Books Magazine

5 Literary Legends That Just Aren’t True

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

You’ve seen the chain emails and the Facebook posts that spread urban legends and myth like they are truth.

Maybe your crazy Tea Party Aunt posts something like “Barack Obama is actually a Pakistani Muslim working undercover for the Pakistani government!!!” Then she’ll link to some whacked-out conspiracy theory site. Doesn’t that stuff just drive you crazy?

Well, it drives me crazy. And the literary world is no stranger to conspiracy theory, myth and urban legend. So I thought I’d use our old friends at Snopes and a few other sites to compile some literary myths in this post.

Here’s some of the better ones that I could find.

Truman Capote wrote To Kill A Mockingbird.

It’s been a rumor for years. I’ve even speculated about it on this blog—mainly because it’s so hard to believe Harper Lee never wrote another book, which makes it easier to believe that someone else wrote the book in the first place. But it’s not true. A few years ago, NPR discussed a recently published letter Capote wrote in 1959, the year before TKAM was published.

 BLOCK: Let’s talk first about this letter from Truman Capote. It’s now been made public. It was, as I understand it, given to a museum from a cousin of Mr. Capote. What does it say and how does it help quash this rumor?

FLYNT: Essentially, it says that a year before the novel was published in July of 1960, that Capote had seen the novel, had read much of the book, and liked it very much, and commented that she has great talent. And nowhere in the letter does he claim any involvement whatsoever in the book.

Conspiracy theorists will say that’s not enough, but there’s never been the remotest bit of concrete evidence to prove Harper Lee didn’t write To Kill A Mockingbird. Let that legend die.

The Grapes of Wrath was published as “The Angry Raisins” in Japanese.

The idea is funny, but according to Snopes it never happened. The story originated in a 1996 New York Times article:

Elaine Steinbeck, John Steinbeck’s widow, can spot her husband’s name on the spine of a book in many languages, including Russian and Greek. Once she was in Yokohama and, at sea with Japanese, she asked a book-store owner if he had any books by her favorite author. He thought for a moment, then said, yes, he had “The Angry Raisins.”

According to Snopes, no such Japanese translation exists. And the story, while possibly true, more than likely is the result of a quick verbal mistranslation by the store owner. Still, I love The Angry Raisins. Great punk band name too.

Dr. Seuss and Kurt Vonnegut were college roommates.

Again, from Snopes. An old chain email from the 90s claimed that Kurt Vonnegut and Dr. Seuss were college roommates and fraternity brothers. Not true.

 Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was born in 1904, attended Dartmouth College from 1922-1925, and after graduating from Dartmouth headed off to Oxford to obtain a doctorate in literature before abandoning his studies to tour Europe. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., was born in 1922 and attended Cornell University beginning in 1940 before leaving in 1943 to join the U.S. Army. After World War II, Vonnegut spent a couple of years at the University of Chicago as a graduate anthropology student. In short, Geisel was Vonnegut’s senior by eighteen years, and he had already entered college by the time Vonnegut was born. They never attended the same school, either at the same time or at different times.

The small bit of truth in the rumor comes from this passage out of Kurt Vonnegut’s autobiography Fates Worse Than Death:

When I went to Cornell University in 1940, I joined a fraternity (Delta Upsilon) which had murals by Dr. Seuss in its basement bar. He had drawn them in pencil long before my time. An artist in the fraternity made them bold and permanent with paint afterward.

Dr. Seuss was a Dartmouth man and not a Delta Upsilon, but he drew the murals while roistering in Ithaca with a painter pal, Hugh Troy, who was both a Cornellian and a DU.

Charles Dickens novels are long because he was paid by the word (Interpreted: Dickens was greedy).

The Washington Post says this claim is completely untrue. Dickens promised long novels in advance, with a 20-part story of 32 pages each. He was one of the first writers of serial fiction. But he wasn’t paid by the word.

Dickens writes long sentences? Yes, but every circumlocution has a literary purpose. Tongue in cheek, he imitates long-winded bureaucratic, professional or ceremonious jargon to satirize the institutions that use such language. Dickens writes long books? Yes, because the serial form allowed him the space to develop seemingly disparate characters from society’s highest and lowest rungs — and then slowly reveal their many connections.

Walt Disney drew the original Mickey Mouse.

Yes, we’re talking Mickey Mouse on a literary blog. But, no, Walt Disney didn’t sketch the original Mickey Mouse. That was his lead animator, Ub Iwerks, who drew all the original animations of Mickey. Ub eventually left Disney because he was burned out and frustrated that Walt was taking credit for his animations.

The lesson here: Let’s all be a skeptic when it comes to old urban legends, rumors, and myths we hear by word of mouth.

And who’s with me on starting a band called The Angry Raisins?

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