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Category Archives: Stories

Nine Interesting Facts about Washington Irving

Washington Irving. Who was that man? Find out just a handful of reasons why we should all have his name on our lips.

1. Washington Irving was named after the first official President of the United States of America. Born in 1783 in New York (the city that would loom large in his work), the American writer was named after the great American, George Washington. Of course, Washington only became President in 1789, but when Irving was born he was already known as an important founding father of the newly independent United States.

2. His first book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the Knickerbocker Glory. Irving’s first book was a humorous history of New York – yes, once again New York looms large in Irving’s life – and was a huge success. But one of the great linguistic legacies of the work was that it gave us the name ‘Knickerbocker’, which, following Irving’s book, came to be used as a name for an inhabitant of New York (or a ‘native New Yorker’, to quote from the song). The Knickerbocker Glory – a multi-coloured ice-cream sundae served in a tall glass – first appears in print in 1936 in a Graham Greene novel. The reasons for Irving’s Knickerbocker being associated with this colourful dessert probably have something to do with our third, related, interesting fact …

3. Knickerbocker’s History of New York (1809), gave us the word ‘knickers’. ‘Knickers’ has never been out of use since. Diedrich Knickerbocker was the fictional ‘author’ of Irving’s humorous ‘history’, and Knickerbocker came to be used for any New Yorker. However, within half a century the word was being used to describe ‘loose-fitting breeches, gathered in at the knee, and worn by boys, sportsmen, and others who require a freer use of their limbs. The term has been loosely extended to the whole costume worn with these’ (Oxford English Dictionary). Why the shift in meaning? One theory, which the OED offers, is that such garments resembled the knee-breeches worn by Knickerbocker in British artist George Cruikshank’s illustrations to Irving’s History of New York. At any rate, ‘knickers’ had appeared by the 1880s, with the word shifting genders from men to women, and it has remained so ever since.

Irving

4. Irving was the first person to refer to New York as ‘Gotham City’. Yes, New York again. Irving first gave his hometown that sobriquet in 1807 in his satirical periodical Salmagundi. Irving borrowed the name from the Nottinghamshire village in England, which was reputedly inhabited by fools. (This legend itself derived from medieval times, and the tale of the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’: the story goes that in the thirteenth century, King John wanted to build a hunting lodge near the village, but decided against it because the people of the village appeared to be very simple. Whenever the king’s men arrived they found villagers doing incredibly stupid things: attempting to drown eels, or rolling cheeses down a hill in the hope that they’d find their way to the Nottingham fair. The plan worked and John moved his lodge elsewhere.) Interestingly, the Nottinghamshire village is pronounced ‘Goat-em’, whereas the nickname for New York is always ‘Goth-em’. Of course, since Irving first Christened New York ‘Gotham’, the Batman comic strip and films have cemented the phrase ‘Gotham City’ firmly in the American – and, indeed, the world’s – psyche.

5. Irving wrote the fairy story of Rip Van Winkle. The story of the man who goes to sleep in the Catskill mountains and wakes up years later to find his wife dead and his son grown up was written by Irving while he was staying in England, in 1819. Rip Van Winkle goes to sleep for twenty years, not a hundred: some think he sleeps for a century because the tale is confused with Sleeping Beauty.

6. He also wrote ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’. This was written a year after ‘Rip’, in 1820, and was, of course, made into the Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow in 1999. Irving is best-known for these two fairy tales.

7. He gave us the phrase ‘the almighty dollar’. Not much to add on this one, except to say that he coined this phrase in 1837 in his story ‘The Creole Village’.

8. Irving was responsible for the ‘flat earth’ myth. Once more, we’re in the realm of foolish medieval folk. According to Jeffrey Russell in his 1991 book Inventing the Flat Earth, it was Irving’s 1828 book A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus which cemented the myth that medieval people thought the world was flat, whereas Columbus believed it was round. Indeed, the main bone of contention in the 1490s – at the time of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the New World – was more the size, rather than the shape of the world. But sometimes a myth can be more powerful than fact, and many still believe that Columbus’s contemporaries all thought the world was flat and it might be possible to sail over the edge of it. Why did Irving invent the story then? Possibly to make Columbus look even more of a man ahead of his time than he was, as the great man who helped to found the New World, Irving’s own homeland.

9. Irving helped to create the modern idea of Christmas. Charles Dickens often gets the credit for inventing the modern Christmas, with goodwill to everyone, the resurrection of old and formerly outdated customs, and the big Christmas feast. It’s certainly true that before the early nineteenth century, the older Christmas celebrations of the Middle Ages had waned, but it was not Dickens who first began to popularise them again. Dickens himself was greatly influenced by Irving. Indeed, the anonymously published 1823 poem ‘A Visit from St Nicholas’ (also known as ”Twas the night before Christmas’) also gets the credit for inventing the mythlore of Santa Claus with his flying sleigh and reindeer, but Irving was ahead of this poem, too: in 1812 he added passages to his revised Knickerbocker’s History of New York which helped to foster this renewed interest in the idea of Santa Claus. Like Dickens, he wrote five Christmas stories, and, like Dickens also, he championed traditional festive customs which had fallen out of favour (and which he had experienced while staying in England shortly before this). So next time you’re sipping your eggnog round a festive fire, raise your glass in a toast to Irving, the man who helped to invent Christmas as we know it.

If you enjoyed this feast of facts, check out our interesting facts about Margaret AtwoodFor more fascinating literary trivia, we recommend our book crammed full of 3,000 years of interesting bookish facts, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

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A Short History of Detective Fiction

An introduction to the history of the detective story

Since this is a short history of the detective story, it will, inevitably, make some pretty glaring omissions. We’d love to hear from detective fiction aficionados in the comments section below, for any other interesting takes on mystery and detective tales.

The first detective story is a hard thing to call. ‘The Three Apples’ in Arabian Nights is sometimes given the honour, but whether this is a detective story even in the loosest sense is questionable, since the protagonist fails to make any effort to solve the crime and find the murderer of the woman. Many say the mantle should go to another tale with a title beginning ‘The Three …’, namely ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’, a medieval Persian fairy tale set on Sri Lanka (Serendip being a Persian name for the island) – the princes are the ‘detectives’ and find the missing camel more by chance (or ‘serendipity’; this word was coined by Horace Walpole, author of the first Gothic novel, and has been in use ever since) than by their powers of reasoning.

The first modern detective story is often said to be Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ (1841) but in fact E. T. A. Hoffmann’s ‘Das Fräulein von Scuderi’ predates it by over twenty years. There is also a story titled ‘The Secret Cell’ from 1837, and written by Poe’s own publisher, William Evans Burton, which predates ‘Rue Morgue’ by a few years and is an early example of a detective story – in the tale, a policeman has to solve the mystery of a kidnapped girl.

Moonstone

The first detective novel is often held to be The Moonstone (1868) by Dickens’s friend and collaborator, Wilkie Collins. However, The Notting Hill Mystery (1862-3) predates it by five years. It was published under a pseudonym; the real author has never been conclusively proved. Some argue that the first detective novel had appeared over a century before: Voltaire’s Zadig (1748) was an influence on Poe in the creation of C. Auguste Dupin. Others mention Dickens’s own novel, Bleak House (1853), as an important book in the formation of the modern detective novel, since it features Inspector Bucket, the policeman who must solve the murder of the lawyer, Tulkinghorn.

Sherlock Holmes is the most famous fictional detective ever created, and has to be one of the most famous fictional characters in the world, alongside Hamlet, Peter Pan, Oedipus (whose history may qualify as the first detective story in all of literature), Heathcliff, Dracula, Frankenstein, and others. Holmes was created, of course, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and is largely a mixture of Poe’s Dupin – several of Dupin’s ‘tricks’ even turn up in the Sherlock Holmes stories – and Dr Joseph Bell, a real-life doctor who taught Doyle at the University of Edinburgh when Doyle studied Medicine there. Nobody can decide whether Holmes’s creator should be known as ‘Conan Doyle’ or just ‘Doyle’, by the way. Is Conan a middle name, or part of a (non-hyphenated) double-barrelled surname? The jury’s out.

Sherlock Holmes doesn’t really make deductions: strictly speaking, his reasoning takes the form of induction, which is slightly different. In logic, deduction means drawing conclusions from general statements, whereas induction involves specific examples (the cigarette ash on the client’s clothes, the clay on their boots, etc.). Alternatively, some logicians have also suggested that Holmes’s reasoning is something called abduction, rather than either deduction or induction: abductive reasoning involves forming a hypothesis based on the evidence to hand, which is a rather neat summary of what Holmes does. Perhaps he is a master of abduction, rather than induction (and certainly not of deduction).

Following the success of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the rise in popularity of the ghost story and horror novel during the late nineteenth century, a new subgenre emerged: the ‘psychic detective’, who solved crimes of a (possibly) supernatural origin, often in a Sherlockian style. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Dr Hesselius is often cited as the first such character, although he doesn’t do much solving himself: most of the time he merely sits in a chair and listens. The most popular character to emerge out of this subgenre was the ‘psychic doctor’ John Silence, created by horror writer Algernon Blackwood. Blackwood’s John Silence: Physician Extraordinary (1908) was the first volume of fiction to be advertised on roadside billboards, and became a bestseller as a result.

In the twentieth century, Endeavour Morse (who was always a Chief Inspector, never plain old ‘Inspector Morse’, despite the title of the television series) was merely one in a long list of Oxford detectives. Some notable detectives who predate him are Lord Peter Wimsey, created by Dorothy L. Sayers, and Oxford professor Gervase Fen, created by ‘Edmund Crispin’, real name Bruce Montgomery, who was a contemporary of Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis at Oxford during the early 1940s. Crispin has been called one of the last great exponents of the classic detective novel. Montgomery was a skilled painter and composer, too: among other achievements, he composed the musical scores for numerous Carry On films.

The most popular writer of detective fiction of all time is probably Agatha Christie – and there are so many fascinating Agatha Christie facts that we’ve dealt with her in a separate post. To learn more about classic detective stories, discover these 10 great rivals of Sherlock Holmes and the forgotten author of this comic crime novel from the genre’s golden age.

Surprising Facts about Aladdin and the Arabian Nights

The story of Aladdin is one of the most familiar narratives in all of literature, a classic ‘rags to riches’ tale featuring a young hero who has to learn an important lesson; an exotic setting; a good healthy dose of magic; a beautiful heroine; and an evil villain (or two, depending on which version of the story you follow).

AladdinThere’s much about the Aladdin story that is universally known. The story is part of the Arabian Nights, or the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ told by Scheherazade, the woman who effectively invented the cliffhanger: the story goes that she was one of the sultan’s concubines, and the sultan, after taking his pleasure with a woman, would have her killed. Scheherazade, in a cunning move devised to save her life, decided to start telling the sultan a story, but each night would break off in the middle of the narrative … so the sultan would keep her alive until the next night, when he would find out what happened at the end of the story. Hence the title, One Thousand and One Nights. The tale of Aladdin, along with the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, is one of the most famous tales Scheherazade told.

Or is it? Is this true, or is this – as is so often the case here at Interesting Literature – actually only what we think is true?

For starters, where does Aladdin live? Not in the Middle East. In the earliest version of the story we have, Aladdin is a poor youth living on the streets of China. And he’s no foreigner abroad either: he’s a native Chinese boy, not an Arabian youth who’s ended up in China. (Nor is he an orphan: in the earliest versions of the story, Aladdin is not an orphaned street urchin but a lazy boy living at home with his mother.) As Krystyn R. Moon notes in Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s (Rutgers University Press, 2005):

Aladdin, which most people today associate with Persia and the Middle East thanks to films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and Disney’s Aladdin (1992), was one of the more popular nineteenth-century productions set in China because of its romantic and moralistic storyline and its potential as a spectacle.

Moon goes on to note that when the story of Aladdin first appeared in the Arabian Nights, it was set in ‘western China’, with some scenes in North Africa (though that’s not where Aladdin lives). She observes:

Composers and librettists sometimes chose Persia as the setting for the tale because One Hundred and One Arabian Nights was from that region of the world and, like China, was a popular imaginative space for Americans and Europeans.

Many people doubtless know this fact concerning Aladdin’s origins already – anyone who’s read the story of Aladdin will know it – but the point is worth making because the popular Disney animated film of 1992 makes Aladdin an Arabian boy and gives the impression that it was always thus.

Okay, so where does Aladdin (that is, the story) come from? Not from the One Thousand and One Nights. Or at least, not really. We associate it with that collection because the story has been added to the Nights in translation as a sort of honorary extra tale (or ‘orphan tale’, to use an apt phrase). The Aladdin story was added to the collection by a French translator, Antoine Galland, in the early eighteenth century. Although Galland heard the tale from an Arabian storyteller, the Aladdin story is firmly set in China (so not the Middle East at all, but the Far East). The tale had nothing to do with the original One Thousand and One Nights tales, and doesn’t appear in any of the manuscripts. But, since Galland added it to his version, it has become arguably the most famous story (not) in the Arabian Nights.

The reason we think of the story as one of the true-born Arabian Nights is that many of the characters in the tale of Aladdin are Arabian Muslims with Arabic names. But Aladdin is Chinese … at least, he is if you go back to the known origins of the story. Jasmine, Aladdin’s girlfriend, was an invention of the Disney film – at least, the name was. In the original story, Aladdin’s love-interest is called Badroulbadour (the name means ‘full moon of full moons’ in Arabic).

If you think that’s odd, then the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the story of the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, are also not from the Arabian Nights, but were later additions by Galland, not found in the original manuscript. None of the three most famous stories from the Arabian Nights are actually, strictly speaking, from the Arabian Nights.

So, what stories were actually in the original One Thousand and One Nights? One notable tale is ‘The Three Apples’, which has been called one of the first detective stories – but, if anything, it’s more of an anti-detective story. In the tale, the body of a mutilated woman turns up in a wooden chest, and the sultan’s vizier is charged with solving the crime in three days, or he himself will be executed. The vizier fails to work out ‘whodunnit’, and makes little attempt to crack the case (hence the story’s status as an ‘anti-detective’ story), but the hapless vizier is saved from death when the real murderer shows up at the last minute and confesses.

The most famous – or perhaps that should be infamous – English translation of the Arabian Nights is undoubtedly that by Richard Burton – that is, Sir Richard Francis Burton, the nineteenth-century explorer. Far from toning down the sexual suggestiveness of the Nights for his Victorian readers, Burton actually added information, including footnotes explaining Oriental sexual customs for his readers (fittingly, Burton also translated the Kama Sutra into English). As a result, his translation had to be privately printed for paying subscribers, rather than published in the conventional manner. Burton was also purportedly the inspiration for Dr Henry Jones Sr, played by Sean Connery, in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy our interesting facts about Robin Hood, our analysis of the meaning of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, and our fascinating Harry Potter facts.

We’re delighted to learn that Penguin Classics have published an English translation of the complete Arabian Nights in three volumes, beginning with The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights: Volume 1 (Penguin Classics). It’s a fantastic edition and well worth investing in, as a way of discovering some of the many other captivating tales of magic and adventure contained within the 1,001 Nights.

Our new book, Britain by the Book: A Curious Tour of Our Literary Landscape, is out now, published by John Murray. More about the book can be found here.

Image: Aladdin and Jasmine by bubba-courtlz, on deviantart.com.