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The novel without the letter ‘E’


Gadsby is a 1939 novel by Ernest Vincent Wright written as a lipogram and its 50,010 words do not include words that contain ‘e’. The plot revolves around the city of Branton Hills, which is in decline, but revitalized thanks to the efforts of the protagonist and his youth group.

To prevent any stray Es from entering the text, Wright tied down his typewriter’s E key, and then put his vocabulary to the test, a difficulty the narrator acknowledges in the very first chapter: ‘Now, any author, from history’s dawn, always had that most important aid to writing: an ability to call upon any word in his dictionary in building up his story. That is, our strict laws as to word construction did not block his path. But in my story that mighty obstruction will constantly stand in my path; for many an important, common word I cannot adopt, owing to its orthography.’ To explain away the verbosity of the language, Wright used the ruse of a narrator with a supposedly poor command of English, and abbreviations, but only if the full form is lipogrammatic such as with Dr. and P.S.

In Gadsby’s introduction, Wright states: ‘In writing such a story, -purposely avoiding all words containing the vowel E, there are a great many difficulties. The greatest of these is met in the past tense of verbs, almost all of which end with ‘-ed.’ Therefore substitutes must be found; and they are very few. This will cause, at times, a somewhat monotonous use of such words as ‘said;’ for neither ‘replied,’ ‘answered’ nor ‘asked’ can be used.’ He, therefore, focused on using verbs that do not take the -ed suffix and constructions with ‘do’ (for instance ‘did walk’ instead of ‘walked’). He adds: ‘…the numerals also cause plenty of trouble, for none between six and thirty are available. When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty?’ Wright also turns famous sayings into lipogrammatic form. For example, Keats’ a thing of beauty is a joy forever becomes a charming thing is a joy always.

Wright worked on the manuscript for a number of years. He finished his work about the middle of February, 1937. After seeking a publisher for two years, he finally settled on Wetzel Publishing Co., a vanity press in LA. He, however, died on 7 October 1939, the date Gadsby was published. Shortly afterwards a warehouse holding copies of the book burned, destroying most copies. Gadsby first editions are now valued as much as $4000 to $5000, but if all this had piqued your interest, you can have a go reading the book here .

Though critical acclaim eluded Wright, Gadsby influenced and inspired others. In 1969, French writer Georges Perec published a 50,000 word, 250-plus-page e absent ballad, La Disparition (English version by Gilbert Adair as A Void(1994) with the e still avoided). As a tribute to Wright, La Disparition contains a character named Lord Gadsby V. Wright, a tutor to the novel’s missing protagonist A Vowl. Other authors followed Wright’s path of constrained writing. Walter Abish’s Alphabetical Africa(1974) uses alliteratives. For example, the first chapter of Alphabetical Africa, consists entirely of words beginning with the letter ‘A’. In the second chapter, words beginning with ‘A’ and ‘B’ appear, and so on. More recent works include Mark Dunn’s imaginative Ella Minnow Pea(2001) and Canadian poet Christian Bök’s bestselling Eunoia(2001), where he used only one vowel in each of its five chapters.

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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I really think that I will have a go at this – just have to decide which letter to eschew and I think that z or q is probably cheating – diane

    June 25, 2011
  2. I enjoy your work , thankyou for all the useful blog posts.

    January 19, 2012

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