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Literary Anecdotes: A Quiz

By Ashley Bray, Intern Extraordinaire

We all love a good story, but how about when that story comes from the life of the writer himself? Well, then it’s even better! The mix of rumor and truth often combines to form a yarn that rivals even some of a writer’s works. John Gross taps into our desire for a great story about those who write them best in his book, The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes. Below I’ve put together a quiz to test your knowledge of all the juicy gossip surrounding the literary world. After all, art imitates life— or life imitates art, depending on how you want to look at it. Answers are after the jump.

1. What poet once ate two red tulips?
2. What writer had to smuggle books into his house to hide them from her Pentecostal evangelist parents?
3. What author found one of his autographed books in a secondhand bookstore and returned it to its owner?
4. What writer accidentally shot his wife in the head?
5. What poet had trouble reading at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration?
6. What writer fancied herself in love with Ralph Waldo Emerson when she was young?
7. What writer tore up all of her husband’s writings when she suspected he was cheating?
8. Who wrote letters to his daughters even when they were in the house in order to practice epistolary writing?
9. What writer was suspected of being able to recite a variety of prose and poetry by heart (specifically ‘The Lady of the Lake’)?
10. What great horror writer suffered from night fears as a child?


1. ANSWER: Ezra Pound.
“A group went to the Old Cheshire Cheese, where Yeats held forth at length on the ways of bringing music and poetry together. Pound sought attention by eating two red tulips.” – William Van O’Connor, Ezra Pound
2. ANSWER: Jeanette Winterson
“Once I had tucked the book back down my knickers to get it indoors again, I had to find somewhere to hide it, and anyone with a single bed, standard size, and paperbacks, standard size, will discover that 77 can be accommodated per layer under the mattress. But as my collection grew, I began to worry that my mother might notice that her daughter’s bed was rising visibly. One day she did. She burned everything.” – Art Objects
3. ANSWER: George Bernard Shaw
“Shaw once came across one of his books in a secondhand shop, inscribed To –
with esteem, George Bernard Shaw. He bought the book and returned it to –, adding the line, With renewed esteem, George Bernard Shaw.” – Anne Fadiman, Ex Libris
4. ANSWER: William Burroughs
“During a gap in the conversation, Burroughs took the .38 out of the bag and said to Joan, as if it was an old party trick (though he claimed never to have suggested it before): ‘I guess it’s about time for our William Tell act.’ Joan placed an object on her head and turned sideways-on to her husband, who was sitting six feet away. He fired, shooting her through the temple. Marker (a man Burroughs became obsessed with), the reluctant lover, said: ‘Bill, I think you’ve killed her.’” – James Campbell, This Is the Beat Generation
5. ANSWER: Robert Frost
“…he began to read his ‘Dedication’ but the light struck the page in such a way that he could not see, and he said, ‘I’m having trouble with this.’ The new vice president [Lyndon B. Johnson] tried to help by shielding the page with his top hat, but Frost brushed him aside with a joke. He then delighted the audience by launching into ‘The Gift Outright,’ which he declaimed by heart.” – Parini, Robert Frost
6. ANSWER: Louisa May Alcott
“[Inspired by a tale in which a young girl falls in love with an older poet]: She wrote passionate letters to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but never sent them. She sat in the tall walnut tree in front of his house, at midnight, singing to the moon— until an owl scared her back to bed. She left wild flowers at the door of her ‘master’s’ study and sang songs under his window in very bad German. Of course, Emerson was totally unaware of this devotion from the nice child who ran in and out of his house as freely as his own daughter, Ellen.” – Marjorie Worthington, Miss Alcott of Concord
7. ANSWER: Sylvia Plath
“Ted returned half an hour late for lunch…to find that she had torn up all his works in hand: manuscripts, drafts, notebooks, the lot. As a final, gratuitous act of pure spite, she had also gralloched his complete Shakespeare. Only the hard spine and the end boards had stood up to the onslaught. The text had been more or less reduced to ‘fluff.’ There were just a few scraps of Ted’s work that he managed to salvage and stick back together with Scotch tape.”
8. ANSWER
: Samuel Richardson
“Richardson had a kind of club of women about him—Mrs. Carter, Mrs. Talbot, etc.— who looked up to him as to a superior being; to whom he dictated and gave laws; and with whom he lived almost entirely. To acquire a facility of epistolary writing he would on every trivial occasion write notes to his daughters even when they were in the same house with him.” – James Prior, Life of Edmond Malone
9. ANSWER: James Joyce
“‘Open it [‘The Lady of the Lake’],’ he said, ‘and read me a line.’ I did so, from a page chosen at random. After the first line, I stopped, and he recited the whole page and the next without a single mistake. I’m convinced that he knew by heart, not only ‘The Lady of the Lake,’ but a whole library of poetry and prose. He probably read everything before he was twenty, and thenceforth he could find what he needed without taking the trouble of opening a book.” – Sylvia Beach, Shakespeare and Company
10. ANSWER: Edgar Allen Poe
“The superstitious sceptic, who could be terrified by his own imagination , later confessed to the editor George Graham that ‘he disliked the dark, and was rarely out at night. On one occasion he said to me, ‘I believe that demons take advantage of the night to mislead the unwary— although, you know,’ he added, ‘I don’t believe in them.’” – Jeffrey Myers, Edgar Allen Poe: His Life and Legacy

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