspiration for the novel’s great Grimpen Mire, the prison at Dartmoor contributed to the idea of an escaped convict – Slasher Seldon – on the loose, and folklore lent the spectral hound to the story. At some point, however, Conan Doyle realized his tale lacked a hero. He’s quoted as having said, “Why should I invent such a character, when I already have him in the form of Sherlock Holmes?” Since he had killed off Sherlock in The Final Problem, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles as if it was a previously untold Holmes caper. In subsequent Holmes stories Conan Doyle brought the detective back, explaining that he had not actually died along with Professor Moriarty but had arranged to be temporarily “dead” to evade his other dangerous enemies.
In his personal life, Conan Doyle was dealing with weighty issues. Louisa had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in the 1890s. The prognosis was dire, but Conan Doyle was able to nurse her years beyond her doctors’ expectations. He also, however, fell in love with another woman during that time. When Louisa died in his arms in 1906, he had been involved in a clandestine, although platonic, courtship with Jean Elizabeth Leckie for nine years. Conan Doyle fought a deep depression for several months after Louisa’s death, but roused himself by helping to exonerate a young man who had been accused of vicious crimes that the former doctor realized the man wasn’t capable of committing. The next year, Jean Leckie became Lady Conan Doyle.
The young man was the first of several individuals on whose behalf Conan Doyle intervened in the courts. He was deeply committed to justice and public service and used his instincts and training to further those causes. Turned down for military service in both the Boer War and World War I due to his age, he nevertheless volunteered as a medical doctor in South Africa during the Boer War. In 1902 he was knighted by King Edward VII for his service to the Crown. He also twice ran for Parliament as a Liberal Unionist, earning respectable votes but neither time winning the election.
Conan Doyle had five children – a daughter and a son with Louisa and two sons and a daughter with Jean – and lost five men in his family – his first son, brother, two brothers-in-law, and two nephews – in World War I. After his marriage to Jean, the pace of his writing subsided considerably. He did, however, give playwriting further attention. 1912’s The Speckled Band, was based on a well-known Holmes story. It proved both a critical and commercial success on the stage, unlike some of his earlier plays. Before too long, though, Conan Doyle decided to retire from theatrical work, “Not because it doesn’t interest me, but because it interests me too much.”
He may be best known as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, but Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger series, which began with The Lost World in 1912, was also highly successful and made a profound mark on the as-yet-unnamed “science fiction” genre. Increasingly, the celebrated author retreated into this world of science fiction, and also into spiritualism. He and his family traveled to three continents on psychic crusades. He spent over £250,000 on his religious pursuits and wrote primarily about spiritualism for a period, until the financial toll drove him back to writing fiction. First came three more Professor Challenger books, followed by a compilation of Sherlock Holmes adventures in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes in 1927.
Near the end of his life, Conan Doyle was diagnosed with angina pectoris, commonly caused by coronary heart disease. Pushing himself to the end, he took one final psychic tour of northern Europe in late 1929, after which he was bedridden for the rest of his days. He died on July 7, 1930, surrounded by his family, whispering his last words to Jean: “You are wonderful.” The epitaph on his gravestone in the churchyard at Minstead in the New Forest, Hampshire, reads, “Steel True/Blade Straight/Arthur Conan Doyle/Knight/Patriot, Physician & Man of Letters.” A statue honors him in Crowborough, East Sussex, England. And back in Edinburgh, close to the house in which the beloved writer was born, stands a statue of Sherlock Holmes.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes, led a robust life worthy of the pages of his fiction. He embarked on daring journeys to the Arctic and the Alps, investigated crimes and—though his most famous character is the paragon of rational thinking—staunchly believed in fairies and spirits. Here are 11 facts about this fascinating, complicated author.
1. Arthur Conan Doyle grew up in poverty.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1859, Conan Doyle was the second of seven surviving children. His father, the artist Charles Doyle, struggled with alcoholism and even stole from his children’s money boxes to fund his addiction. The family’s finances were chronically strained: “We lived in the hardy and bracing atmosphere of poverty,” Conan Doyle wrote in his autobiography. Charles was ultimately committed to an asylum due to his erratic behavior [PDF].
Throughout this domestic turbulence, the author’s mother, Mary Foley Doyle, was a stabilizing force. Conan Doyle credited her with kindling his imagination and flair for storytelling. «In my early childhood, as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories which she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life,” he recalled. “I am sure, looking back, that it was in attempting to emulate these stories of my childhood that I first began weaving dreams myself.»
2. Arthur Conan Doyle trained as a medical doctor.
When he was 17 years old, Conan Doyle began his studies at the University of Edinburgh’s medical school, graduating with Bachelor of Medicine and Master of Surgery degrees in 1881. Four years later, he completed his thesis on tabes dorsalis, a degenerative neurological disease, and earned his M.D. He later traveled to Vienna to study ophthalmology [PDF].
Conan Doyle established a medical practice in the English city of Portsmouth, where he also wrote his first two Sherlock Holmes novels: A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four. Holmes was based in part on one of his professors at medical school, Dr. Joseph Bell, known for his ability to deduce facts about his patients through close observation.
In 1891, Conan Doyle relocated to London to work as an ophthalmologist. The venture was not a resounding success; he would later joke that his rented offices had two waiting rooms: “I waited in the consulting room, and no one waited in the waiting room.” But that left Conan Doyle with ample time to devote to his budding literary career. He soon gave up medicine in favor of writing—a decision that he called “one of the great moments of exultation” in his life.
3. Arthur Conan Doyle traveled to the Arctic on a whaling expedition.
While in the midst of his medical studies, Conan Doyle accepted a position as a ship’s surgeon on a whaler headed to the Arctic Circle. A hardy young man with an adventurous spirit, he joined his shipmates in hunting seals, not at all deterred by his lack of experience on the ice and frequent tumbles into the freezing waters. Conan Doyle did have some qualms about the slaughter, writing that “those glaring crimson pools upon the dazzling white of the ice fields … did seem a horrible intrusion.” Nevertheless, he found the journey—particularly the whale hunts—exhilarating. “No man who has not experienced it,” Conan Doyle opined, “can imagine the intense excitement of whale fishing.”
4. Arthur Conan Doyle got sick of Sherlock Holmes.
The popularity of Sherlock Holmes skyrocketed after Conan Doyle struck a deal with the Strand Magazine to publish a series of short stories featuring the mastermind detective. Readers would line up at newsagents on the days that new issues dropped, and Conan Doyle eventually became one of the highest-paid writers of his day. But he grew exasperated by the public’s love for Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle also wrote historical novels, plays, and poetry, and he felt that his detective fiction overshadowed these other, more serious works. “I have had such an overdose of [Holmes] that I feel towards him as I do towards pâté de foie gras, of which I once ate too much, so that the name of it gives me a sickly feeling to this day,» the author quipped.
In the 1893 story “The Final Problem,” Conan Doyle killed off Holmes, sending him plunging to his death over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Fans were devastated; more than 20,000 of them canceled their subscriptions to the Strand in protest. Conan Doyle did not publish another Holmes story for eight years, ending his strike with The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place before Holmes’s death. In 1903, prompted by a tremendous offer from British and American publishers, Conan Doyle decided to resurrect his much-loved sleuth. Over the course of his career, he featured Holmes in 56 stories and four novels—now known to fans as the “Canon.”
5. Arthur Conan Doyle helped popularize Switzerland as a skiing destination.
In 1893, Conan Doyle’s first wife, Louisa, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The couple decided to head to Davos, in the Swiss Alps, hoping that the crisp, clear air would be beneficial to Louisa. Her health did improve, for a time, and Conan Doyle decided to take up skiing, a Norwegian sport that was new to Switzerland and virtually unknown in Britain. He wrote a humorous article in the Strand about his attempts to master skiing and his daring journey over the Furka Pass, which soars 8000 feet above sea level. The article was republished multiple times and drew attention to the Swiss Alps as a skiing destination. Today, a plaque in Davos honors Conan Doyle for “bringing this new sport and the attractions of the Swiss Alps in winter to the world.”
6. Arthur Conan Doyle believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.
Conan Doyle began exploring mystical ideas about spirits and the afterlife as a young doctor. In later life, he became one of the world’s most prominent advocates of Spiritualism, a movement rooted in the belief that the souls of the dead can communicate with the living, usually through a medium. Spiritualism took root in Britain during the Victorian era and continued to flourish in the years after WWI, when many families were eager to connect with lost loved ones. Conan Doyle’s own brother and son died during the influenza pandemic that swept the world in the wake of the Great War, and the author believed that they reached out to him during séances.
He wrote books on Spiritualism, debated the subject with skeptics and traveled the world delivering lectures on the Spiritualist cause, which he described as the “most important thing in the world, and the particular thing which the human race in its present state of development needs more than anything else.”
7. Arthur Conan Doyle also believed in fairies.
In 1920, a pair of startling photographs came to Conan Doyle’s attention. The images appeared to show two schoolgirls, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths, posing with fairies by a stream in the English village of Cottingley. After conducting what he believed to be a thorough investigation, Conan Doyle became convinced that the photographs were genuine, and wrote two articles and a book on the “Cottingley Fairies.” With a renowned author championing them, the photos became a sensation. Conan Doyle was widely ridiculed by those who believed the images were fake, but he remained steadfast; he hoped that the photographs would propel an incredulous public to “admit that there is a glamour and mystery to life” and, by extension, to accept the “spiritual message” that he worked tirelessly to promote.
In 1983, Wright and Griffiths finally confessed that the photographs were a hoax. The “fairies” were simply paper cutouts, copied from a children’s book, and propped up with hat pins. They had only meant to trick their parents; Wright later said that she and Griffiths were too embarrassed to admit the truth once their story was believed by the famous Conan Doyle.
8. Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle had a fraught friendship.
Conan Doyle met Harry Houdini in 1920, while the famed magician was visiting England. They bonded over Spiritualism; Houdini, though fairly certain that mediums were tricksters and frauds, was at that time willing to be convinced otherwise. For his part, Conan Doyle believed that Houdini possessed psychic powers.
When Conan Doyle traveled to America in 1922, the friends met up in Atlantic City. Houdini agreed to participate in a séance with Conan Doyle and his second wife, Jean, who claimed she could channel the spirits of the dead. But Houdini quickly came to suspect that the séance was a sham. Jean filled multiple pages with automatic writing that she said came from Houdini’s deceased mother—though his mother could barely speak English. Houdini also found it curious that Jean’s automatic writing included the sign of a cross, considering that his mother was Jewish. The episode caused a rift between the friends, and they argued both privately and publicly over the legitimacy of medium cases.
9. Arthur Conan Doyle was knighted for his support of the Boer War.
Fueled by a sense of patriotism after the outbreak of the Second Boer War, Conan Doyle traveled to Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1900 to volunteer as a doctor in a field hospital. There he encountered a grim scene; Bloemfontein was in the grips of a typhoid epidemic, the hospital was overwhelmed with sick and dying patients, and sanitary conditions were abysmal [PDF]. But his conviction in the war did not flag, even as the conflict dragged on, became increasingly brutal, and began to lose support in Britain and beyond. Indignant over reports of British atrocities, Conan Doyle published a pamphlet defending his country’s actions in South Africa. He was knighted by King Edward VII in 1902, largely in honor of this influential work.
10. Arthur Conan Doyle came to the defense of two wrongfully accused men.
In 1903, a solicitor named George Edalji was found guilty of mutilating a horse and writing a series of menacing anonymous letters in a rural parish. The evidence against him was unconvincing—the letters had been sent to his own family, for one thing—and three years later he was released from prison, without a pardon. Edalji wrote to Conan Doyle, hoping the creator of Sherlock Holmes would help clear his name. Conan Doyle visited the scene of the crimes, met with Edalji, and was certain of his innocence.
He noted, among other things, that Edalji was so near-sighted that it would have been impossible for him to sneak across the countryside, attacking livestock in the dead of night. And he recognized that racial prejudice was likely at play; Edalji, whose father was of Parsee origin, “must assuredly have [seemed] a very queer man to the eyes of an English village,” the author wrote in an article arguing that Edalji had been wrongfully accused. Conan Doyle also sent a barrage of letters to the chief constable in charge of the case, proffering new evidence and theories of other suspects. Edalji was ultimately pardoned, but was not given financial compensation for the miscarriage of justice against him.
Conan Doyle also campaigned on behalf of Oscar Slater, a German-Jewish bookmaker who was convicted of murdering a wealthy woman in Glasgow. Though Slater had an alibi, police homed in on him as the culprit, and it would later emerge that key evidence was withheld during the trial. Conan Doyle was a vocal participant in the campaign advocating for Slater’s release from prison; in 1912, he published The Case of Oscar Slater, which highlighted grave flaws in the investigation and prosecution. His plea failed to sway the authorities, but Conan Doyle continued to pressure politicians and even pay for Slater’s legal fees. Slater was set free in 1927, having served more than 18 years in prison.
11. Family members celebrated at Arthur Conan Doyle’s funeral.
Conan Doyle died of a heart attack on July 7, 1930, at the age of 71. Three hundred people attended the funeral at his country home, and the atmosphere was uplifting, rather than somber. The mourners did not wear black and the blinds of the house were not drawn. “We know that it is only the natural body that we are committing to the ground,” his wife Jean told friends. On July 13, thousands of people packed into the Royal Albert Hall in London for a memorial service. During the ceremony, Estelle Roberts, one of Conan Doyle’s favorite mediums, gazed at a chair reserved for the writer and proclaimed: “He is here.”
«The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner,» by Alan Sillitoe, was first published in 1959. It is a first-person monologue spoken by a 17-year-old inmate of an English Borstal, or reform school. Smith, the only name this character receives, has received a two-year prison sentence for breaking into a local bakery, but he has discovered a way to improve the conditions of his stay in jail. The warden of the reformatory has his heart set on the winning of the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long-Distance Cross-Country Running (All England), and Smith, the fastest runner in the institution, needs to do nothing but train for the race. He can trade his daily chores for the mitigated freedom of early morning runs in the countryside around the reformatory.
Yet things are not quite as simple as they seem, and the nature of the monologue, crude and colloquial in language and tone, underlines the tremendous class distinction between what the narrator Smith terms the «in-laws» and the «out-laws.» People like the warden and his cronies speak Oxford English and support and perpetuate the system, while the residents of the Borstal are denizens of the working class who have nothing to lose. It might seem that Smith would have little choice or desire not to play along with the powers that be, but during his stay in prison he has developed his own personal and idiosyncratic sense of morality. For him, to win the race would be tacitly to accept the premises of a self-serving establishment, and his own sense of defiance and self-worth can only be maintained by his individual conception of honesty. As he says, «It’s a good life, I’m saying to myself, if you don’t give in to coppers and Borstal-bosses and the rest of them bastard faced in-laws.»
While it might appear that Sillitoe is simply delineating a social and economic struggle between the classes in postwar England, the situation is much more complicated. In Smith’s world of the underclass there is no such thing as solidarity and brotherhood. In a series of flashbacks that illuminate his early life and the robbery that got him into his immediate trouble, we find that he has always been alone. Smith and his pal Mike are clever enough to hide their loot so that the police will not catch on to two teenagers who have suddenly become relatively wealthy, but the boys are even more wary of their own neighbors, who will turn them in out of spite and jealousy. Loyalty is something that simply does not exist in these circumstances, and trust is a silly idea for fools. In the end a person can be true only to himself, a self that can make mistakes but will never let him down. Loneliness becomes a natural condition. As Smith says, «I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realizing that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world.»
Smith’s experience with his family bears out his conclusions, for his father died a horrible death of stomach cancer after a lifetime of slaving in a factory, while his mother was constantly unfaithful to her husband. The death benefit of 500 pounds is quickly spent on clothes, cream cakes, a television set, and a new mattress for his mother and her «fancyman,» and things are immediately back where they began. Thievery is all the boy knows, and even the army can provide no outlet. As far as Smith is concerned, patriotism is another false idea concocted by the government to protect its own advantage, and life in the army is little different from life in prison. In declaring himself a robber and an outlaw, Smith is at least acknowledging the state of warfare that exists between people like him and the people in power, landowners and the politicians who look like fish gasping for breath when the sound is suddenly turned down in the middle of their speeches on television.
Powerless as he may be in an England that views him as only another cog in the economic machine that grinds out more comfort for the rich, Smith seizes on the moment to shake his fist in the faces of the «in-laws» as he turns toward home in the Borstal race. Though he is far ahead of his nearest competitor, he slows down and then stops before the finish line, allowing his rival enough time to catch up and to win the race. Smith’s gesture is meaningless to everyone but himself: «The governor at Borstal proved me right; he didn’t respect my honesty at all; not that I expected him to, or tried to explain it to him, but if he’s supposed to be educated then he should have more or less twigged it.» But, if nothing else, the long-distance runner has remained true to himself; he has not been duped into believing the false promises that would only enslave him even further. There is virtually no hope of social change in the bleak universe that Sillitoe has created, but there does remain comfort in the affirmation of the individual human spirit that will not be broken. If truth and honesty can exist anywhere, Sillitoe asserts, they survive in the ability to look squarely at oneself in the face of all the odds. Paradoxically, honesty may reside in recognizing and accepting the dishonesty of contemporary existence.
Chariots of Fire is a British film released in 1981. Written by Colin Welland and directed by Hugh Hudson, it is based on the true story of British athletes preparing for and competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won four, including Best Picture.
The movie is based on the true story of two British athletes competing in the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris. Englishman Harold Abrahams (Ben Cross), who is Jewish, overcomes anti-Semitism and class prejudice in order to compete against the «Flying Scotsman», Eric Liddell (Ian Charleson), in the 100-meter race.
In 1919, Abrahams enters Cambridge University. He attempts and succeeds at the Trinity Great Court run, which involves running around the court before the clock finishes striking 12. Meanwhile, Liddell sees running as a way of glorifying God before traveling to China to work as a missionary. He represents Scotland against Ireland, and preaches a sermon on «Life as a race» afterwards.
At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams’ hand to wish him well, then beats him in a race. Abrahams takes it badly, but Sam Mussabini (Ian Holm), a professional trainer that he had approached earlier, offers to take him on to improve his technique. However, this attracts criticism from the college authorities.
Eric’s sister Jenny (Cheryl Campbell) worries he is too busy running to concern himself with their mission, but Eric tells her he feels inspired: «I believe that God made me for a purpose… (the mission), but He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.»
Despite pressure from the Prince of Wales and the British Olympic committee, Liddell refuses to run a heat of the 100 meters at the Olympics because his Christian convictions prevent him from running on Sunday. Liddell is allowed to compete in the 400-meter race instead. Liddell at church on Sunday is seen quoting Isaiah 40, verse 31: ‘But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and be not weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’
The story compares the similar athletic experiences of Abrahams and Liddell while portraying their vastly different characters and reactions to adversity. High accomplishment comes to those with high aspirations, high energy and the capacity for great effort. But the central motivation and ultimate results of their accomplishment depend on their character and personality. This is a true story about two very different British athletes who accomplish at the highest level in their field, yet are driven to these achievements by very different motives along very different paths.
Englishman Harold Abrahams is the son of a wealthy Jewish financier in London. Highly sensitive to the anti-Semitic sentiments of the British upper class, he is determined to prove his worth and acceptability in everything he does. A runner of remarkable ability, in 1919 he enters Cambridge University and promptly completes a running feat which no one has been able to accomplish for 700 year. Abrahams’ passionate aspiration is to win a gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1924 summer Olympics in Paris.
While at Cambridge, Abrahams meets a lovely young singer Sybil Gordon and they soon fall in love. To her he confesses his heart’s turmoil. He has gone through life with a sense of helplessness, anger and humiliation because of the second-class treatment rendered to him as a Jew. To him running is a means of seeking revenge and conquering the social opposition. “I am going to take them on one by one and run them off their feet.” He strives to fit in and prove himself a loyal and capable Englishman. “So you love running?” Sybil asks him. “I am an addict. It’s more of a weapon. It’s a competition. You win because you are ruthless. … A weapon against being Jewish, I suppose. I’m semi-deprived. They lead me to water but won’t let me drink.”
Eric Liddell is the son of deeply religious Scottish missionaries, born and raised along with his sister Jennie in China and recently returned to Europe. Eric is a born runner with tremendous speed and a natural love of the sport who becomes widely known as the «Flying Scotsman.» Committed to a missionary’s life like his parents, Eric is requested by his church leader to dedicate his remarkable athletic ability to the service of god. “Run in God’s name” and let the whole world know it is God’s inspiration that makes you a champion. He too is destined for the Paris Olympics for the glory for God.
The first time Abrahams sees Liddell run he is bedazzled. Eric collides with another runner, falls down during a 400-meter contest between Scotland and France and appears to be out of the race. Then miraculously he gets up, starts running again, makes up a 20-meter deficit and wins the race. This indicates just how great is the unexpressed human energy which can be released in the right circumstances. It took the accidental fall to bring out the true greatness of Eric’s potential. “I’ve never seen such commitment and drive in a runner,” Abrahams remarks. Even more remarkable is the obvious joy with which Liddell runs. He tells Jennie, “I believe god made me for a purpose – China. He also made me fast. When I’m running I feel his pleasure, not just fun. To win is to honor him.”
The amateur spirit of the Olympics is still respected in Europe and professionalism is shunned. But times are changing. Sam Mussabini, a brilliant professional running coach, is looking for talent to shape. Abrahams approaches Sam and tries to hire him as a personal coach. Sam replies that it is customary for the coach to choose a worthy student, not vice versa. Abrahams is willing to break the rules in order to accomplish. Sam knows that social rules may be broken, but there are rules for accomplishment that cannot. At their first meeting, Liddell shakes Abrahams’ hand to wish him well, then beats him. Abrahams is crushed by the defeat and cries out to Sybil. “I don’t run to take beatings. I run to win. If I can’t win I won’t run. Now what do I stand for?” After the race, Sam contacts Abrahams and offers to train him for the Olympics, assuring Harold that he can improve enough to match Eric. Even though the university authorities frown on his hiring a coach, Abrahams persists.
On the boat sailing across the Channel to France, Liddell is informed that the preliminary heat for the 100 meters is to be run on a Sunday. He informs the British team leader that his religion prevents him from running on that day and he will have to forgo the race. “If I win, I win for God. To win on Sunday would be against God’s law.” Once in Paris, the team leader informs the rest of the British Olympic committee, which includes the crown prince, and they call Liddell and press him to relent. When he adamantly refuses, life responds and unexpectedly presents a solution. Lord Lindsay, another member of team who has just won a silver medal in another event, offers his place in the 400 meters to Liddell. Another member of the Committee explains how fortunate it is that they did not try to force Liddell to violate his conscience. He is “a true man of principle and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to separate his running from himself. For him it is God before King.” Whatever the mind fervently believes in – whether higher ideal or mere superstition – has the power to evoke a response from life. The power of Eric’s belief is equal to the power of all those of his community who share that belief.
Abrahams faces Americans in the 100-meter final who are touted to include the fastest men on earth. He has already lost two races to the same competitors. Before the race he confesses to Sam, “I am 24 and I have never known contentment. I’m ever in pursuit and I don’t know what I’m chasing. I’ve known the fear of losing. Now I’m almost too frightened to win.” Abrahams goes on to win the event and emerge with the title of fastest man on earth. After the race he and Sam celebrate in private their shared personal accomplishment. He lived for another 54 years and was considered the grand icon of British athletics. Eric races in the 400 meter against equally tough competitors and wins his race as well. He mixes with the crowds in jubilant celebration. After the Olympics, he returned to China where he died during World War II.
Who accomplished what and how? Driven by a complex and a fervent aspiration to win a respectable place in English society, Abrahams has achieved the greatest title in amateur athletics. The drive for social acceptability is a very powerful motive. He has leveraged the energy of that drive for achievement. He ran in the name of his country and under the banner of patriotism, but really he ran for himself. For him running was a labor in a life and death struggle for acceptance and respectability. It is doubtful whether even this remarkable accomplishment gave him the peace and fulfillment he was seeking. Liddell ran in the name of God and for the joy of self-giving to his God. His very act of running was a self-fulfilling joy. One believes in his concept of God and service, the other in his own inner potential. Both accomplish on the basis of their beliefs.
«Forrest Gump» famously inserted Tom Hanks into old archival footage, interweaving moments from real U.S. history with the fictional story of his character: A simple yet sincere man, sharing homespun wisdom on a park bench to different strangers while recounting the story of his ever-so-charmed life.
Director Robert Zemeckis and ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) employed digital compositing and other groundbreaking visual effects to give Forrest’s tale a true-to-life veneer. Thanks to the wonders of CGI they were able to rewrite history cinematically, having Forrest intersect with presidents and pivotal moments in American culture across three decades.
The film won six Oscars and is endlessly quotable — but what you might not know is that the character of Forrest Gump was loosely inspired by three real men.
Sammy Lee Davis was the inspiration for Forrest’s war wound
As «Forrest Gump» was celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2019, USA Today spotlighted Sammy Lee Davis, a decorated Vietnam veteran, as one real-life inspiration for the character. Nicknamed «the real Forrest Gump,» Davis was at the film’s anniversary screening on the National Mall in Washington, DC. President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the Medal of Honor in 1968, and he’s at least famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page.
You can see footage of the Medal of Honor ceremony in «Forrest Gump» — though of course, it’s Hanks who shakes Johnson’s hand. Like Forrest Gump, Davis was shot in the buttocks and elsewhere in his back over thirty times, by friendly fire. The moment where Forrest shows the President his butt wound was invented for the film.
Winston Groom dedicated his novel to two other men
Screenwriter Eric Roth adapted Winston Groom’s novel, «Forrest Gump,» for the big screen. Groom, who passed away in 2020, dedicated the book to Jimbo Meador (pictured above) and George Radcliff, two of his childhood friends. Both men are private individuals, but Distractify notes that their «speech patterns are similar to Forrest’s.» Hanks originally sought to downplay Gump’s Southern accent but Zemeckis coached him to keep it and adhere to the source material.
The Bubba Gump Seafood Company is now a real restaurant chain, but it started out as a fictional business endeavor launched by Forrest and Lieutenant Dan (Gary Sinise). The idea for that stemmed from conversations that Groom had with Meador — appropriately, at lunch. He explained to Distractify:
«Although he never did any shrimp farming, [Meador] was always interested in it, and we used to talk about it a lot. Jimbo knows everything there is to know about shrimp. We used to have lunch about once a week, and it occurred to me after one of these conversations while I was writing Forrest, ‘What better thing to do than make Forrest a shrimp farmer?’ «
Meador also owned a river delta boat and had a seafood processing job, much like Forrest does in the movie. He reportedly shunned the public spotlight after he started getting copious interview requests from the likes of David Letterman.
The same goes for Radcliff, who only consented to an interview with Mobile Bay Magazine because the writer was someone he had known for a long time beforehand. Radcliff appears to have wholly or partly inspired the felicitous nature of Forrest’s journey through history. He once beat Paul McCartney at arm-wrestling, for instance, without knowing who «that little drunk English guy» was.
What’s interesting about Radcliff is that he was a scrapper, meaning he liked to fight. This might be part of what Groom meant when he told The New York Times that Zemeckis sanded the «rough edges» off his book character. He originally wanted John Goodman to play the role of Forrest Gump. That would have been a very different movie.
At the end of the day, «Forrest Gump» is still cut from a fictional cloth, but art does imitate life. To do a mad-lib bit of paraphrasing with Forrest himself, «[Movies are] like a box of [inspirations].»
1. Her most famous novel, Frankenstein, is widely considered the first science fiction novel. Brian Aldiss certainly thinks so. It’s worth mentioning here that two other leading science (fiction) writers, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, argued that the honour of ‘first science-fiction novel’ should go to a much earlier book: Johannes Kepler’s Somnium (‘The Dream’), first published in 1634. But Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus (Wordsworth Classics) is considered the first work of what we can confidently label modern SF. It was published in 1818, when Shelley (1797-1851) was just 21, and came out of the famous ghost-story competition at Lake Geneva, which involved Shelley and her husband (the poet, Percy), Lord Byron, and Byron’s physician and travelling companion, John Polidori. Polidori’s contribution, The Vampyre (1819), claims the honour of the first vampire novel. One of Mary Shelley’s early influences was one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s poems: on 24 August 1806, Coleridge was visiting Mary’s father, William Godwin, and gave a reading of his poem ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘. Unbeknownst to the adults, a nine-year-old Mary Shelley had concealed herself behind the parlour sofa, and was transfixed by Coleridge’s poem.
2. The ultimate ‘message’ of her most famous book is often missed. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein may be one of the most misread novels in the whole of English literature. What is the book about? The dangers of playing God or the need to be good parents? Shelley herself came from a strong family but also an unconventional one: her mother was influential feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, and her father the radical writer William Godwin. Mary’s mother died a few weeks after her daughter’s birth and Mary had an overly dependent, and sometimes strained, relationship with her father. Then there is her relationship with her husband, Percy Shelley, who is often seen as the model for Victor Frankenstein. (Curiously, Mary’s second novel, Mathilda (1820), would feature a father confessing incestuous desire for his daughter, followed by his death by drowning, thus prefiguring Percy Shelley’s death two years later. Wordsworth Classics recently brought out a cheap reprint of this story along with some other Mary Shelley works: Mathilda and Other Stories (Wordsworth Classics).)
3. As well as inventing modern SF with Frankenstein, Mary Shelley also wrote the first work of modern apocalyptic fiction. Mary Shelley’s favourite among her own books was a later novel, The Last Man (Wordsworth Classics), published in 1826. It tells of a future world where plague has killed off the human population – with, ultimately, one exception. There is, as the title suggests, only one human survivor, Lionel Verney. (There are in fact a number of other characters in the novel: Lionel only becomes the last man right at the end of the narrative.) The book is the progenitor of all later stories in this vein, such as Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
4. Shelley also wrote historical novels later in her career. In 1830, Mary Shelley published The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, about the fifteenth-century pretender to the throne during Henry VII’s reign. Mary was also a prolific writer of biographical and historical non-fiction, and wrote large portions of the Lives of the Most Eminent Literary and Scientific Men, a ten-volume sequence in a much bigger 133-volume encyclopedia, the Cabinet Cyclopaedia. Shelley continued writing until she died in 1851, probably of a brain tumour, aged just 53.
5. Frankenstein was Shelley’s first novel, but not the first book she published. In 1817, a year before her most famous novel appeared, Mary Shelley and her husband Percy published History of a Six Weeks’ Tour through a part of France, Switzerland, Germany, and Holland; with Letters Descriptive of a Sail Round the Lake of Geneva and of the Glaciers of Chamouni which … well, the title gives a pretty detailed account of its contents. But we’ll add that the volume also included Percy’s celebrated poem ‘Mont Blanc’, and that besides this the book was largely Mary’s work, meaning it should take the mantle as her first book.
Mary Shelley’s teenage years were eventful, to say the least. At age 16, she ran away with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Over the next two years, she gave birth to two children. In 1816, the couple traveled to Switzerland and visited Lord Byron at Villa Diodati. While there, 18-year-old Mary started Frankenstein. It was published in 1818, when she was 20 years old.
2. The novel came out of a ghost story competition.
The Shelleys visited Switzerland during the “year without a summer.” The eruption of Mount Tambora in modern Indonesia had caused severe climate abnormalities and a lot of rain. Stuck inside, the group read ghost stories from the book Fantasmagoriana. It was then that Lord Byron proposed that they have a competition to see who could come up with the best ghost story: Byron, Mary, Percy, or the physician John Polidori.
In the end, neither Byron nor Percy finished a ghost story, although Polidori later wrote The Vampyre—which influences vampire stories to this day—based on Byron’s offering.
3. Mary Shelley said she got the idea from a dream.
At first, Mary had writer’s block, unable to come up with a good idea for a ghost story. Then she had a waking dream—“I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think,” she said. In the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein [PDF], she described the vision as follows:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. … He sleeps; but he is awakened; he opens his eyes; behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, opening his curtains, and looking on him with yellow, watery, but speculative eyes.”
Mary opened her eyes and realized she’d found her story. “What terrified me will terrify others,” she thought. She began working on it the next day.
4. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in the shadow of tragedy.
Before she started Frankenstein, Mary gave birth to a daughter, who died just days later. (In fact, only one of Mary’s four children lived to adulthood.) Soon after the baby died, she wrote in her journal, “Dream that my little baby came to life again—that it had only been cold & that we rubbed it by the fire & it lived—I awake & find no baby—I think about the little thing all day.” This circumstance, as well as the suicide of her half-sister, must have contributed to the novel.
5. Frankenstein was the name of the scientist, not the monster.
In the novel, Victor Frankenstein is the scientist. The monster remains unnamed and is referred to as «monster,» «creature,» «dæmon,» and «it.» But if you’ve made the mistake of calling the monster Frankenstein, you’re not alone. As early as 1890 The Scots Observer complained that Frankenstein “presented the common pressman with one of his most beloved blunders”—confusing the two.
6. The novel shares its name with a castle.
Mary made up the name Frankenstein. However, Frankenstein is a German name that means Stone of the Franks. What’s more, historian Radu Florescu claimed that the Shelleys visited Castle Frankenstein on a journey up the Rhine River. While there, they must have learned about an unbalanced alchemist named Konrad Dippel, who used to live in the castle. He was trying to create an elixir, called Dippel’s Oil, which would make people live for over a hundred years. Like Victor Frankenstein, Dippel was rumored to dig up graves and experiment on the bodies. Not all historians are convinced there’s a link, however, pointing out that there’s no indication Frankenstein had a castle in the novel, and that Shelley never mentioned visiting the castle herself in any of her writing about her trip up the Rhine.
7. Many thought Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein.
Frankenstein was first published anonymously. It was dedicated to William Godwin, Mary’s father, and Percy Shelley wrote the preface. Because of these connections, many assumed that Percy Shelley was the author. This myth continued even after Frankenstein was reprinted in Mary’s name. In fact, some people are still arguing that Percy authored the book. While he edited the book and encouraged Mary to expand the story into a novel, actual authorship is a stretch.
8. Frankenstein was originally slammed by critics.
When Frankenstein came out in 1818, many critics bashed it. “What a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity this work presents,” John Croker, of the Quarterly Review, wrote. But gothic novels were all the rage, and Frankenstein soon gained readers. In 1823, a play titled «Presumption; or The Fate of Frankenstein» cemented the story’s popularity. In 1831, a new version of the book was published, this time under Mary’s name.
9. Frankenstein is widely considered the first science fiction novel.
With Frankenstein, Shelley was writing the first major science fiction novel, as well as inventing the concept of the “mad scientist” and helping establish what would become horror fiction. The influence of the book in popular culture is so huge that the term Frankenstein has entered common speech to mean something unnatural and horrendous.
Mary went on to write other science fiction, such as her short story Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman, about a man who has been frozen in ice, and her novel The Last Man, about a survivor in a world destroyed by plague, from the same year.
10. Thomas Edison adapted Frankenstein for film.
In 1910, Thomas Edison’s studio made a one-reel, 15-minute film of Frankenstein, one of the first horror movies ever made. It was thought lost until it was rediscovered in the 1980s.
Frankenstein: how Mary Shelley’s sci-fi classic offers lessons for us today about the dangers of playing God
Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, is an 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Set in the late 18th century, it follows scientist Victor Frankenstein’s creation of life and the terrible events that are precipitated by his abandonment of his creation. It is a Gothic novel in that it combines supernatural elements with horror, death and an exploration of the darker aspects of the psyche.
It also provides a complex critique of Christianity. But most significantly, as one of the first works of science-fiction, it explores the dangers of humans pursuing new technologies and becoming God-like.
The celebrity story
Shelley’s Frankenstein is at the heart of what might be the greatest celebrity story of all time. Shelley was born in 1797. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the landmark A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), was, according to that book’s introduction, “the first major feminist”.
Shelley’s father was William Godwin, political philosopher and founder of “philosophical anarchism” – he was anti-government in the moment that the great democracies of France and the United States were being born. When she was 16, Shelley eloped with radical poet Percy Shelley, whose Ozymandias (1818) is still regularly quoted (“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”).
Their relationship seems to epitomise the Romantic era itself. It was crossed with outside love interests, illegitimate children, suicides, debt, wondering and wandering. And it ultimately came to an early end in 1822 when Percy Shelley drowned, his small boat lost in a storm off the Italian coast. The Shelleys also had a close association with the poet Lord Byron, and it is this association that brings us to Frankenstein.
In 1816 the Shelleys visited Switzerland, staying on the shores of Lake Geneva, where they were Byron’s neighbours. As Mary Shelley tells it, they had all been reading ghost stories, including Coleridge’s Christabel (Coleridge had visited her father at the family house when Shelley was young), when Byron suggested that they each write a ghost story. Thus 18-year-old Shelley began to write Frankenstein.
The myth of the monster
The popular imagination has taken Frankenstein and run with it. The monster “Frankenstein”, originally “Frankenstein’s monster”, is as integral to Western culture as the characters and tropes from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
But while reasonable continuity remains between Carroll’s Alice and its subsequent reimaginings, much has been changed and lost in the translation from Shelley’s novel into the many versions that are rooted in the popular imagination.
There have been many varied adaptations, from Edward Scissorhands to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (see here for a top 20 list of Frankenstein films). But despite the variety, it’s hard not to think of the “monster” as a zombie-like implacable menace, as we see in the trailer to the 1931 movie, or a lumbering fool, as seen in the Herman Munster incarnation. Further, when we add the prefix “franken” it’s usually with disdain; consider “frankenfoods”, which refers to genetically modified foods, or “frankenhouses”, which describes contemporary architectural monstrosities or bad renovations.
The story of Victor Frankenstein is nested within the story of scientist-explorer Robert Walton. For both men, the quest for knowledge is mingled with fanatical ambition. The novel begins towards the end of the story, with Walton, who is trying to sail to the North Pole, rescuing Frankenstein from sea ice. Frankenstein is being led northwards by his creation towards a final confrontation.
The central moment in the novel is when Frankenstein brings his creation to life, only to be immediately repulsed by it:
I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
Victor Frankenstein, like others in the novel, is appalled by the appearance of his creation. He flees the creature and it vanishes. After a hiatus of two years, the creature begins to murder people close to Frankenstein. And when Frankenstein reneges on his promise to create a female partner for his creature, it murders his closest friend and then, on Frankenstein’s wedding night, his wife.
More human than human
The real interest of the novel lies not in the murders or the pursuit, but in the creature’s accounts of what drove him to murder. After the creature murders Frankenstein’s little brother, William, Frankenstein seeks solace in the Alps – in sublime nature. There, the creature comes upon Frankenstein and eloquently and poignantly relates his story.
We learn that the creature spent a year secretly living in an outhouse attached to a hut occupied by the recently impoverished De Lacey family. As he became self-aware, the creature reflected that, “To be a great and virtuous man appeared the highest honour that can befall a sensitive being.” But when he eventually attempted to reveal himself to the family to gain their companionship, he was brutally driven from them. The creature was filled with rage. He says, “I could … have glutted myself with their shrieks and misery.” More human than human.
After Victor Frankenstein dies aboard Walton’s ship, Walton has a final encounter with the creature, as it looms over Frankenstein’s body. To the corpse, the creature says:
“Oh Frankenstein! Generous and self-devoted being! What does it avail that I now ask thee to pardon me? I, who irretrievably destroyed thee by destroying all thou lovedst.”
The creature goes on to make several grand and tragic pronouncements to Walton. “My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change, without torture such as you cannot even imagine.” And shortly after, about the murder of Frankenstein’s wife, the creature says: “I knew that I was preparing for myself a deadly torture; but I was the slave, not the master, of an impulse, which I detested, yet could not disobey.”
These remarks encourage us to ponder some of the weightiest questions we can ask about the human condition:
What is it that drives humans to commit horrible acts? Are human hearts, like the creature’s, fashioned for ‘love and sympathy’, and when such things are withheld or taken from us, do we attempt to salve the wound by hurting others? And if so, what is the psychological mechanism that makes this occur?
And what is the relationship between free will and horrible acts? We cannot help but think that the creature remains innocent – that he is the slave, not the master. But then what about the rest of us?
The rule of law generally blames individuals for their crimes – and perhaps this is necessary for a society to function. Yet I suspect the rule of law misses something vital. Epictetus, the stoic philosopher, considered such questions millennia ago. He asked:
What grounds do we have for being angry with anyone? We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’… but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad.
Victor Frankenstein creates life only to abandon it. An unsympathetic interpretation of Christianity might see something similar in God’s relationship with humanity. Yet the novel itself does not easily support this reading; like much great art, its strength lies in its ambivalence and complexity. At one point, the creature says to Frankenstein: “Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed.” These and other remarks complicate any simplistic interpretation.
In fact, the ambivalence of the novel’s religious critique supports its primary concern: the problem of technology allowing humans to become God-like. The subtitle of Frankenstein is “The Modern Prometheus”. In the Greek myth, Prometheus steals fire – a technology – from the gods and gives it to humanity, for which he is punished. In this myth and many other stories, technology and knowledge are double-edged. Adam and Eve eat the apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden and are ejected from paradise. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, humanity is born when the first tool is used – a tool that augments humanity’s ability to be violent.
The novel’s subtitle is referring to Kant’s 1755 essay, “The Modern Prometheus”. In this, Kant observes that:
There is such a thing as right taste in natural science, which knows how to distinguish the wild extravagances of unbridled curiosity from cautious judgements of reasonable credibility. From the Prometheus of recent times Mr. Franklin, who wanted to disarm the thunder, down to the man who wants to extinguish the fire in the workshop of Vulcanus, all these endeavors result in the humiliating reminder that Man never can be anything more than a man.
Victor Frankenstein, who suffered from an unbridled curiosity, says something similar:
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind … If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.
And also: “Learn from me … how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
In sum: be careful what knowledge you pursue, and how you pursue it. Beware playing God.
Alas, history reveals the quixotic nature of Shelley and Kant’s warnings. There always seems to be a scientist somewhere whose dubious ambitions are given free rein. And beyond this, there is always the problem of the unintended consequences of our discoveries. Since Shelley’s time, we have created numerous things that we fear or loathe such as the atomic bomb, cigarettes and other drugs, chemicals such as DDT, and so on. And as our powers in the realms of genetics and artificial intelligence grow, we may yet create something that loathes us.
It all reminds me of sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson’s relatively recent (2009) remark that, “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”
One night during the strangely cool and wet summer of 1816, a group of friends gathered in the Villa Diodati on the shores of Lake Geneva. “We will each write a ghost story,” Lord Byron announced to the others, who included Byron’s doctor John Polidori, Percy Shelley and the 18-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin.
“I busied myself to think of a story,” Mary wrote. “One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature and awaken thrilling horror.” Her tale became a novel, published two years later as ‘Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus’, the story of a young natural philosophy student, who, burning with crazed ambition, brings a body to life but rejects his horrifying ‘creature’ in fear and disgust.
Frankenstein is simultaneously the first science-fiction novel, a Gothic horror, a tragic romance and a parable all sewn into one towering body. Its two central tragedies – one of overreaching and the dangers of ‘playing God’, the other of parental abandonment and societal rejection – are as relevant today as ever.
Are there any characters more powerfully cemented in the popular imagination? The two archetypes Mary Shelley brought to life, the ‘creature’ and the overambitious or ‘mad scientist’, lurched and ranted their way off the page and on to stage and screen, electrifying theatre and filmgoers as two of the lynchpins, not just of the horror genre, but of cinema itself.
Frankenstein spawned interpretations and parodies that reach from the very origins of the moving image in Thomas Edison’s horrifying 1910 short film, through Hollywood’s Universal Pictures and Britain’s Hammer series, to The Rocky Horror Picture Show – and it foreshadowed others, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. There are Italian and Japanese Frankensteins and a Blaxploitation film, Blackenstein; Mel Brooks, Kenneth Branagh and Tim Burton all have their own takes. The characters or themes appear in or have inspired comic books, video games, spin-off novels, TV series and songs by artists as diverse as Ice Cube, Metallica and T’Pau: “It was a flight on the wings of a young girl’s dreams/ That flew too far away/ And we could make the monster live again…”
As a parable, the novel has been used as an argument both for and against slavery and revolution, vivisection and the Empire, and as a dialogue between history and progress, religion and atheism. The prefix ‘Franken-’ thrives in the modern lexicon as a byword for any anxiety about science, scientists and the human body, and has been used to shape worries about the atomic bomb, GM crops, strange foods, stem cell research and both to characterise and assuage fears about AI. In the two centuries since she wrote it, Mary’s tale, in the words of Bobby Pickett’s comedy song, Monster Mash, has truly been “a graveyard smash” that “caught on in a flash”.
‘Mysterious fears of our nature’
“All them scientists – they’re all alike. They say they’re working for us but what they really want is to rule the world!” – Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974).
Why was Mary’s vision of ‘science gone wrong’ so ripe a vessel to carry our fears? She certainly captured the zeitgeist: the early 19th Century teetered on the brink of the modern age, and although the term ‘science’ existed, a ‘scientist’ didn’t. Great change brings fear, as Fiona Sampson, author of a new biography of Mary Shelley tells BBC Culture: “With modernity – with the sense that humans are what there is, comes a sense of anxiety about what humans can do and particularly an anxiety about science and technology.” Frankenstein fused these contemporary concerns about the possibilities of science with fiction for the very first time – with electrifying results. Far from an outrageous fantasy, the novel imagined what could happen if people – and in particular overreaching or unhinged scientists – went too far.
Several points of popular 19th Century intellectual discourse appear in the novel. We know from Mary Shelley’s writings that in that Villa Diodati tableau of 1816, Shelley and Byron discussed the ‘principle of life’. Contemporary debates raged on the nature of humanity and whether it was possible to raise the dead. In the book’s 1831 preface, Mary Shelley noted ‘galvanism’ as an influence, referring to Luigi Galvani’s experiments using electric currents to make frogs’ legs twitch. Galvani’s nephew Giovanni Aldini would go further in 1803, using a newly-dead murderer as his subject. Many of the doctors and thinkers at the heart of these debates – such as the chemist Sir Humphry Davy – were connected to Mary’s father, the pre-eminent intellectual William Godwin, who himself had developed principles warning of the dangers and moral implications of ‘overreaching’.
Despite these nuggets of contemporary thought, though, there’s little in the way of tangible theory, method, or scientific paraphernalia in Frankenstein. The climactic moment of creation is described simply: “With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet.” The ‘science’ of the book is rooted in its time and yet timeless. It is so vague, therefore, as to provide an immediate linguistic and visual reference point for moments of great change and fear.
But surely the reason we turn to Frankenstein when expressing an anxiety about science is down to the impression the ‘monster’ and ‘mad scientist’ have had on our collective brains. How did this happen? Just as the science is vague in the book, so is the description of the creature as he comes to life. The moment is distilled into a single, bloodcurdling image:
“It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.”
With his ‘yellow skin’, ‘watery eyes’, ‘shrivelled complexion’ and ‘straight black lips’ the creature is far from the beautiful ideal Frankenstein intended. This spare but resonant prose proved irresistible to theatre and later film-makers and their audiences, as Christopher Frayling notes in his book, Frankenstein: The First Two Hundred Years. The shocking novel became a scandalous play – and of course, a huge hit, first in Britain and then abroad. These early plays, Frayling argues, “set the tone for future dramatisations”. They condensed the story into basic archetypes, adding many of the most memorable elements audiences would recognise today, including the comical lab assistant, the line “It lives!” and a bad-brained monster who doesn’t speak.
It’s a double-edged sword that the monstrous success of Hollywood’s vision (James Whale’s 1931 film for Universal starring Boris Karloff as the creature) in many ways secured the story’s longevity but obscured Shelley’s version of it. “Frankenstein [the film] created the definitive movie image of the mad scientist, and in the process launched a thousand imitations,” Frayling writes. “It fused a domesticated form of Expressionism, overacting, an irreverent adaptation of an acknowledged classic, European actors and visualisers – and the American carnival tradition – to create an American genre. It began to look as though Hollywood had actually invented Frankenstein.”
Making a myth
And so, a movie legend was born. Although Hollywood may have cherry-picked from Mary Shelley to cement its version of the story, it’s clear she also borrowed from historical myths to create her own. The subtitle of Frankenstein, ‘The Modern Prometheus’, namechecks the figure of ancient Greek and Latin mythology who variously steals fire from the gods and gives it to man (or makes a man out of clay) and represents the dangers of overreaching. But the other great myth of the novel is of God and Adam, and a quote from Paradise Lost appears in the epigraph to Frankenstein: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man?”. And it is above all the creature’s tragedy – and his humanity – that in his cinematic transformation into a mute but terrifying monster, has been forgotten.
Shelley gave him a voice and a literary education in order to express his thoughts and desires (he is one of three narrators in the book). Like The Tempest’s Caliban, to whom Shakespeare gives a poetic and poignant speech, the creature’s lament is haunting: “Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”
If we think of the creature as a badly made and unattractive human, his tragedy deepens. His first, catastrophic rejection is by his creator (man, God),which Christopher Frayling calls “that post-partum moment”, and is often identified as a parental abandonment. If you consider that Mary Shelley had lost her mother Mary Wollstonecraft at her own birth, had just buried her baby girl and was looking after her pregnant step-sister as she was writing the book – which took exactly nine months to complete – the relevance of birth (and death) makes even more sense. The baby/creature is alienated further as society recoils from him; he is made good, but it is the rejection that creates his murderous revenge. As an allegory of our responsibility to children, outsiders, or those who don’t conform to conventional ideals of beauty, there isn’t a stronger one.
“The way that we sometimes identify with Frankenstein, as we’ve all taken risks, we’ve all had hubristic moments, and partly with the creature; they are both aspects of ourselves – all our selves” Fiona Sampson says, “they both speak to us about being human. And that’s incredibly powerful.”
Some modern interpretations, such as Nick Dear’s 2011 play (directed by Danny Boyle for the National Theatre), have highlighted the question of who is the monster and who is the victim, with the lead actors Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating roles each night. And in this shapeshifting context, it’s fitting that the creature is widely mistaken as ‘Frankenstein’, rather than his creator.
So could a new, cinematic version of Frankenstein be on the cards? One which brings together the creature’s humanity, the mirroring of man and monster and contemporary anxieties? Just like the Romantics, we edge towards a new modern age, but this time, of AI, which brings its own raft of fears and moral quandaries. A clutch of recent films and TV shows have channelled Frankenstein, exploring what it means to be human in the context of robotics and AI – Blade Runner, Ex Machina, AI, Her, Humans and Westworld among them. But there is one film director (rumoured to have been developing the story for a while) who might be able to recapture the creature’s lament as a parable for our time.
Collecting a Bafta for a different sci-fi monster fable, The Shape of Water, this year, Guillermo del Toro thanked Mary Shelley, because “she picked up the plight of Caliban and she gave weight to the burden of Prometheus, and she gave voice to the voiceless and presence to the invisible, and she showed me that sometimes to talk about monsters, we need to fabricate monsters of our own, and parables do that for us”.
When the then-Mary Godwin thought up her chilling parable that summer of 1816, she couldn’t have imagined how far it would go to shape culture and society, science and fear, well into the 21st Century. “And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper,” she wrote in the preface to the 1831 edition. The creator and creature, parent and child, the writer and her story – they went forth, and did they prosper? Two hundred years since its publication, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is no longer just a tale of “thrilling horror” but its own myth, sent out into the world.
Best known for his 1932 novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley later wrote about his experimentation with psychedelic drugs. But there’s a lot more to Huxley’s life than dystopian novels. Here are 10 things you might not know about the author.
1. Aldous Huxley was almost completely blind as a teenager.
Born in Surrey, England in 1894, Huxley had a challenging early life. During his teenage years, his mother died of cancer, his brother died by suicide, and he began having problems with his vision. Following an infection, his corneas became inflamed (a condition called keratitis), and thus he couldn’t see well. In an interview with The Paris Review, Huxley explained that he was almost completely blind for a few years in his late teens: “I started writing when I was 17, during a period when I was almost totally blind and could hardly do anything else. I typed out a novel by the touch system; I couldn’t even read it,” he said.
2. Aldous Huxley struggled with eyesight for most of his life.
Historians debate the extent and duration of Huxley’s vision problems. In 1942, Huxley wrote The Art Of Seeing, a book in which he described how he regained his sight. He used the Bates Method, a series of suggestions—get natural sunlight, do eye exercises, and don’t wear glasses—for improving eyesight. The Art of Seeing was immediately attacked after its release by medical professionals for supporting pseudoscience, and questions remain about how much Huxley’s vision actually improved.
3. Aldous Huxley’s grandfather was a vocal proponent of evolution.
Huxley’s paternal grandfather, Thomas Henry Huxley, was a biologist who advocated for the theory of evolution. Nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog,” he wrote, spoke, and participated in debates about the merits of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory. He also coined the word agnostic in 1869, describing it as the opposite of the gnostic of the Church, who said that they conclusively knew about how we came to exist.
4. Aldous Huxley taught George Orwell.
In 1917, Huxley briefly worked as a teacher at Eton, the esteemed boarding school in England. One of his students was Eric Blair, who later wrote 1984 and Animal Farm under the pen name George Orwell. Decades later, Orwell wrote in a 1946 magazine review that Huxley partially plagiarizedBrave New World by using themes that appear in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1923 dystopian novel We. (Huxley’s classic was released in 1932.)
Despite Orwell’s accusation, Huxley sent a letter to Orwell in October 1949, praising his work in 1984 but also getting in a slight dig at his former pupil. Huxley wrote that his own bleak view of the future was a more accurate prediction than Orwell’s: “I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.”
5. Aldous Huxley wrote for Vanity Fair and Vogue.
In the early 1920s, Huxley contributed articles to a few magazines, including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and House and Garden. The future author of Brave New World wrote on a broad range of topics and later reflected on this time as a positive learning experience: As he recalled, «I used to turn out articles on everything from decorative plaster to Persian rugs … I did dramatic criticism for the Westminster Gazette. Why—would you believe it?—I even did music criticism. I heartily recommend this sort of journalism as an apprenticeship. It forces you to write on everything under the sun, it develops your facility, it teaches you to master your material quickly, and it makes you look at things.»
6. Aldous Huxley worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
In the 1930s, Huxley moved California. In the 1940s and early 1950s, he worked as a screenwriter, collaborating on films such as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Madame Curie. In 1945, Disney paid Huxley $7500 to write a treatment based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland that also incorporated Carroll’s biography. That December, Huxley had a meeting with Walt Disney and his staff about the project. Disney eventually decided not to proceed with Huxley’s script partly because it was, according to Disney, too literary.
7. Aldous Huxley’s commitment to pacifism precluded him from becoming an American citizen.
Huxley frequently wrote about Hindu and Buddhist spiritual ideas, pacifism, and mysticism. He renounced all war, and his pacifist views ultimately prevented him from becoming a U.S. citizen. After living in California for 14 years, Huxley and his wife applied for citizenship. However, he refused to say that he would, if necessary, defend the U.S. in wartime. Because his refusal to fight was based on philosophical rather than religious reasons, he realized the government would most likely deny his application, so he withdrew it before they had a chance to turn him down.
8. The Doors named their band after Aldous Huxley’s book about mescaline.
Jim Morrison’s band The Doors is named after Huxley’s 1954 book The Doors of Perception, though Huxley himself took the phrase the doors of perception from English poet William Blake. Although Huxley depicted the pernicious effects of the fictional drug soma in Brave New World, he volunteered for mescaline experiments and praised mescaline as physically harmless, potentially therapeutic, and spiritually enlightening in The Doors of Perception.
9. Aldous Huxley spoke of the potential dangers of overpopulation.
In a May 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Huxley shared his beliefs about the dangers of overpopulation. Describing how overpopulation means that people will have less food to eat and fewer goods to use per capita, Huxley warned that a precarious economy leads to a more powerful central government and social unrest. “I think that one sees here a pattern which seems to be pushing very strongly towards a totalitarian regime,” Huxley said.
10. Aldous Huxley’s death wasn’t highly publicized due to JFK’s assassination.
On November 22, 1963, Huxley died of cancer of the larynx, three years after he was diagnosed with the illness. His death received little notice because he died on the same day that then-President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. British author C.S. Lewis also died that day, and his death similarly got little immediate attention.
Before he assumed the pen name George Orwell, Eric Arthur Blair (June 25, 1903-January 21, 1950) had a relatively normal upbringing for an upper-middle-class English boy of his time. Looking back now, his life proved to be anything but ordinary. He’s best known for penning the dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four—regarded as one of the greatest classics of all time—but writing novels was only one small facet of his life and career. Here are 13 facts about Orwell’s life that may surprise you.
1. George Orwell attended prep school as a child—and hated it.
Eric Blair spent five years at the St. Cyprian School for boys in Eastbourne, England, which later inspired his melodramatic essay Such, Such Were the Joys. In this account, he called the school’s proprietors “terrible, all-powerful monsters” and labeled the institution itself «an expensive and snobbish school which was in process of becoming more snobbish, and, I imagine, more expensive.» While Blair’s misery is now considered to be somewhat exaggerated, the essay was deemed too libelous to print at the time. It was finally published in 1968 after his death.
2. He was a prankster.
Blair was expelled from his «crammer» school (an institution designed to help students «cram» for specific exams) for sending a birthday message attached to a dead rat to the town surveyor, according to Sir Bernard Crick’s George Orwell: A Life, the first complete biography of Orwell. And while studying at Eton College, Orwell made up a song about John Crace, his school’s housemaster, in which he made fun of Crace’s appearance and penchant for Italian art:
«Then up waddled Wog and he squeaked in Greek: ‘I’ve grown another hair on my cheek.’ Crace replied in Latin with his toadlike smile: ‘And I hope you’ve grown a lovely new pile. With a loud deep fart from the bottom of my heart! How d’you like Venetian art?'»
Later, in a newspaper column, he recalled his boyhood hobby of replying to advertisements and stringing the salesmen along as a joke. “You can have a lot of fun by answering the advertisements and then, when you have drawn them out and made them waste a lot of stamps in sending successive wads of testimonials, suddenly leaving them cold,” he wrote.
3. Orwell worked a number of odd jobs for most of his career.
Everyone’s got to pay the bills, and Blair was no exception. He spent most of his career juggling part-time jobs while authoring books on the side. Over the years, he worked as a police officer for the Indian Imperial Police in Burma (present-day Myanmar), a high school teacher, a bookstore clerk, a propagandist for the BBC during World War II, a literary editor, and a war correspondent. He also had stints as a dishwasher in Paris and as a hop-picker (for breweries) in Kent, England, but those jobs were for research purposes while “living as a tramp” and writing his first book about his experiences, Down and Out in Paris and London. (He chose to publish the book under a pseudonym, George Orwell, and the name stuck.)
4. He once got himself arrested—on purpose.
In 1931, while investigating poverty for his aforementioned memoir, Orwell intentionally got himself arrested for being “drunk and incapable.” This was done “in order to get a taste of prison and to bring himself closer to the tramps and small-time villains with whom he mingled,” biographer Gordon Bowker told The Guardian. At the time, he had been using the pseudonym Edward Burton and posing as a poor fish porter. After drinking several pints and almost a whole bottle of whisky and ostensibly making a scene (it’s uncertain what exactly was said or done), Orwell was arrested. His crime didn’t warrant prison time like he had hoped, and he was released after spending 48 hours in custody. He wrote about the experience in an unpublished essay titled Clink.
5. Orwell had knuckle tattoos.
While working as a police officer in Burma, Orwell got his knuckles tattooed. Adrian Fierz, who knew Orwell, told biographer Gordon Bowker that the tattoos were small blue spots, “the shape of small grapefruits,” and Orwell had one on each knuckle. Orwell noted that some Burmese tribes believed tattoos would protect them from bullets. He may have gotten inked for similarly superstitious reasons, Bowker suggested, but it’s more likely that he wanted to set himself apart from the British establishment in Burma. «He was never a properly ‘correct’ member of the Imperial class—hobnobbing with Buddhist priests, Rangoon prostitutes, and British drop-outs,» Bowker wrote.
6. He knew seven foreign languages, to varying degrees.
Orwell wrote in a 1944 newspaper column, “In my life I have learned seven foreign languages, including two dead ones, and out of those seven I retain only one, and that not brilliantly.” In his youth, he learned French from Aldous Huxley, who briefly taught at Orwell’s boarding school and later went on to write Brave New World. Orwell ultimately became fluent in French, and at different points in his life, he studied Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Burmese, to name a few.
7. He voluntarily fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Like fellow writer Ernest Hemingway and others with leftist leanings, Orwell got tangled up in the Spanish Civil War. At the age of 33, Orwell arrived in Spain, shortly after fighting had broken out in 1936, hoping to write some newspaper articles. Instead, he ended up joining the Republican militia to “fight fascism” because “it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” The following year, he was shot in the neck by a sniper, but survived. He described the moment of being shot as “a tremendous shock—no pain, only a violent shock, such as you get from an electric terminal; with it a sense of utter weakness, a feeling of being stricken and shriveled up to nothing.” He wrote about his war experiences in the book Homage to Catalonia.
8. Orwell’s manuscript for Animal Farm was nearly destroyed by a bomb.
In 1944, Orwell’s home at 10 Mortimer Crescent in London was struck by a “doodlebug” (a German V-1 flying bomb). Orwell, his wife Eileen, and their son Richard Horatio were away at the time, but their home was demolished. During his lunch break at the British newspaper Tribune, Orwell would return to the foundation where his home once stood and sift through the rubble in search of his books and papers—most importantly, the manuscript for Animal Farm. “He spent hours and hours rifling through rubbish. Fortunately, he found it,” Richard recalled in a 2012 interview with Ham & High. Orwell then piled everything into a wheelbarrow and carted it back to his office.
9. He had a goat named Muriel.
He and his wife Eileen tended to several farm animals at their home in Wallington, England, including Muriel the goat. A goat by the same name in Orwell’s book Animal Farm is described as being one of the few intelligent and morally sound animals on the farm, making her one of the more likable characters in this dark work of dystopian fiction.
10. George Orwell coined the term Cold War.
The first recorded usage of the phrase cold war in reference to relations between the U.S. and Soviet Union can be traced back to Orwell’s 1945 essayYou and the Atom Bomb, which was written two months after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the essay, he described “a state which was at once unconquerable and in a permanent state of ‘cold war’ with its neighbors.” He continued:
“Had the atomic bomb turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or an alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly centralized police state. If, as seems to be the case, it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace.’”
11. He ratted out Charlie Chaplin and other artists for allegedly being communists.
Orwell self-identified as a democratic socialist, but his sympathy didn’t extend to communists. In 1949, he compiled a list of artists he suspected of having communist leanings and passed it along to his friend, Celia Paget, who worked for the UK’s Information Research Department. After the war ended, the branch was tasked with distributing anti-communist propaganda throughout Europe. Orwell’s list included Charlie Chaplin and a few dozen other actors, writers, academics, and politicians. Other notable names that were written down in his notebook but weren’t turned over to the IRD included Katharine Hepburn, John Steinbeck, George Bernard Shaw, Orson Welles, and Cecil Day-Lewis (the father of Daniel Day-Lewis).
Orwell’s intention was to blacklist those individuals, whom he considered untrustworthy, from IRD employment. While journalist Alexander Cockburn labeled Orwell a “snitch,” biographer Bernard Crick wrote, “He wasn’t denouncing these people as subversives. He was denouncing them as unsuitable for counter-intelligence operation.”
12. He really hated American fashion magazines.
For a period of about a year and a half, Orwell penned a regular column called As I Please for the newspaper Tribune, in which he shared his thoughts on everything from war to objective truth to literary criticism. One such column from 1946 featured a brutal takedown of American fashion magazines. Of the models appearing on their pages, he wrote, “A thin-boned, ancient-Egyptian type of face seems to predominate: narrow hips are general, and slender, non-prehensile hands like those of a lizard are quite universal.”
As for the inane copy that accompanied advertisements, he complained:
«Words like suave-mannered, custom-finished, contour-conforming, mitt-back, inner-sole, backdip, midriff, swoosh, swash, curvaceous, slenderize, and pet-smooth are flung about with evident full expectation that the reader will understand them at a glance. Here are a few sample sentences taken at random: ‘A new Shimmer Sheen color that sets your hands and his head in a whirl.’ ‘Bared and beautifully bosomy.’ ‘Feathery-light Milliken Fleece to keep her kitten-snug!’ ‘Others see you through a veil of sheer beauty, and they wonder why!'»
In the rest of the column, he went on to discuss traffic fatalities.
13. He nearly drowned while writing Nineteen Eighty-Four.
One day in 1947 while taking a break from writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell took his son, niece, and nephew on a boating trip across the Gulf of Corryvreckan in western Scotland, which happens to be the site of the world’s third-largest whirlpool. Unsurprisingly, their dinghy capsized when it was sucked into the whirlpool, hurling them all overboard. Fortunately, all four survived, and the book that later came to be called Nineteen Eighty-Four (originally named The Last Man in Europe) was finally published in 1949, just seven months before Orwell’s death from tuberculosis.
By 1911, 36-year-old Ed Burroughs had reached a dead end.
His early life had more than its share of excitement. A stint in the U.S. Cavalry, chasing Apache “renegades” in the desert Southwest, was followed by a few years cowboy-ing on his brother’s Idaho ranch. After that, he was a gold prospector, then a railroad policeman.
Desiring something better in life, he returned to his native Chicago, where his father, a Civil War hero and successful businessman, helped him find the first of a series of white-collar jobs. Chief among these was a year spent as head of the stenography department of Sears, Roebuck and Company. There he oversaw 150 secretaries who turned out an estimated 4,000 letters a day for the colossal mail-order company.
Wanting to make his own mark, Burroughs quit Sears for a partnership in an ad agency that soon went under. After that came a stint as a salesman for a pencil sharpener company, then years as the low-paid editor of a magazine for small businesses.
Married to his high school sweetheart, with two young children, Burroughs began writing at night. He enjoyed spinning imaginative tales for his kids, and decided to create something for the cheap pulp magazines then gaining in popularity. “I remember thinking,” he told an interviewer years later, “that if other people got money for writing such stuff I might, too, for I was sure I could write stories just as rotten as theirs.”
In about two months he finished a short fantasy novel, Under the Moons of Mars, and sent it to Argosy magazine. He was embarrassed enough by the work to submit it under a pseudonym, Normal Bean. The adventure story of an American soldier magically transported to the Red Planet (much like how Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee traveled to King Arthur’s court) was bought for $400. Check deposited, Ed Burroughs did not look back.
A medieval adventure romance quickly followed. It was turned down by the editor of All-Story magazine, who nevertheless warmly encouraged him to keep at it. His next short novel, 1912’s Tarzan of the Apes, was accepted enthusiastically and published under his full name, Edgar Rice Burroughs, in a single issue of the magazine. It profoundly changed his life, along with popular culture, and the pop culture business, forever.
“Me, Tarzan,” The First Superhero
The orphaned infant child of marooned English aristocrats, Tarzan was adopted and named by a troop of advanced apes in the wilds of Africa, growing into an action hero. The novel was an overnight sensation. Its debut in All-Story led to newspaper serialization and a hardcover book the following year.
Fast-paced, imaginative, and ably told, Tarzan borrows from sources as diverse as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1892), whose main character Mowgli was a boy raised by wolves; the jungle adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard; and even Joseph Conrad, from whom Burroughs took the As-Told-to-Me narrative frame of the 1906 classic novella, Heart of Darkness.
With his overnight success, Burroughs was able to draw on his hard-earned corporate savvy. Affable and easy-going, he considered himself a storyteller, not a writer, whose job was to steadily produce product that was then sold to the highest bidder.
In 1914, with Tarzan’s success making him the most famous author in America, Burroughs bought a large house in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. This almost certainly made an impression on 15-year-old Ernest Hemingway, who lived just eight blocks away.
Burroughs was the first writer to incorporate as a business – ERB Inc. – that licensed all of his characters and stories. In the early stages of his career, this mainly meant serial publication rights, magazines, newspapers, and hardcover editions of the novels that began to flow from his pen. His foresight, though, created a goldmine in 1918 when the first Tarzan film debuted.
Though the first movie Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, looked more like a weightlifter in a long, furry, off-the-shoulder gown, and not the lithe, nearly nude character of the novel, the film was an immediate smash. With then-groundbreaking special effects, and relatively realistic jungle scenes, it was one of the first films to gross more than $1 million. Burroughs’s share was a cool $45,000 (over $800,000 in 2021 dollars).
Tarzan Kick-Starts Action Hero Movies
Tarzan was the first superhero to appear across a range of consumer products – candy, games, toys, comic strips, comic books, radio shows, and films. Fourteen years after the first movie, Tarzan was back in theaters, now in the shape of Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller, exactly the trim and muscular figure Burroughs envisioned for his famous character.
The first two MGM Tarzan films were particularly notable for Weissmuller’s jungle yell, ever after associated with the character, and the sexy chemistry between him and costar Maureen O’Sullivan, Tarzan’s “mate” Jane.
Made before the Hays production code enforced a nearly Victorian modesty on Hollywood movies, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) dressed their two gorgeous stars in the skimpiest outfits possible at the time. The second film even included a beautifully shot nude underwater ballet. Cut from the finished film, it was rediscovered in MGM’s archives decades later.
But if the ten next Weissmuller movies earned Burroughs another fortune, they also took Tarzan away from him. The plots for the films were cobbled together by studio writers, and drifted widely from the characters and stories Burroughs continued to produce.
Where Weissmuller’s Tarzan spoke in a pidgin English, and rarely left the jungle home he shared with Jane and their adopted son “Boy,” the Tarzan of the novels (human name: John, Lord Greystoke) had quickly regained the status and estate of his aristocratic parents, learned to fly airplanes, dressed well, could speak French, and lived with Jane (and their biological son Jack) on an enormous African ranch, returning to his jungle ways only as needed by the demands of plot.
Widely considered the best-selling American author of the first half of the 20th century, Burroughs’s dozens of adventure titles are estimated to have sold as many as 60 million copies.
Burroughs admitted that “most of the stories I wrote were the stories I told myself before I went to sleep.” As such, they are particular tales of wish fulfillment of a long-frustrated, white American man who grew up in the late 19th century. Burroughs, according to the novelist and critic Gore Vidal, “consoled himself with an inner world where he was strong and handsome, adored by beautiful women and worshipped by exotic races.” Consequently, his stories can present problems for many contemporary readers.
Though his cavalry experience left Burroughs with a respect for the black soldiers he served with, and an admiration of the Native Americans he encountered on duty, as he aged, and his writing became more formulaic, common racist tropes of savage Africans, and stereotypically comic Afro-American servants, infused his stories.
White supremacy – based explicitly on culture, not genetics – is the now-obvious subtext of the Tarzan and Mars adventures. Burroughs’s worst racial animus, however, was directed at the Japanese. In his last Tarzan novel, Tarzan and the Foreign Legion, written in 1943, Tarzan, helped by a drug giving him eternal youth, shows up to fight for the Allies in the South Pacific.
Tarzan And The Demands Of The Market
Burroughs escaped a financial dead end by writing Tarzan of the Apes, but churning out a stream of pulp novels with the same characters, year in and out, for two decades eventually brought on a creative one.
He was never too fussy about how his stories unfolded. The later works in the Tarzan (24 novels total) and Mars (10 books) series, along with a third series, six titles total, about the Land of Pellucidar, a prehistoric world inside a hollow Earth, rely on stock predicaments, outlandish coincidences, and bad dialogue.
The decline in quality was the direct result of a constant need for new product. For all the money Burroughs made, he spent it on a millionaire’s lifestyle once he moved from Oak Park to Los Angeles in 1918.
In 1918, Burroughs bought the 550-acre San Fernando Valley mansion estate of the late newspaper publisher H.G. Otis, naming his new home for his famous hero. Tight finances forced Burroughs to subdivide and sell the property, for a neat profit, six years later. In doing so he created the Los Angeles neighborhood still called Tarzana.
In California, he settled into a life of steady writing (producing many action novels outside the three fantasy adventure series) and business deals. A divorce and quick remarriage to a woman half his age preceded a move to Honolulu in 1936. There he witnessed the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. A two-year stint as a celebrity war correspondent, without seeing much action, in the Pacific brought a level of thrills missing from his life since his cavalry/cowboy days.
By then, though, Burroughs was suffering from decades of heavy cigarette smoking and vigorous social drinking. Divorced again, and increasingly incapacitated with a failing heart, he died of a coronary in Los Angeles in 1950. ERB Inc., however, continued to run, managed by his son and grandson, and still licenses products to this day.
Why Tarzan Matters
Given the poor quality of Burroughs’ later stories, and the tacit racism of so many of the tales, is his work still worth reading? In spite of those liabilities, Edgar Rice Burroughs did a lot of stuff right. He took great pride in researching details for his African stories, and created maps and languages for his make-believe realms.
He was a genius at what’s now called world-building, hanging his fantasies on a frame of realistic details. He came up with some excellent names, and was peerless at describing action – everything from sword fights to horseback riding. Most of all, he had a rich imagination that makes his best works, none of them very long, fun to read.
What’s more, Burroughs’s immense popularity gave an early drive and distinction to pulp fiction, that very American literary form, and by doing so inspired generations of young writers. And if his prose can’t compare with the work of the best pulp authors, his characters certainly do.
Tarzan, like any mythic being, has survived for more than a century in the popular imagination by representing wide and ongoing cultural concerns. Once standing for a certain kind of European management of wild places and remote people, Tarzan now represents an immersive encounter with nature, a vivid connection between humans and animals that recognizes our shared existence on the planet, and the threat to endangered species and pristine landscapes.
Tarzan as Eco-Warrior? It’s a safe bet that Ed Burroughs, were he alive today, would be happy to tell that story.
Published originally in a pulp magazine called All-Story in 1912, Tarzan of the Apesby Edgar Rice Burroughs was the first novel about a white child who was raised by primates after his parents died. He grew up to usurp the alpha male ape as king of the jungle after learning their ways. He swung from vines, had a trademark call of the wild, was eventually introduced to a bunch of abhorrent humans and the less abhorrent Jane, the love of his life, and finds out he is the heir to a title and a fortune. The series was an immediate massive hit and Burroughs capitalized on that popularity by writing two dozen sequels.
Hollywood came calling
Not counting the adult films, there have been at least 45 movies starting with 1918’s silent Tarzan of the Apes and including a bunch of cheesy adventures in the 1930s and 1940s with Johnny Weissmuller and a softcore romp with Bo Derek in 1981 that featured the characters from Burroughs’ books. There was also a 1966-68 NBC television series starring Ron Ely as the savage swinger and an animated children’s program in the 1970s. The most well-know adaptation is likely the Disney animated movie made in 1999, which like many other Disney films and Disney rides, feature real-life places.
Tarzan’s image, according to the Los Angeles Times, has been used to sell everything from T-shirts to vitamins and chest wigs. In Japan, a fitness magazine was even named after him. The Southern Californian community, Tarzana—where Burroughs built his office in 1926 and was buried—is also named after the lord of the jungle. There is no denying that Tarzan is one of the most beloved and enduring characters in the whole of literature.
The author who originally wrote under a pseudonym because “he thought writing was a lark” and a “silly profession for a big vigorous outdoorsman, as he fancied himself to be,” according to a Los Angeles Timesinterview with Scott Tracy Griffin, who wrote Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration, a scholarly coffee-table book published when the first novel turned 100 in 2012. Griffin says Burroughs was always “canny about his inspirations.” He “was a very well-read man” who “studied Greek and Latin through his school years, did research in the Chicago Public Library” and “had a very firm grounding in the classics.”
Burroughs usually claimed Tarzan was based on classic tales and mythology, often citing the story of Romulus and Remus. According to Britannica.com, they were the twin grandsons of King Numitor, who was deposed by his brother, and fathered by the war god Mars. They were sentenced to death by drowning as infants so as not to leave any rightful claimants to the throne. But they wound up floating down the Tiber River to the site where they would later found Rome, only surviving by being suckled and fed by a she-wolf and a woodpecker.
Many believe Burroughs was so specific and canny about the origins of his idea because he was plagued by accusations of copying Rudyard Kipling, whose Jungle Bookwas published many years earlier in 1894 and featured Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves, befriended by other animals, and eventually faced with both internal and external human dilemmas. (Coincidentally, it was also turned into a Disney cartoon and a live-action film.) Kipling himself once accused Burroughs of jazzing up the Mowgli plot in order to make Tarzan a hit, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Possible real-life Tarzan
But like a good book, the plot thickens. It turns out Kipling might have been wrong, at least partially, and Burroughs might have hidden his actual inspiration for the hero. It wouldn’t be the first incidence of a writer basing an iconic character on a real person.
Enter the 14th Earl of Streatham, William Charles Mildin. According to a 1959 article by journalist Thomas Llewellyn Jones in Man’s Adventuremagazine, Mildin’s shocking tale of survival and primates sounds pretty familiar.
To recap, Tarzan aka John Clayton was the child of aristocrats. The family was marooned in Africa and, after both of his parents perished, he was left to fend for himself in the jungle. He learns survival skills from a family of apes who call him Tarzan, meaning “white of skin.” He eventually tangles with a bunch of other humans including his shady family members and his beloved Jane and learns about his moneyed heritage.
Both came from English nobility
A Telegrapharticle explains that the earl’s story surfaced when family documents were released after his son died in 1937. Lord Mildin left 1,500 handwritten pages of memoirs. Tarzan’s real identity was Lord Greystroke. (Lord Greystroke is, however, a made-up name.)
Both were shipwrecked in Africa
The Earl also spent more than a decade, 15 years to be exact, in the wilds of Africa after a job on a boat went terribly wrong. His papers begin: “I was only 11 when, in a boyish fit of anger and pique, I ran away from home and obtained a berth as cabin boy aboard the four-masted sailing vessel, Antilla, bound for African ports-of-call and the Cape of Good Hope …”
His ship was destroyed during a three-day storm and he claimed he survived by clinging to a “piece of the wreckage.” He washed ashore somewhere between Pointe Noire and Libreville in French Equatorial Africa, according to The Telegraph. The original Man’s Adventure article said official insurance documents proved the Antilla had been totaled in 1868.
Clearly, if he was the prototype for Tarzan, this is where Burroughs took some liberties. Mildin was 11 and had run away from home; Tarzan was a small child who was stranded with his parents.
Both palled around with primates
The papers say he did not seek out natives as he “had always heard they were savages — headhunters and cannibals.” Mildin’s memoirs claim he took up with a group of apes after they provided him with food. According to a fanzine called ERBzine article, which reprinted Llewallan Jones’ 1959 article, the journals stated: “For some strange reason, I was not afraid of these strange creatures. They were hideous to look upon but seemed gentle and harmless.”
He writes that they gave him nuts, grubs, and roots. He was starving so he ate the castoffs, which apparently were rejected by his system at first. “I was terribly ill afterwards and the apes appeared to understand this. One ancient female hunched her way over to me and cradled me in her arms.”
He “gathered branches to make a crude treehouse.” He returned the favor to the family by making fire and stealing weapons from a native settlement: “I found new and easy ways to root under logs for grubs and dig for roots with a sharp-tipped stick. He talks about dressing their wounds with cool moss or wet mud.
Mildin brags that he was “unusually strong and agile for his age” but never claims he became the leader of the animals. “The brutes came to look upon me, not as a leader for I could not match their feats of strength and endurance, but as a mute well-intentioned and helpful counselor,” says an excerpt in the ERBzine piece.
Unlike Tarzan, he did not speak to the apes but did figure out some form of communication. Sounds wild, but scientific experiments and studies like the long-term one with Koko The Gorilla prove apes can be taught sign language. Once Mildin became a teen, he claims he left the beasts and moved in with a native tribe.
Both were swingers
Albeit different kinds, but Mildin was a bit of a player before he re-entered the realm of the white man. He alleges he married five local women and sired four children during his time in the village. His papers allege that the barren wife was speared to death in a ritual as it was the tribe’s custom to punish sterility.
When bad blood began to boil again with rival tribes, according to the ERBzine article, Mildin fought alongside his adopted people and taught them the art of “surprise attacks.” After he tired of war, he went full deadbeat dad, deserted them, and worked his way slowly up the coast until reaching a trading post some 250 miles away. Within months, he had returned to his homeland to claim his title, estate, and white male privilege. Warring tribes in that part of Western Africa at the time is a verifiable fact and according to the ERBzine article, there was an 1884 report from Fort Lamy that confirms Mildin came through there to get home.
According to the Reporter-Herald, the story goes a little differently. They mention that Mildin returned to London 15 years later but it was after being captured by adventurers and returned to civilization. If you remember, Tarzan also spends time in civilization, eventually learns of his nobility, and was often hunted by other humans.
Either way, Mildin made it home to his family fortune and title. He married again and had one son, Edwin George, in 1889. He died in 1919 and his son died in 1937 never having married.
Given that most of the players in this scenario died before this theory could be proven, there’s no way to 100 percent know that Mildin’s story helped in at least part to spark Tarzan’s creation. Mildin’s detailed papers were only released, per his will, when his last legitimate heir had passed away. However, the broad details of his marooning in Africa and his return, a few decades before Burroughs wrote the book, were covered in several articles in The London Times and romanticized in English illustrated papers and magazines, according to ERBzine. We’ve already established that experts believe Burroughs was a very well-read man who did lots of research. And if he did reach out to Mildin, it is entirely possible that Burroughs agreed to keep it a secret because Mildin knew the details of his papers, largely admitting the existence of his illegitimate African-based children, would complicate his will.
Jane of the Jungle
Pretty sure this tale has you wondering about Jane. But sadly for fans of Tarzan’s lady friend who first appeared in Tarzan of the Apes — A Romance of the Jungle in 1912 in All-Story, she does appear to be a pure figment of Burroughs’ imagination. Jane’s introduction was such a hit that it spurred Burroughs to write a bunch of tales about the pair’s life together in the jungle. Perhaps best of all, she inspired one real-life Jane, Jane Goodall, to live among the apes in Africa. “Silly man,” Goodall is reported as saying by the Jane Goodall Institute. “He married the wrong Jane.” We guess we can add Tarzan and Mildin to the list of classic cartoons and their real-life inspirations.
Back in 2012, the Library of America published special facsimile editions of two Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novels: “Tarzan of the Apes,” introduced by Thomas Mallon, and the nearly as famous planetary romance, “A Princess of Mars,” introduced by Junot Diaz. This year, Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. has begun to issue a uniform authorized edition of the entire Tarzan series, each volume featuring action-filled cover art by Joe Jusko. The company has also continued the “Carson of Venus” saga with a newly commissioned exploit by Matt Betts titled “The Edge of All Worlds.” While Burroughs (1875-1950) churned out every kind of pulp adventure, including several books set in the hollow-earth realm of Pellucidar and a fast-moving lost-world trilogy assembled as “The Land That Time Forgot,” the first Tarzan novels, in particular, show how deeply his mythic storytelling can captivate the imagination.
The books do this, moreover, despite Burroughs’s sometimes stilted language, period stereotypes (dotty professor, “humorous” Black maid, cartoon Russian anarchist) and myriad improbabilities in their plotting. Racial attitudes and beliefs are typical of the time yet more nuanced than you might expect: Tarzan judges people, regardless of their skin color or ethnicity, solely by their character. Courage, fortitude and compassion — these are the qualities that matter.
Burroughs opens “Tarzan of the Apes” (1914) with an irresistible hook: “I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.” The pages that follow describe how the infant son of the dead Lord and Lady Greystoke is reared by an anthropoid ape named Kala and learns to survive and flourish in the African jungle. One day, the grown Tarzan swings out of the trees to rescue a party of shipwrecked Westerners, thereby encountering Baltimorean Jane Porter and her suitor, the English aristocrat William Clayton, heir-apparent to the Greystoke title and estates. Many adventures follow but, with a daring that most writers would shrink from, Burroughs brings the novel to a climax in, of all places, Wisconsin.
There, Jane and Tarzan finally acknowledge their love for each other, even though Jane feels honor-bound to keep her promise to wed Clayton. Shortly after a tearful farewell, the brokenhearted ape-man learns that he is, in fact, the rightful Lord Greystoke. Just then, Clayton enters and cheekily asks, “How the devil did you ever get into that bally jungle?” The answer provides the novel’s throat-catching final lines:
“ ‘I was born there,’ said Tarzan, quietly. ‘My mother was an Ape, and of course she couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was.’ ”
This act of renunciation drives home one of Burroughs’s main themes: That despite a brutish, not British, upbringing, Kala’s son possesses unassailable nobility and fineness of character. Note that this isn’t because of aristocratic blood, family background or race. Rather the novel presents Tarzan as Rousseau’s unspoiled child of nature, a literally noble savage free from the vices and corruption associated with advanced industrial society. However, the encounter with Jane Porter has seriously shaken his equanimity.
As “The Return of Tarzan” (1915) opens, the ape-man feels psychologically divided between the claims of “civilization” and the call of the wild. (This is a common literary theme of the era — think of Jack London’s sled dog Buck, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.) What should a lord of the jungle do with his life?
First, Monsieur Jean C. Tarzan tries to adapt to Parisian high society — at least until a dastardly Russian named Nikolas Rokoff contrives to make it appear that Tarzan’s friendship with the Countess de Coude masks a full-fledged love affair. To save the lady’s honor, Tarzan again chooses self-sacrifice, resolving to die in a duel with her husband, the finest pistol shot in France. Miraculously, he survives and, for good measure, proves the countess’s innocence.
Next, the ape-man travels to Algeria to expose a traitor in the French Foreign Legion. By freeing a young Arab woman from slavery, he earns the undying gratitude of her father, a powerful desert sheikh. “All that is Kadour ben Saden’s is thine, my friend, even to his life.” Tarzan rapidly comes to admire the sheikh and his stern, dignified warriors, but resists the temptation to settle among them permanently.
After thwarting several murder attempts by Rokoff, our hero finally returns to his beloved African homeland. “Who would go back to the stifling, wicked cities of civilized man when the mighty reaches of the great jungle offered peace and liberty? Not he.” Before long Tarzan, by now a specialist in rescuing people from certain death, saves an African named Busuli, then joins his new friend’s people, the Waziri, among whom he finds contentment — for a while.
Even the most casual reader of “The Return of Tarzan” will notice its neatly orchestrated shifts, as its displaced protagonist “tries out” life among White Europeans, sunburnt Arabs and Black Waziri. But Tarzan’s journey of self-discovery isn’t over yet. While exploring the mysterious, half-ruined city of Opar, he is captured by its savage inhabitants, most of whom are virtually indistinguishable from H.G. Wells’s bestial Morlocks. Only Opar’s high priestess La preserves a fully human beauty and Tarzan the Irresistible naturally catches her eye.
Following a lucky escape from Opar, the weary-hearted lord of the jungle finally decides, in Walt Whitman’s phrase, to “turn and live with the animals. They are so placid and self-contained.” He rejoins the apes he grew up with and gradually begins to forget the heartache and complexity of being human. At which point Jane reappears – along with Clayton and Rokoff.
As this précis indicates, the Tarzan novels repeatedly extol glad animal spirits and natural instinct over western culture’s soul-deadening constraints and artificiality. This is a simplistic dichotomy, albeit useful for highly melodramatic storytelling. In his many, many adventures to come, the ape-man will sometimes appear as the urbane and proper Lord Greystoke, but whenever serious danger threatens, he will, in approved superhero fashion, quickly doff his bespoke suit and take to the trees as Tarzan the untamed, Tarzan the invincible.
Kipling’s father, John Lockwood Kipling, was an artist and scholar who had considerable influence on his son’s work, became curator of the Lahore Museum, and is described presiding over this “wonder house” in the first chapter of Kim, Rudyard’s most famous novel. His mother was Alice Macdonald, two of whose sisters married the highly successful 19th-century painters Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Sir Edward Poynter, while a third married Alfred Baldwin and became the mother of Stanley Baldwin, later prime minister. These connections were of lifelong importance to Kipling.
Much of his childhood was unhappy. Kipling was taken to England by his parents at the age of six and was left for five years at a foster home at Southsea, the horrors of which he described in the story “Baa Baa, Black Sheep” (1888). He then went on to the United Services College at Westward Ho, north Devon, a new, inexpensive, and inferior boarding school. It haunted Kipling for the rest of his life—but always as the glorious place celebrated in Stalky & Co. (1899) and related stories: an unruly paradise in which the highest goals of English education are met amid a tumult of teasing, bullying, and beating. The Stalky saga is one of Kipling’s great imaginative achievements. Readers repelled by a strain of brutality—even of cruelty—in his writings should remember the sensitive and shortsighted boy who was brought to terms with the ethos of this deplorable establishment through the demands of self-preservation.
Kipling returned to India in 1882 and worked for seven years as a journalist. His parents, although not officially important, belonged to the highest Anglo-Indian society, and Rudyard thus had opportunities for exploring the whole range of that life. All the while he had remained keenly observant of the thronging spectacle of native India, which had engaged his interest and affection from earliest childhood. He was quickly filling the journals he worked for with prose sketches and light verse. He published the verse collection Departmental Ditties in 1886, the short-story collection Plain Tales from the Hills in 1888, and between 1887 and 1889 he brought out six paper-covered volumes of short stories. Among the latter were Soldiers Three, The Phantom Rickshaw (containing the story “The Man Who Would Be King”), and Wee Willie Winkie (containing “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”). When Kipling returned to England in 1889, his reputation had preceded him, and within a year he was acclaimed as one of the most brilliant prose writers of his time. His fame was redoubled upon the publication in 1892 of the verse collection Barrack-Room Ballads, which contained such popular poems as “Mandalay,” “Gunga Din,” and “Danny Deever.” Not since the English poet Lord Byron had such a reputation been achieved so rapidly. When the poet laureateAlfred, Lord Tennyson, died in 1892, it may be said that Kipling took his place in popular estimation.
In 1892 Kipling married Caroline Balestier, the sister of Wolcott Balestier, an American publisher and writer with whom he had collaborated in The Naulahka (1892), a facile and unsuccessful romance. That year the young couple moved to the United States and settled on Mrs. Kipling’s property in Vermont, but their manners and attitudes were considered objectionable by their neighbours. Unable or unwilling to adjust to life in America, the Kiplings returned to England in 1896. Ever after Kipling remained very aware that Americans were “foreigners,” and he extended to them, as to the French, no more than a semi-exemption from his proposition that only “lesser breeds” are born beyond the English Channel.
Besides numerous short-story collections and poetry collections such as The Seven Seas (1896), Kipling published his best-known novels in the 1890s and immediately thereafter. His novel The Light That Failed (1890) is the story of a painter going blind and spurned by the woman he loves. Captains Courageous (1897), in spite of its sense of adventure, is burdened by excessive descriptive writing. Kim (1901), about an Irish orphan in India, is a classic. The Jungle Book (1894) and The Second Jungle Book (1895) are stylistically superb collections of stories. These books give further proof that Kipling excelled at telling a story but was inconsistent in producing balanced, cohesive novels.
In 1902 Kipling bought a house at Burwash, Sussex, which remained his home until his death. Sussex was the background of much of his later writing—especially in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910), two volumes that, although devoted to simple dramatic presentations of English history, embodied some of his deepest intuitions. In 1907 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Englishman to be so honoured. In South Africa, where he spent much time, he was given a house by Cecil Rhodes, the diamond magnate and South African statesman. This association fostered Kipling’s imperialist persuasions, which were to grow stronger with the years. These convictions are not to be dismissed in a word: they were bound up with a genuine sense of a civilizing mission that required every Englishman, or, more broadly, every white man, to bring European culture to those he considered the heathen natives of the uncivilized world. Kipling’s ideas were not in accord with much that was liberal in the thought of the age, and, as he became older, he was an increasingly isolated figure. When he died, two days before King George V, he must have seemed to many a far less representative Englishman than his sovereign.
Legacy of Rudyard Kipling
Kipling’s poems and stories were extraordinarily popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, but after World War I his reputation as a serious writer suffered through his being widely viewed as a jingoistic imperialist. (His rehabilitation was attempted, however, by T.S. Eliot.) His verse is indeed vigorous, and in dealing with the lives and colloquial speech of common soldiers and sailors it broke new ground. Balladry, music hall song, and popular hymnology provide its unassuming basis; even at its most serious—as in “Recessional” (1897) and similar pieces in which Kipling addressed himself to his fellow countrymen in times of crisis—the effect is rhetorical rather than imaginative.
But it is otherwise with Kipling’s prose. In the whole sweep of his adult storytelling, he displays a steadily developing art, from the early volumes of short stories set in India through the collections Life’s Handicap (1891), Many Inventions (1893), The Day’s Work (1898), Traffics and Discoveries (1904), Actions and Reactions (1909), Debits and Credits (1926), and Limits and Renewals (1932). While his later stories cannot exactly be called better than the earlier ones, they are as good—and they bring a subtler if less dazzling technical proficiency to the exploration of deeper though sometimes more perplexing themes. It is a far cry from the broadly effective eruption of the supernatural in The Phantom Rickshaw (1888) to its subtle exploitation in “The Wish House” or “A Madonna of the Trenches” (1924), or from the innocent chauvinism of the bravura “The Man Who Was” (1890) to the depth of implication beneath the seemingly insensate xenophobia of Mary Postgate (1915). There is much in Kipling’s later art to curtail its popular appeal. It is compressed and elliptical in manner and sombre in many of its themes. The author’s critical reputation declined steadily during his lifetime—a decline that can scarcely be accounted for except in terms of political prejudice. Paradoxically, postcolonial critics later rekindled an intense interest in his work, viewing it as both symptomatic and critical of imperialist attitudes.
Kipling, it should be noted, wrote much and successfully for children—for the very young in Just So Stories (1902) and for others in The Jungle Book and its sequel and in Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies. Of his miscellaneous works, the more notable are a number of early travel sketches collected in two volumes in From Sea to Sea (1899) and the unfinished Something of Myself, posthumously published in 1941, a reticent essay in autobiography.
Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Books were first published in 1894 and 1895, and they feature stories about Mowgli, a boy raised by wolves in the Indian jungle. The stories have remained popular and have inspired numerous adaptations – but their attitudes have been questioned by some parents and critics, who see them as a relic of Britain’s colonial past.
Indeed, a classic way of reading the tales is as an allegory for the position of the white colonialist born and raised in India. Mowgli – the Indian boy who becomes “master” of the jungle – is understood to be – as Kipling scholar John McClure interprets it: “behaving towards the beasts as the British do to the Indians”.
The classic account of Kipling, while persuasive in many ways, seems to me to be a bit limited. It misses some of the interesting questions the stories raise about notions of belonging and identity.
The standard account relies on the idea that the human and animal identities within the stories are clearly distinguished from each other and fixed – and that this fixed distinction extends via allegory to white colonial and Indian identities.
But what happens to our understanding of the stories if we don’t treat the human and animal identities as distinct? I would argue that a species name doesn’t necessarily fix a character’s identity in the reader’s mind’s eye.
For example, Bagheera, the black panther, is described in terms of a series of other animals: he is “as cunning as Tabaqui [the jackal], as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant”. Attributes that are supposedly intrinsic to one animal can be found in another. Like Bagheera, Mowgli describes himself in terms of other animals: “Mowgli the Frog have I been […] Mowgli the Wolf have I said that I am. Now Mowgli the Ape must I be before I am Mowgli the Buck,” and it is this process of transformation that will lead to the end in which he will become “Mowgli the Man”. In this way he blurs the distinction between himself and the other jungle inhabitants.
This undermines narratives of essential difference between species. If we follow this through with respect to the common allegorical reading that sets Mowgli apart from the animals, it also undermines claims that there are absolute differences between white colonialists and Indian “natives”.
Also take a closer look at the relationship of the child Mowgli to the inhabitants of the jungle and you’ll see the way this complicates accounts of the Jungle Books as straightforwardly imperialist in character.
The Jungle Book stories focus a great deal on the issue of belonging, raising questions about the grounds on which one may claim to belong to a particular group or community: is belonging a matter of being born a member of a group, or is it a matter of convention and social agreement?
Because Mowgli is raised by wolves and initiated into their society he has a hybrid identity. Shere Khan, the tiger, resists Mowgli’s hybrid identity, referring to it as “man-wolf folly”. He claims that his hatred of Mowgli is justified because Mowgli is intrinsically “a man, a man’s child”. On the other hand, Akela, the leader of the wolves, claims kinship with Mowgli on the basis that:
He has eaten our food. He has slept with us. He has driven game for us. He has broken no word of the Law of the Jungle. … He is our brother in all but blood.
For Akela, Mowgli’s belonging is secured by his actions and his conformity with wolf society. Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the most strident advocate of the idea that identity and belonging are a matter of “blood” is Shere Khan, the villain of the piece.
Nuance and ambiguity
By the end of the first Mowgli story it may seem that those, like Shere Khan, who claim that one’s identity is what one is born to be, carry the day – since Mowgli is cast out of the jungle. Though he speaks of leaving the jungle and going to “his own people”, he also qualifies this with: “if they be my own people” and he also goes on to reassert his claim to be part of the wolf pack when he follows this with the promise: “There shall be no war between any of us in the pack.”
As Daniel Karlin points out in his Penguin Classics edition of The Jungle Books (1987), Kipling changed this in his final collected edition of the stories to: “There shall be no war between any of us and the pack,” and so in the later edition “he already identifies with men”.
Either way, Mowgli does go on to rule the jungle rather than just remain a member of the jungle “family” as seems to be suggested by the recent Disney live-action/CGI film based on the stories. So there are ambiguities there, but a close reading of the Jungle Book stories leads me to feel that there is more to them than an imperialist narrative.
After a century or so during which Kipling has frequently been painted simply as a cheerleader for the “white man” and his burden – and at a time when questions of identity and belonging are particularly relevant for Britain – perhaps it’s time for a more nuanced reading of his classic works that allows their ambiguities and ambivalences to come to the fore.
How Mark Twain’s Childhood Influenced His Literary Works
Hannibal, Missouri made Mark Twain, and, in turn, Twain made Hannibal famous. Few American authors are as closely intertwined — and influenced — by their hometowns as Twain. The childhood years spent in this Missouri town gave birth to some of the most famous characters in American literature, an emotional and memory-filled well that Twain would return to again and again.
Twain came from humble origins
Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in the tiny town of Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835, two weeks after Halley’s Comet made its closest approach to the Earth. He was the sixth of seven children born to John and Jane Clemens. He was a sickly youth, whose parents feared he might not survive, and the family was beset by the tragic early deaths of three of Twain’s siblings.
When Twain was 4 years old, his family moved to the Mississippi River port town of Hannibal, where John worked as a lawyer, storekeeper and judge. John also dabbled in land speculation, leaving the family’s finances often precarious. His son, who would become one of the wealthiest authors in America, would follow in his father’s financially-shaky footsteps as an adult and was prone to speculation and ill-advised investments that would repeatedly threaten his financial security.
Jane was a loving mother, and Twain would later note that he inherited his love of storytelling from her. His father couldn’t have been more different, and Twain later claimed that he had never seen the dour and serious John smile.
His years in Hannibal would be the most formative of his life
Hannibal would be immortalized as the town of “St. Petersburg” in Twain’s works. He would write of lazy days spent in the company of a group of loyal friends. They played games and spent hours and days exploring the surrounding area, including a cave just outside of town that was a favorite of Clemens’ real gang of friends, which would play a key role in Tom Sawyer as the cave where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher nearly died.
Thatcher was based on Twain’s real-life childhood crush, Laura Hawkins. Like Twain, Hawkins had moved to Hannibal as a child, and her family lived on the same street as the Clemens family. She and Twain were schoolmates and sweethearts, and idealized versions of Laura made their way into several other Twain books, including The Gilded Age. Later in life, Twain and Hawkins rekindled their friendship, with Twain visiting with her in Hannibal and Hawkins traveling east to Twain’s Connecticut home just two years before his death.
Sawyer’s half-brother Sid was based on Twain’s younger brother Henry. The two were quite close, and when Twain began training as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, he encouraged Henry to join him. Tragically, Henry was killed in a steamboat explosion at the age of just 20. Twain never forgave himself, and Henry’s death haunted him for the rest of his life.
Twain said he based the character of Sawyer on himself and two childhood friends, John B. Briggs and William Bowen. But many believe that he nicked the character’s name from a hard-drinking, Brooklyn-born fireman named Tom Sawyer who Twain had befriended in the 1860s. Like Twain, Sawyer had worked on riverboats in his youth, and the pair bonded over a series of drinking benders and gambling adventures in San Francisco, Nevada and elsewhere.
Another childhood friend was the inspiration for Huck Finn
Although Twain initially claimed to have invented the character entirely, he later admitted that Finn was based on Tom Blankenship. The son of the town drunkard, Blankenship was nonetheless idolized by the boys of Hannibal, who relished his sense of freedom and easy ways.
As Twain later wrote in his autobiography, “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person — boy or man — in the community, and by consequence, he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us.”
The character of Finn, first introduced in “Tom Sawyer” before getting his own book in 1884, was Twain’s most indelible creation — and his most controversial. While enormously influential and still popular more than a century after it was published, the book is also one of the most frequently banned in America, criticized for its use of coarse language, ethnic slurs and its depiction of the runaway enslaved person, Jim, which many consider racist.
The novel shows Twain dealing with the impact of American slavery
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was one of the first American novels to be written entirely using an English vernacular language and dialect, as Twain recalled both the sights and sounds of his youth. It was also Twain’s attempt to reconcile both the darkness and light of his Hannibal years, which were filled with happy childhood memories as well as darker ones, reflecting the realities of the often capriciously violent world of a riverboat town and the lasting effects of racism and slavery.
Twain later admitted he had grown up unquestioningly accepting slavery, before becoming an avowed advocate for Black rights later in life. Missouri was a slave state, and both Twain’s father and several Clemens family members owned enslaved people. As a young boy, Twain spent summers on his uncle’s farm, listening to stories told by its enslaved workers, including an old man named “Uncle Daniel.” Twain also drew on similar stories he heard from formerly enslaved people who worked for his sister-in-law in upstate New York after the Civil War to create his portrait of Jim, and a long-ago story of the Tom Blankenship’s brother’s secret assistance to a runaway enslaved person would inspire Finn’s relationship with Jim.
Twain’s childhood ended early
When young Twain was just 11, his father died, pushing the family to the brink of economic collapse. Twain was forced to leave school and worked a series of jobs before becoming a printer’s apprentice, where he put his burgeoning love of words into tactical practice by setting type. After stints working for his brother’s newspaper and other publishers in the Midwest and East, Twain fulfilled another childhood love fueled by his Hannibal days by becoming a Mississippi River boat pilot. This brief, though happy, phase of his early 20s was also where he acquired the pen name that millions would soon know him by: “Mark Twain,” a term used by captains to mark a water depth of two fathoms, indicating safe passage for their ships.
Although Twain would only work on the Mississippi for a few years before the start of the Civil War, that period, like those in Hannibal before them, left a lasting impression. Twenty years after his riverboat career ended, Twain took a nostalgic journey along the river to New Orleans, inspiring much of his 1883 book, Life on the Mississippi. And as he made his way back up along the river, he made a return visit home to Hannibal, back to where it all began.
Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens Nov. 30, 1835 in the small town of Florida, MO, and raised in Hannibal, became one of the greatest American authors of all time. Known for his sharp wit and pithy commentary on society, politics, and the human condition, his many essays and novels, including the American classic,The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, are a testament to his intelligence and insight. Using humor and satire to soften the edges of his keen observations and critiques, he revealed in his writing some of the injustices and absurdities of society and human existence, his own included. He was a humorist, writer, publisher, entrepreneur, lecturer, iconic celebrity (who always wore white at his lectures), political satirist, and social progressive.
He died on April 21, 1910 when Halley’s Comet was again visible in the night sky, as lore would have it, just as it had been when he was born 75 years earlier. Wryly and presciently, Twain had said,“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: «Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” Twain died of a heart attack one day after the Comet appeared its brightest in 1910.
A complex, idiosyncratic person, he never liked to be introduced by someone else when lecturing, preferring instead to introduce himself as he did when beginning the following lecture, “Our Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands” in 1866:
“Ladies and gentlemen: The next lecture in this course will be delivered this evening, by Samuel L. Clemens, a gentleman whose high character and unimpeachable integrity are only equalled by his comeliness of person and grace of manner. And I am the man! I was obliged to excuse the chairman from introducing me, because he never compliments anybody and I knew I could do it just as well.”
“I am a border-ruffian from the State of Missouri. I am a Connecticut Yankee by adoption. In me, you have Missouri morals, Connecticut culture; this, gentlemen, is the combination which makes the perfect man.”
Growing up in Hannibal, Missouri had a lasting influence on Twain, and working as a steamboat captain for several years before the Civil War was one of his greatest pleasures. While riding the steamboat he would observe the many passengers, learning much about their character and affect. His time working as a miner and a journalist in Nevada and California during the 1860s introduced him to the rough and tumble ways of the west, which is where, Feb. 3, 1863, he first used the pen name, Mark Twain, when writing one of his humorous essays for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in Nevada.
Mark Twain was a riverboat term that means two fathoms, the point at which it is safe for the boat to navigate the waters. It seems that when Samuel Clemens adopted this pen name he also adopted another persona – a persona that represented the outspoken commoner, poking fun at the aristocrats in power, while Samuel Clemens, himself, strove to be one of them.
Twain got his first big break as a writer in 1865 with an article about life in a mining camp, called Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog, also called The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was very favorably received and printed in newspapers and magazines all over the country. From there he received other jobs, sent to Hawaii, and then to Europe and the Holy Land as a travel writer. Out of these travels he wrote the book, The Innocents Abroad, in 1869, which became a bestseller. His books and essays were generally so well-regarded that he started lecturing and promoting them, becoming popular both as a writer and a speaker.
When he married Olivia Langdon in 1870, he married into a wealthy family from Elmira, New York and moved east to Buffalo, NY and then to Hartford, CT where he collaborated with the Hartford Courant Publisher to co-write The Gilded Age, a satirical novel about greed and corruption among the wealthy after the Civil War. Ironically, this was also the society to which he aspired and gained entry. But Twain had his share of losses, too – loss of fortune investing in failed inventions (and failing to invest in successful ones such as Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone), and the deaths of people he loved, such as his younger brother in a riverboat accident, for which he felt responsible, and several of his children and his beloved wife.
Although Twain survived, thrived, and made a living out of humor, his humor was borne out of sorrow, a complicated view of life, an understanding of life’s contradictions, cruelties, and absurdities. As he once said, “There is no laughter in heaven.”
Mark Twain’s style of humor was wry, pointed, memorable, and delivered in a slow drawl. Twain’s humor carried on the tradition of humor of the Southwest, consisting of tall tales, myths, and frontier sketches, informed by his experiences growing up in Hannibal, MO, as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, and as a gold miner and journalist in Nevada and California.
In 1863 Mark Twain attended in Nevada the lecture of Artemus Ward (pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne,1834-1867), one of America’s best-known humorists of the 19th century. They became friends, and Twain learned much from him about how to make people laugh. Twain believed that how a story was told was what made it funny – repetition, pauses, and an air of naivety.
In his essay How to Tell a Story Twain says, “There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind—the humorous. I will talk mainly about that one.” He describes what makes a story funny, and what distinguishes the American story from that of the English or French; namely that the American story is humorous, the English is comic, and the French is witty.
He explains how they differ:
“The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter. The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst. The humorous story is strictly a work of art, — high and delicate art, — and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story —- understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print — was created in America, and has remained at home.”
Other important characteristics of a good humorous story, according to Twain, include the following:
A humorous story is told gravely, as though there is nothing funny about it.
The story is told wanderingly and the point is “slurred.”
A “studied remark” is made as if without even knowing it, “as if one were thinking aloud.”
The pause: “The pause is an exceedingly important feature in any kind of story, and a frequently recurring feature, too. It is a dainty thing, and delicate, and also uncertain and treacherous; for it must be exactly the right length–no more and no less—or it fails of its purpose and makes trouble. If the pause is too short the impressive point is passed, and the audience have had time to divine that a surprise is intended—and then you can’t surprise them, of course.”
Twain believed in telling a story in an understated way, almost as if he was letting his audience in on a secret. He cites a story, The Wounded Soldier, as an example and to explain the difference in the different manners of storytelling, explaining that:
“The American would conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it…. the American tells it in a ‘rambling and disjointed’ fashion and pretends that he does not know that it is funny at all,” whereas “The European ‘tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through.” ….”All of which,” Mark Twain sadly comments, “is very depressing, and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.”
Twain’s folksy, irreverent, understated style of humor, use of vernacular language, and seemingly forgetful rambling prose and strategic pauses drew his audience in, making them seem smarter than he. His intelligent satirical wit, impeccable timing, and ability to subtly poke fun at both himself and the elite made him accessible to a wide audience, and made him one of the most successful comedians of his time and one that has had a lasting influence on future comics and humorists.
Humor was absolutely essential to Mark Twain, helping him navigate life just as he learned to navigate the Mississippi when a young man, reading the depths and nuances of the human condition like he learned to see the subtleties and complexities of the river beneath its surface. He learned to create humor out of confusion and absurdity, bringing laughter into the lives of others as well. He once said, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”
Mr. Samuel Clemens has taken the boy of the Southwest for the hero of his new book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and has presented him with a fidelity to circumstance which loses no charm by being realistic in the highest degree, and which gives incomparably the best picture of life in that region as yet known to fiction. The town where Tom Sawyer was born and brought up is some such idle shabby Mississippi River town as Mr. Clemens has so well described in his piloting reminiscences, but Tom belongs to the better sort of people in it, and has been bred to fear God and dread the Sunday-school according to the strictest rite of the faiths that have characterized all the respectability of the West. His subjection in these respects does not so deeply affect his inherent tendencies but that he makes himself a beloved burden to the poor, tender-hearted old aunt who brings him up with his orphan brother and sister, and struggles vainly with his manifold sins, actual and imaginary.
The limitations of his transgressions are nicely and artistically traced. He is mischievous, but not vicious; he is ready for almost any depredation that involves the danger and honor of adventure, but profanity he knows may provoke a thunderbolt upon the heart of the blasphemer, and he almost never swears; he resorts to any strategem to keep out of school, but he is not a downright liar, except upon terms of after shame and remorse that make his falsehood bitter to him. He is cruel, as all children are, but chiefly because he is ignorant; he is not mean, but there are very definite bounds to his generosity; and his courage is the Indian sort, full of prudence and mindful of retreat as one of the conditions of prolonged hostilities. In a word, he is a boy, and merely and exactly an ordinary boy on the moral side. What makes him delightful to the reader is that on the imaginative side he is very much more, and though every boy has wild and fantastic dreams, this boy cannot rest till he has somehow realized them. Till he has actually run off with two other boys in the character of a buccaneer and lived for a week on an island in the Mississippi, he has lived in vain; and this passage is but the prelude to more thrilling adventures, in which he finds hidden treasures, traces the bandits to their cave, and is himself lost in its recesses. The local material and the incidents with which his career is worked up are excellent, and throughout there is scrupulous regard for the boy’s point of view in reference to his surroundings and himself, which shows how rapidly Mr. Clemens has grown as an artist. We do not remember anything in which this propriety is violated, and its preservation adds immensely to the grown-up reader’s satisfaction in the amusing and exciting story. There is a boy’s love-affair, but it is never treated otherwise than as a boy’s love-affair. When the half-breed has murdered the young doctor, Tom and his friend, Huckleberry Finn, are really in their boyish terror and superstition, going to let the poor old town-drunkard be hanged for the crime, till the terror of that becomes unendurable. The story is a wonderful study of the boy-mind, which inhabits a world quite distinct from that in which he is bodily present with his elders, and in this lies its great charm and its universality, for boy-nature, however human nature varies, is the same everywhere.
The tale is very dramatically wrought, and the subordinate characters are treated with the same graphic force that sets Tom alive before us. The worthless vagabond, Huck Finn, is entirely delightful throughout, and in his promised reform his identity is respected: he will lead a decent life in order that he may one day be thought worthy to become a member of that gang of robbers which Tom is to organize. Tom’s aunt is excellent, with her kind heart’s sorrow and secret pride in Tom; and so is his sister Mary, one of those good girls who are born to usefulness and charity and forbearance and unvarying rectitude. Many village people and local notables are introduced in well-conceived character; the whole little town lives in the reader’s sense, with its religiousness, its lawlessness, its droll social distinctions, its civilization qualified by its slave-holding, and its traditions of the wilder West which has passed away. The picture will be instructive to those who have fancied the whole Southwest a sort of vast Pike County, and have not conceived of a sober and serious and orderly contrast to the sort of life that has come to represent the Southwest in literature.
On its surface, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a straightforward story about a boy and a runaway slave floating down the Mississippi River. But underneath, the book—which was published in the U.S. on February 18, 1885—is a subversive confrontation of slavery and racism. It remains one of the most loved, and most banned, books in American history.
1. Huckleberry Finn first appears in Tom Sawyer.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Twain’s novel about his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri. Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast-off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.” Huck also appears in Tom Sawyer, Detective, and Tom Sawyer Abroad.
2. Huckleberry Finn may be based on Mark Twain’s childhood friend.
Twain once said that Huck is based on Tom Blankenship, a childhood friend whose father, Woodson Blankenship, was a poor drunkard and the likely model for Pap Finn. “In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was,” Twain wrote in his autobiography. “He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.» However, Twain may be exaggerating here. In 1885, when the Minneapolis Tribune asked who Huck was based on, Twain indicated it was no single person: “I could not point you out the youngster all in a lump; but still his story is what I call a true story.”
3. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Huckleberry Finn was written in two short bursts. The first was in 1876, when Twain wrote 400 pages that he told his friend he liked “only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn” the manuscript. He stopped working on it for several years to write The Prince and the Pauper and Life on the Mississippi and to recharge in Germany. In 1882, Twain took a steamboat ride on the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota, with a stop in Hannibal, Missouri. It must have inspired him, because he dove into finishing Huckleberry Finn.
“I have written eight or nine hundred manuscript pages in such a brief space of time that I mustn’t name the number of days,” Twain wrote in August 1883. “I shouldn’t believe it myself, and of course couldn’t expect you to.” The book was published in 1884 in the UK, and 1885 in the U.S.
4. Like Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s view on slavery changed.
Huck, who grows up in the South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether to send Jim’s enslaver a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, «All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.
As a child, Twain didn’t question the institution of slavery. Not only was Missouri a slave state, but his uncle owned 20 enslaved people. In Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1,Twain wrote, “I vividly remember seeing a dozen black men and women chained to one another, once, and lying in a group on the pavement, awaiting shipment to the Southern slave market. Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen.” At some point, Twain’s attitudes changed and he married into an abolitionist family. His father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, was a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad and helped Frederick Douglass escape from slavery.
5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘s Emmeline Grangerford is a parody of a Victorian poetaster.
Huckleberry Finn parodies adventure novels, politics, religion, the Hatfields and the McCoys, and even Hamlet’s soliloquy. But most memorable may be the character of Emmeline Grangerford, the 15-year-old poet. Emmeline is a parody of Julia A. Moore, the “Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who wrote bad poetry about death. So does Emmeline, according to Huck: “Every time a man died, or a woman died, or a child died, she would be on hand with her ‘tribute’ before he was cold. She called them tributes.” Along with bad poetry, Emmeline paints “crayons” of dramatic subjects, such as a girl “crying into a handkerchief” over a dead bird with the caption, «I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas.»
6. Many consider The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be the first true «American» novel.
“All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn ,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in Green Hills Of Africa. “There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.» While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was considered the first major novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or «it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.” Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed how Americans wrote.
7. Many people consider the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be a bit of a cop-out.
A major criticism of Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured. To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many critics, including American novelist Jane Smiley, believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.
8. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is frequently banned.
Huckleberry Finn was first banned in Concord, Massachusetts in 1885 (“trash and suitable only for the slums”) and continues to be one of the most-challenged books. The objections are usually over the n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. Others say that the portrayal of African Americans is stereotypical, racially insensitive, or racist. In 2011, Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University, published a version of the book that replaced that offending word with slave. Around the same time appearedThe Hipster Huckleberry Finn, where the word was replaced with hipster. The book’s description says, “the adventures of Huckleberry Finn are now neither offensive nor uncool.”
9. Twain had some thoughts about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘s censorship.
In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the shelves because, as a librarian wrote to Twain, Huck is “a deceitful boy who said ‘sweat’ when he should have said ‘perspiration.'» Here’s Twain’s reply :
DEAR SIR: I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave. Ask that young lady—she will tell you so. Most honestly do I wish I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck’s character, since you wish it, but really in my opinion it is no better than those of Solomon, David, Satan, and the rest of the sacred brotherhood. If there is an unexpurgated Bible in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Huck and Tom from that questionable companionship? Sincerely yours, S. L. Clemens
10. A penis drawing almost ruined The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Twain, who ran his own publishing firm, hired 23-year-old E. W. Kemble to illustrate the first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Right as the book went to press, someone—it was never discovered who—added a penis to the illustration of Uncle Silas. The engraving shows Uncle Silas talking to Huck and Aunt Sally while a crude penis bulges from his pants.
According to Twain’s business manager Charles Webster, 250 books were sent out before the mistake was caught. They were recalled and publication was postponed for a reprint. If the full run had been sent out, Webster said, Twain’s “credit for decency and morality would have been destroyed.” You can view Kemble’s original illustrations here.
Edward Morgan Forster was the only child of Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster who was an architect by profession and Alice Clara Lily. He was born in January 1879 in London. Both his parents died in his childhood leaving him with a legacy of 8000 Pounds. This money helped him in his livelihood and enabled him to follow his ambition of becoming a writer. His schooling was done at Tonbridge School in Kent where the theater got named after him. He attended Cambridge University where his intellect was well groomed and he was exposed to the Mediterranean culture which was much freer in comparison to the more unbending English way of life. After graduating he started his career as a writer; his novels being about the varying social circumstances of that time. In his first novel ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’, which was published in 1905, he showed his concern that people needed to stay in close contact with their roots. The same pattern of theme was followed in ‘The Longest Journey’ (1907) and ‘Howards End’ (1910) which is a motivating story about two sisters Margaret and Helen who live in a house called Howards End. Margaret marries Henry Wilcox, a businessman and brings him back to Howards End. Howards End was the first successful novel by Forster. He also wrote a comic novel named ‘A Room with a View’ in 1908. This was the most optimistic of all his novels and was also made into a film in 1985.
In 1911 Forster also published several short stories with a rustic and unpredictable writing tone. These include ‘The Celestial Omnibus’ and ‘The Eternal Moment’. During 1912 and 1913 he traveled to India with his close friend Syed Ross Masood. His novel ‘Maurice’ was written in 1913; its subject matter revolved around a homosexual theme as he himself was a non declared homosexual. However this book was published after his death nearly sixty years after he wrote it. Many of his books had a similar theme but this one did raise suspicions as his sexuality was not open to the public. Forster visited India again in the early 1920s where he was the private secretary to Tukojirao III, the Maharajah of Dewas. In his novel ‘The Hill of Devi’ he tells a non-fictional version of his trip. His book ‘A Passage to India’ was published in 1924 receiving great appreciation. Forster was also awarded the ‘James Tait Black Memorial Prize’ following this successful novel.
Apart from homosexuality, another notable factor in Forster’s writing is symbolism as a technique and mysticism. In his book ‘Howards End’ there is a certain tree and in ‘A Passage to India’ the characters have this ability to connect to unknown people.
He also wrote for many magazines like ‘The Athenaeum’. He was against filming books. In his opinion a film or stage performance did not do justice to a literary piece of work. Despite that many of his works were adapted to films which were highly praised. In 1946 Forster was voted as an honorary ‘Fellow’ of King’s College. He was presented knighthood in 1949; an offer he declined. He was made a ‘Companion of Honor’ in 1953 and in 1969 a member of the ‘Order of Merit’. Forster continued to write till his death on 7th June 1970 due to a stroke.
Forster wrote about his Humanism in a famous essay entitled What I Believe. He was a Vice-President of the Ethical Union in the 1950s, and a member of the Advisory Council of Humanists UK from its foundation in 1963.
His work and viewpoint were summed up in a series on British Authors (Cambridge University Press) as:
“the voice of the humanist – one seriously committed to human values while refusing to take himself too seriously. Its tone is inquiring, not dogmatic. It reflects a mind aware of the complexities confronting those who wish to live spiritually satisfying, morally responsible lives in a world that increasingly militates against individual’s needs. Sensitively and often profoundly, Forster’s fiction explores the problems such people encounter.”
E M Forster is one of the greatest of British twentieth-century novelists, his well known novels including A Passage to India, Howard’s End and A Room with a View. His open-minded and humanist view of life is seen in his novels in their focus on human relationships and the need for tolerance, sympathy and love between individual human beings from different parts of society and different cultures. He shared many ideas with, and was friendly with, members of the Bloomsbury Group. Several of his novels have been made into successful films which you may have seen. He wrote and spoke in favour of tolerance in many areas of life, and he vigorously opposed censorship. He was President of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now known as Liberty). Forster called himself a humanist, and was President of the Cambridge Humanists from 1959 to his death. He was a Vice-President of the Ethical Union in the 1950s, and a member of the Advisory Council of Humanists UK from its foundation in 1963.
In What I Believe he wrote:
“I do not believe in Belief. But this is an Age of Faith, and there are so many militant creeds that, in self defence, one has to formulate a creed of one’s own. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy are no longer enough in a world where ignorance rules, and Science, which ought to have ruled, plays the pimp. Tolerance, good temper and sympathy – they are what matter really, and if the human race is not to collapse they must come to the front before long.”
After an unhappy conventional middle-class upbringing and public school education, Forster found the intellectual freedom of Cambridge, where he spent much of the rest of his life, liberating; he began to question religious belief while a student there. After reading Lowes Dickinson’s The Meaning of Good(which replaced God with Good, an influential idea at the turn of the century) he walked down King’s Parade declaring, ”You shall never take away from me my meaning of Good.” This underpinned his humanist view that it is possible to be good without a belief in a god.
His travels in Italy were another liberating experience and are reflected in two of early novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View. He wrote: “Italy is a beautiful place where they say ‘Yes’ and the place where things happen.” This openness contrasted with the narrow-minded attitudes of the British middle-class. Another early novel was The Longest Journey. This was more personal and drew on his own experiences at school and university. The main character has a club-foot – a symbol for people who are different from the norm but have the right, nevertheless, to be treated equally.
Forster’s two masterpieces are A Passage to India and Howard’s End. The latter is prefaced with the phrase “Only connect”. It is about the need for two parts of society – the intellectual and cultural, and the commercial, to meet and understand each other. He writes not only about the need for society to be interlinked as a whole, but of the need for individuals to “connect the prose and the passion”, to link their rational and emotional sides. A Passage to India arose from his friendship with individual Indians and from his visits to India. During one, he became private secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas – but he wanted to know Indian people and life rather than the tea parties and bridge games of the British people living in India. In the main character, Dr Aziz, Forster brilliantly creates a character from a different civilisation from his own. At that time, India was ruled as a part of the British Empire. Forster felt deeply that this situation prevented the Indians and British from being true friends. The novel ends with one of the main characters, the Englishman Fielding, saying to Aziz, “Why can’t we be friends now? … It’s what I want. It’s what you want.” It is said that this novel played an important part in changing attitudes in Britain, and thus helped the movement towards Indian independence.
Forster was gay. He fell in love with Muhammad, a bus conductor, while working for the Red Cross in Cairo during the First World War. Later, after Muhammad’s death from tuberculosis (TB), he fell in love with a policeman with whom he had a close relationship for the remainder of his life. He wrote a novel,Maurice, depicting the problems of gay men at a time when homosexuality was illegal. He decided it should not be published until after his death, and he did not reveal his homosexuality publicly during his lifetime.
E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India was written at a time when the end of the British colonial presence in India was becoming a very real possibility. The novel now stands in the canon of English literature as one of the truly great discussions of that colonial presence. But, the novel also demonstrates how friendships attempt (though often failing) to span the gap between the English colonizer and the Indian colonized.
Written as a precise mixture between a realistic and recognizable setting and a mystical tone, A Passage to India shows its author as both an excellent stylist as well as a perceptive and acute judge of human character.
The main incident of the novel is the accusation by an English woman that an Indian doctor followed her into a cave and attempted to rape her. Doctor Aziz (the accused man) is a respected member of the Muslim community in India. Like many people of his social class, his relationship with the British administration is somewhat ambivalent. He sees most of the British as enormously rude, so he is pleased and flattered when an English woman, Mrs. Moore, attempts to befriend him. Fielding also becomes a friend, and he is the only English person who attempts to help him after the accusation is made. Despite Fielding’s help, Aziz is constantly worried that Fielding will somehow betray him). The two part ways and then meet many years later. Forster suggests that the two can never really be friends until the English withdraw from India.
Wrongs of Colonization
A Passage to India is a searing portrayal of the English mismanagement of India, as well as an accusatory missal against many of the racist attitudes the English colonial administration held. The novel explores the many rights and wrongs of Empire and the way in which the native Indian population was oppressed by the English administration. With the exception of Fielding, none of the English believe in Aziz’s innocence. The head of the police believes that the Indian character is inherently flawed by an ingrained criminality. There appears to be little doubt that Aziz will be found guilty because the word of an English woman is believed over the word of an Indian.
Beyond his concern for British colonization, Forster is even more concerned with the right and wrong of human interactions. A Passage to India is about friendship. The friendship between Aziz and his English friend, Mrs. Moore, begins in almost mystical circumstances. They meet at a Mosque as the light is fading, and they discover a common bond. Such friendships cannot last in the heat of the Indian sun nor under the auspices of the British Empire. Forster ushers us into the minds of the characters with his stream-of-consciousness style. We begin to understand the missed meanings, the failure to connect. Ultimately, we begin to see how these characters are kept apart. A Passage to India is a marvelously written, marvelously sad novel. The novel emotively and naturally recreates the Raj in India and offers insight into how the Empire was run. Ultimately, though, it’s a tale of powerlessness and alienation. Even friendship and the attempt to connect fails.
A Passage to India (1924) is a novel by E. M. Forster set against the setting of the British Raj and the Indian Independence Movement in the 1920s. It was considered as one of the 100 great works of English literature by the Modern Library and won the 1924 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. Time magazine included the novel in its “TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005”
The story centers around four characters: Dr. Aziz, his British friend Cyril Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Adela Quested. During a tour to the Marabar Caves (modeled on the Barabar Caves of Bihar), Adela blames Aziz of attempting to assault her. Aziz’s trial, and its run-up and consequences, draw out all the racial tensions and prejudices between indigenous Indians and the British colonists who rule India. In A Passage to India, Forster employs his first-hand knowledge of India.
Foster started writing A Passage to India in 1913 just after his first visit to India. The novel was not revised and completed, however, well until after his second stay in India in 1921 when he served as Secretary to the Maharaja of the Dewas State Senior. Published in 1924, A Passage to India examines the racial misunderstandings and cultural hypocrisy that characterized the complex interactions between Indians and the English toward the end of the British occupation of India.
This book defiantly would be a brilliant choice for those who are keenly interested in Indian history and culture.
A Passage to India Summary
Dr. Aziz had been doubly snubbed that evening. He had been summoned to the Civil Surgeon’s house while he was taking his supper. When he arrived at the Civil Surgeon’s house he found that his superior had gone to the club without bothering to leave any message. In addition, two English-women emerged from the house and departed in his hired tonga, without even thanking him.
The doctor started going back towards the city of Chandrapore on foot. He was tired and he stopped at a mosque to rest. He was furious when he saw an English woman emerge from behind its pillars with her shoes on as he thought. Mrs. Moore, however, had come barefoot to the mosque. Finding her to be decent and friendly, Dr. Aziz engaged with her in conversation. .
Mrs. Moore had newly arrived from England to visit her son, Ronny Heaslop, the City Magistrate. Dr. Aziz found that they had common ground when he learned that she did not care for the Civil surgeon’s wife. Her disclosure prompted him to toll her about the usurpation of his carriage. The Doctor walked back to the club with her. As an Indian, he could not be admitted.
At the club, Adela, Ronny Heaslop’s prospective fiancée declared that she wanted to see the real India, not the India which came to through the rarified atmosphere of the British colony. To please ladies, one of the members offered to hold, what he whimsically termed, a bridge party and to invite some native guests.
The bridge party was a miserable affair. The Indians retreated one side of the lawn and although the conspicuously reluctant of British ladies went over to visit the natives, an awkward prevailed.
There was, however, one promising result of the party. The Principal of the Government College, Mr. Fielding, a man, who apparently felt neither rancour nor arrogance towards the Indians, invited Mrs. Moore and Adela to a tea party at his house. Upon Adela’s act Mr. Fielding also invited Professor Godbole, a teacher at his school, and Dr. Aziz.
At the tea, Dr. Aziz charmed Fielding and the guests with the elegance and fine intensity of his manners. But the gathering broke up on a discordant note when the priggish and suspicious Ronny Heaslop .chastised Fielding for leaving Adela, his fiancée, alone with Aziz and Godbole. :
Adela, irritated by Heaslop’s callous behaviour, informed him that she did not intend marrying him, but before the evening was over she had changed her mind. During the course of a drive in the Indian countryside, a mysterious figure, perhaps that of an animal, loomed out of the dark and nearly upset the car in which they were riding. Their mutual loneliness and a feeling of the unknown drew them together and Adela asked Ronny to disregard her earlier refusal.
The one extraordinary thing about the city of Chandrapore was a phenomenon of nature known as the Marabar Caves located several miles outside the city. Mrs. Moore and Adela accepted the offer of Dr. Aziz to escort them to the caves; but the visit proved catastrophic for all. Entering in one of the caves, Mrs. Moore realized that no matter what was said the walls returned only a prolonged, booming and hollow echo.
Pondering over that echo while she rested, and pondering over the distance that separated her from Dr. Aziz and Adela and from her own children, Mrs. Moore saw that all her Christianity, all her ideals of moral good and bad, in short, all her ideals of life amounted only to what was made of them by the hollow and booming echo of the Marabar Caves.
Adela entered one of the caves alone. A few minutes later she rushed out terrified; saying that she had been nearly attacked in the gloom. Dr. Aziz, the doctor was arrested.
There had always been a clear division between the natives and the British ruling community, but as the trial of Dr. Aziz drew nearer, each group demanded strict loyalty. When Mrs. Moore told her son that she was sure that Dr. Aziz was not capable of the alleged crime he advised her to go back to England. And when Fielding expressed an identical opinion at the club, he was promptly ostracized.
The tension which marked the opening of the trial had a great affect on all concerned. The first sensational incident occurred when one of Dr. Aziz’s friends rushed into the court room and shouted that Ronny Heaslop had smuggled his mother out of the country because she would have testified to the Doctor’s innocence. When restless Indian spectators heard the name of Mrs. Moore, they worked it into a kind of chant as though she had become a deity. The English colony was not to learn, until later, that Mrs. Moore had already died, aboard the ship.
The second incident concluded the trial. It was Adela’s testimony. The effect of the tense atmosphere of the court-room, the reiteration of Mrs. Moore’s name, and the continued presence of a buzzing sound in her ears since the time she left the caves, produced a trance-like effect upon Adela. Under the interrogation of the prosecuting attorney, she recollected the events at the caves. When she reached the moment of her lingering in the cave, she faltered, suddenly changed her mind and withdrew all charges.
After the conclusion of the trial, Chandrapore remained a bedlam for several hours. The Britishers sulked while the Indians excluded. AS for Adela, so far as British India was concerned she had crossed the line. Ronny Heaslop carefully explained that he could no longer associated with her. After accepting Fielding’s hospitality for a weeks, she returned home. In spite of Dr. Aziz’s increased antipathy to the Britishers, Fielding persuaded him not to press Adela for legal damages.
Two years later, Dr. Aziz became the court physician of an aged Hindu potentate who died on the night of the Krishna festival. The feast was a frantic celebration and the whole town was under spell when Fielding arrived on an official visit. Fielding had got married and Dr. Aziz assuming he had married Adela Quested, avoided his old friend. When he ran into him accidentally, however, he was Mrs. Moore’s daughter Stella, whom Fielding had married. The Doctor felt more embarrassed at his mistake.
The rape that never was: Forster and ‘A Passage to India’
E.M. Forster died 50 years ago, at the age of 91 on June 7, 1970. But it feels that he has been gone for much longer, because the last novel he published in his lifetime was nearly 100 years ago — A Passage to India, in 1924. His long terminal silence was in stark contrast to the brisk fecundity with which he had begun, publishing four novels in the five years between 1905 and 1910.
These included The Longest Journey, an autobiographical novel about his student days of long walks and longer idealistic discussions at King’s College, Cambridge, and a state-of-England novel, Howard’s End, about the class question and the issue of materialist versus spiritual inheritance. In between came his two ‘Italian’ novels, Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View, in which young English ladies on reaching that fabled country promptly throw their primness to the winds and begin behaving in erotic Mediterranean ways.
It is A Passage to India, however, which remains Forster’s undoubted masterpiece, a modern classic that regularly ranks high in every poll of the 100 Best Novels on both sides of the Atlantic. It has a special appeal for us in India for it is probably the best novel ever written about the country by an Englishman. Together with half a dozen short stories by Rudyard Kipling and his poetic peripatetic saga Kim (1901) depicting an earlier era, Forster’s novel remains an enduring literary monument of the 200 years of British rule in India. It preserves for us human feelings and attitudes from that fraught period as only literature can.
The story of A Passage to India hinges on a rape that never was. A white young woman accuses a charming Indian Muslim doctor of having assaulted her in a dark cave during a picnic, but at the trial of the accused a few weeks later, she goes to the witness box and says she cannot be sure and is withdrawing all charges.
The pukka sahebs for whom she has become a rallying point of racial honour lose face and the impassioned Indians milling around the court are jubilant as Dr. Aziz walks free. The heroically honest young lady, Adela Quested, is obliged to slink quietly back to England and be left on the shelf, instead of marrying the City Magistrate which she had come out to India to do.
Forster here boldly reverses many Raj stereotypes. The race-and-rape narrative had been common in English novels about India ever since the “Mutiny” of 1857 when several such incidents were believed to have happened. The trope of an oppressed ill-treated native raping a woman of the master race in a token act of revenge for the greater crime of the coloniser having raped his country had been inaugurated in English literature by Shakespeare in The Tempest (1611).
In this play, the last that Shakespeare wrote, the dispossessed and enslaved native Caliban is accused of raping the usurper Prospero’s virginal daughter Miranda, to which he retorts that he wishes he had actually raped her and populated the island with many little Calibans! In a variation on the theme, white women living in tropical colonies sometimes half-wishfully fantasised that they had been raped by a native. Many strands of this potent colonial situation are brought to bear by Forster on the episode in his novel.
But then he raises the stakes even higher. He chooses as the venue for the non-rape the Marabar Caves, modelled on the Barabar Caves near Bodh Gaya, the oldest known rock-cut caves in India that have a religious significance encompassing Buddhist, Jain and Hindu beliefs. They are described by Forster as being primal, in being bereft of all carving or sculpture (though one of them, the Lomas Rishi Cave, has in fact a highly ornate entrance). In the novel, the caves generate a bewildering echo which does not return the original human sound but each time utters “Boum!” — which may sound close to “Om” but is deliberately a negation of that pious expectation.
It is within such an elemental womb of resounding nullity that Adela Quested believes an Indian man followed her and attempted to assault her.
As the manuscript reveals, Forster wrote and rewrote this episode many times, apparently because he had no clear idea of what he wanted to happen in the cave, except that he wished this key event to have some large philosophical import. He wanted it to be a “mystery” but it seemed to have turned into a “muddle,” two terms that Forster himself used interchangeably. In an instance of the mimetic fallacy, Forster seems to have thought that if India was a muddle, it had best be represented in a muddled way.
When the novel came out and an old Cambridge friend wrote to ask what exactly happened in the cave, Forster just muddied the waters more: “In the caves it is either a man, or the supernatural, or an illusion. And even if I know!” Perhaps his difficulty here was that he could not abruptly turn symbolic in the middle of a novel which he had written throughout in the comic-ironic mode. A brief abstinence from narratorial omniscience could not all of a sudden raise the comic to the cosmic.
Another inconsistency or fissure in the novel is caused by the fact that Forster had begun writing it in 1912 but finished it only in 1924. Meanwhile, a World War had been fought in Europe and the political situation in India had undergone a sea change. The draconian Rowlatt Act had been passed and unarmed protesters against it had been massacred in Jallianwala Bagh in 1919. The following year, Gandhi had launched the nationwide Non-cooperation Movement which had mobilised the entire nation. None of this is reflected in the novel (except for a single allusion to the “crawling order” in Amritsar), so that when the novel was published in June 1924, it already seemed outdated and politically sanitised. Forster may not have known this but just a few months later, in January 1925, Premchand would publish his epic novel of Gandhian nationalism, Rangabhumi.
There are other things here, however, that Forster gets brilliantly right. As Adela walks up the hill with Aziz in a haze of mounting heat and makes desultory conversation with him about his marriage and wife, her subconscious mind is occupied with the vexing question of whether she herself loves the man she is planning to marry. It may not be quite the stream-of-consciousness method that Forster’s Bloomsbury friend Virginia Woolf practised but it is an eddy of Adela’s covert emotional turmoil that the hapless Aziz is sucked into.
Aziz himself is portrayed as a hugely charming but volatile and sentimental man. He obsesses about past Muslim glory when the Mughal emperors ruled the land. His hero among them is not Akbar, whom he calls “half a Hindu,” but Alamgir (i.e., Aurangzeb) who was firm of faith. Later, the Brahmin Godbole (“sweet of speech”) finds Aziz a job in a Hindu princely state safely away from British India, where Aziz, as his ally, is regarded as a Brahmin too and the two “often joke about it together”.
Forster gave up writing novels after A Passage to India because, as a homosexual, he said he had lost interest in love between man and woman which is the staple theme of the English novel. (Of his five man-woman novels, three feature broken engagements.) His one homosexual novel, Maurice, which he wrote in 1913 while A Passage to India hung fire, was published posthumously in 1971. Meanwhile, he had abandoned or burnt several other pieces of such furtive fiction.
Another vein of writing which he gave up no sooner than trying it out was science fiction. In his dystopian short story, ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909), each person lives deep below the surface of the earth in stark “isolation” in a cell, all communication is by “pneumatic mail” or by a Skype-like device, and there is a Book of the Machine which each person swears by and worships. Until, of course, the Machine stops and almost everyone perishes as they try to scramble up to the natural surface of the earth. (But there is no pandemic; just a Big Brother dehumanised into a Machine.)
The less Forster published in his last decades, the more his fame grew. He became in particular the patron saint of aspiring Indian writers in English including Mulk Raj Anand (whom he once called “Mulk of cow” in mild exasperation), Raja Rao and Ahmed Ali, all of whom he helped find publishers in England. In those pre-postcolonial times, Forster had mocked Indian nationalist aspirations even on the last page of A Passage to India (“India a nation!”), and he seemed to think of “politics” as a dirty word. But his own goodness and faith in personal relationships made him an icon of the Liberal humanism that he had grown up with, and privately he continued to swear by “the secret understanding of the heart”.
Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. Chandrapore was never large or beautiful, but two hundred years ago it lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and the fine houses date from that period. The zest for decoration stopped in the eighteenth century, nor was it ever democratic. There is no painting and scarcely any carving in the bazaars. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. So abased, so monotonous is everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it might be expected to wash the excrescence back into the soil. Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life.
Inland, the prospect alters. There is an oval Maidan, and a long sallow hospital. Houses belonging to Eurasians stand on the high ground by the railway station. Beyond the railway—which runs parallel to the river—the land sinks, then rises again rather steeply. On the second rise is laid out the little civil station, and viewed hence Chandrapore appears to be a totally different place. It is a city of gardens. It is no city, but a forest sparsely scattered with huts. It is a tropical pleasaunce washed by a noble river. The toddy palms and neem trees and mangoes and pepul that were hidden behind the bazaars now become visible and in their turn hide the bazaars. They rise from the gardens where ancient tanks nourish them, they burst out of stifling purlieus and unconsidered temples. Seeking, light and air, and endowed with more strength than man or his works, they soar above the lower deposit to greet one another with branches and beckoning leaves, and to build a city for the birds. Especially after the rains do they screen what passes below, but at all times, even when scorched or leafless, they glorify the city to the English people who inhabit the rise, so that new-comers cannot believe it to be as meagre as it is described, and have to be driven down to acquire disillusionment. As for the civil station itself, it provokes no emotion. It charms not, neither does it repel. It is sensibly planned, with a red-brick club on its brow, and farther back a grocer’s and a cemetery, and the bungalows are disposed along roads that intersect at right angles. It has nothing hideous in it, and only the view is beautiful; it shares nothing with the city except the overarching sky.
The sky too has its changes, but they are less marked than those of the vegetation and the river. Clouds map it up at times, but it is normally a dome of blending tints, and the main tint blue. By day the blue will pale down into white where it touches the white of the land, after sunset it has a new circumference—orange, melting upwards into tenderest purple. But the core of blue persists, and so it is by night. Then the stars hang like lamps from the immense vault. The distance between the vault and them is as nothing to the distance behind them, and that farther distance, though beyond colour, last freed itself from blue.
The sky settles everything—not only climates and seasons but when the earth shall be beautiful. By herself she can do little—only feeble outbursts of flowers. But when the sky chooses, glory can rain into the Chandrapore bazaars or a benediction pass from horizon to horizon. The sky can do this because it is so strong and so enormous. Strength comes from the sun, infused in it daily, size from the prostrate earth. No mountains infringe on the curve. League after league the earth lies flat, heaves a little, is flat again. Only in the south, where a group of fists and fingers are thrust up through the soil, is the endless expanse interrupted. These fists and fingers are the Marabar Hills, containing the extraordinary caves.