Five Outrageous and Random Facts About Popular (Dead) Authors You Should Know

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Brianna McNish, Co-Editor-in-Chief 

Famous authors, especially those heralded in the British and American canon, are rife with idiosyncrasies. Whether it is George Orwell seamlessly “borrowing” the plot of another novel to create 1984 or the fact that Charles Dickens was a member of London’s largest paranormal investigation club (yes, Dickens was a real-life ghostbuster), looking into the lives of some of these classic authors, as well as the ways readers reacted to their publications at the time, open a fascinating door worth looking into.

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William S. Burroughs Killed His Wife

During the 1940s right when the Beat Poets were getting their start shortly after their days at Columbia, William S. Burroughs was slowly but surely becoming addicted to morphine. In 1944, he had met his wife, Joan Vollmers Adams, who, at the time, was married to a G.I. and lived an apartment with Jack Kerouac and his first wife, Edie Parker. After Vollmers Adams divorced her husband, Burroughs and Vollmers Adams wed, only to leave New York behind and head to Mexico to begin their newly married life. By 1950, both were drinking heavily and addicted to numerous narcotics. During a drinking game with friends, Joan Vollmers Adams dared her husband to shoot a highball glass from her head, but Burroughs, inebriated and uncoordinated, shot his wife directly in the forehead after proclaiming, “It’s time for our William Tell act.” In Mexico, he was eventually convicted of homicide, served as a two-year sentence, and returned to the United States shortly after.

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Scott Fitzgerald’s and Ernest Hemingway’s Measurements

This might come as an obvious one considering Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s literary careers often tend to overlap. Both authors were rising to prominence when they first met in April 1925, the same year Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby and a year after Hemingway published his first short fiction collection, In Our Time. While the two were initially amicable, their relationship had soured by the time Fitzgerald died of heart attack at age 44. What is fascinating is the details of their friendship documented in Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964). Perhaps my favorite — and most notorious rumor — comes from a chapter describing Hemingway’s venture to Paris alongside Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda in the 1940s. After expressing apprehensions his wife might leave him because he was sexually unsatisfying, Hemingway claims he fully measured Fitzgerald’s penis in a Parisian cafe bathroom to assure him he was perfectly “normal.” Afterward, Hemingway accompanied Fitzgerald to a local museum to observe naked Greek statues as a means to comfort Fitzgerald’s middling self-esteem.

“Hemingway claims he fully measured Fitzgerald’s penis in a Parisian cafe bathroom to assure him he was perfectly ‘normal.'”

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Mary Shelley’s Calcified Heart

Aside from the fact that Shelley is the author of Frankenstein (1818) and inarguably the earliest writers of science-fiction, her (sadly brief) relationship and marriage to Romantic poet and philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley is so compelling, I couldn’t resist adding it to this list. In 1814, she began an affair with the then-married Percy Bysshe Shelley, and later married him, after the suicide of Percy’s first wife, Charlotte. Alas, Percy’s life was short-lived when he drowned off the Gulf of Spezia in 1822. While much speculation surrounds how Percy was ultimately buried, his friend and novelist Edward Trelawny proclaims that he snatched his heart from the pyre his body was burned in. And what became of the famed Romantic poet’s heart? A year after Mary Shelley’s death in 1852, her surviving family opened her office desk drawer only to find the notebook she shared with her husband who died thirty years before–and his calcified heart in a silk parcel. His remains, including his calcified heart, now lie in the churchyard of St. Peter’s Church in Dorset, England.

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Franz Kafka Actually Never Finished Anything

While Kafka’s extensive bibliography ranging from Amerika to The Trial, it is important to note that Kafka claimed that none of his “complete” novels were ever actually finished. His novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, all seem incredibly fragmented due to their abrupt endings. In fact, scholars often argue this is what makes Kafka’s work innately “Kafkaesque” in design: they are ultimately unending and (hyper-)conscious of its circularity. For any matter, it is debatable whether or not Kafka intended to leave his works unfinished. Some might argue he was a bit of a perfectionist, and he (infamously) mulled over writing ideas and novels for decades before initiating the drafting process. Many of his published drafts, while typically complete, never reached a final draft.

“It is debatable whether or not Kafka intended to leave his works unfinished.”

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Jane Austen’s Fandom and the Emergence of Fandom Culture

The 1890s marked the emergence of “fandom culture,” particularly after the death of Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” in 1891. This is a time when avid writers and fans alike dismayed by the death of the titular anti-hero and detective sought writing the earliest forms of serialized fanfiction. During this same period, Jane Austen fans fondly referred to themselves as “Janeites” (in the same vein as a present-day fan referring to themselves as “Trekkies” or “Whovians”). “Janeites” was a term coined in 1894 to describe men (women were often exempt from the earliest use of the term) who avidly read Austen.  This is particularly fascinating considering Austen’s work is now viewed as “chick-lit” by contemporary readers and amassed a cult following consisting of mostly women. Undoubtedly, the early Austen fandom helped project her image and work back into the limelight, and by the 1930s and 40s, her work was canonized in the Anglophone canon.


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