Literary Mysteries: Solved and Unsolved

“A lot of the fun lies in trying to penetrate the mystery; and this is best done by saying over the lines to yourself again and again, till they pass through the stage of sounding like nonsense, and finally return to a full sense that had at first escaped notice.” —Anthony Hecht

Dare I confess how gratified I have been with my blog’s traffic since it began a week ago today?  Well, I am!

  • 446 views (including 1 from the United Kingdom!)

Not bad stats for my first week.  Now bad at all for a first-time blogger.  Thank you!

And since I am confessing, let me confess something else:  I’ve shared my joy—and my amazement—with a handful of folks in my close circle, and, over and over again, they have replied enthusiastically with the likes of:

“WOW!  Doesn’t surprise me a BIT!!!!!  Everybody wants to know who wrote those essays!”

Some of your comments affirm:

“Ahhh…everyone loves a good mystery!” 

“Oooh, I love a good mystery! … I look forward to watching you unravel this centuries old mystery.”

To be certain, I’m hooked on the mystery, too:  who was The Humourist?  Preparing a critical edition of his essays will be straightforward—well, to the extent that scholarly research is ever straightforward.  On the other hand, identifying the author will require keen analysis and extensive research in order to make a conclusive (and, if not conclusive, then convincing) case that will stand up to scrutiny and review.

Solving the mystery hinges to a large degree on internal clues to be extracted from the essays.  Looking at the Humourist’s November 26, 1753, essay, we find three clues already.

Clue One: One of my followers—soyfig, in fact—picked up on this one by writing:  “I had to read the Humourist’s first essay three times before I began to understand it!  They certainly wrote on a higher plane then than now!”

Indeed.  Whoever he is, the Humourist is erudite.  In one short essay, he provides a sweeping overview of literary tastes, going all the way back to “Days of monkish Ignorance” and continuing on up to novel writing that reigned in his own time.  

Clue Two Whoever he is, the Humourist seems fascinated by the past.  He opens his first essay with a quote from Horace, and he refers to the past several times in that essay:  “If we make a Retrospect into past Times” and “various Tastes of Mankind in the former ages.”

Clue ThreeWhoever he is, the Humourist seems to have an intense interest in painting:  “as an inducement to the World to read my Paper, they may shortly expect a Present of my Picture.”  However, as we shall discover next week in his December 10, 1753, essay, “as it is impossible to procure it [the painting] in any reasonable time, if the painter be allowed to shew his skill or do justice to my person, I shall therefore beg my readers patience, and present them with a true sketch of my figure in print.”

What a mystery!  What a puzzle!

As I move ahead with my efforts to solve the mystery, I have another confession to make:  I love the task of transcribing the Humourist essays—of sitting at my computer, typing away on the keyboard.

Typing.  I love it:  typing!  It’s not nearly as poetic as the suggestion that Anthony Hecht offers up for penetrating a mystery:  “saying over the lines to yourself again and again, till they pass through the stage of sounding like nonsense, and finally return to a full sense that had at first escaped notice.”  

Typing.  It’s probably more akin to what Carl Jung says about mysteries:

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.”

In that sense, then, as I transcribe the Humourist’s essays—as I type them—my hands are helping me become familiar with the essence of his literary outpourings, character by character, letter by letter, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, essay by essay.  My hands are helping me become familiar with his style.  My hands are helping me see what he put in—and what he left out!

After I have typed one of his essays once or twice—actually, I typed his November 26, 1753, essay three times—I can say with some degree of certainty:  I know that essay well.

I know that essay even better because I have done what I always do with documents:  I checked the Readability Statistics.  So, here’s Clue Four.  Whoever he is, the readability statistics for the Humourist’s November 26, 1753, essay are as follows:


  • Words:  444
  • Characters:  2181
  • Paragraphs:  20
  • Sentences:  13


  • Sentences per Paragraph:  1.3
  • Words per Sentence:  24.6
  • Characters per Word:  4.6


  • Passive Sentences:  15%
  • Flesch Reading Ease: 56.7
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level:  10.3

Admittedly, these readability statistics are skewed because the Humourist quotes other writers rather extensively in his first essay.  Nonetheless, it is a beginning.

As we move to future essays—and as I continue doing what I have begun doing—all the clues will converge, and I am certain that the Humourist himself will lead me to discovering who he is.

But I digress.  My scheme for sharing Humourist essays with you will be in the same fashion that he shared them with the world:  weekly.  This week, however, he did not publish an essay.  (His next one will appear on December 10.)

Therefore, as I contemplated my post for this week, I was intrigued by how intrigued my readers were by the mystery—by my efforts to solve this literary whodunit—and I was particularly smitten by “soyfig’s” comment:

“A different mystery has been solved.”

1.  Literary Mystery Solved:  Code Deciphered

The “different mystery” that soyfig mentioned deals with a work written in code by Roger Williams, seventeenth century theologian and founder of Rhode Island.  A group of Brown University students “cracked the code”:

“Senior math major Lucas Mason-Brown, who has done the majority of the decoding, said his first instinct was to develop a statistical tool. The 21-year-old from Belmont, Mass., used frequency analysis, which looks at the frequency of letters or groups of letters in a text, but initially didn’t get far.

“He picked up critical clues after learning Williams had been trained in shorthand as a court stenographer in London, and built his own proprietary shorthand off an existing system. Mason-Brown refined his analysis and came up with a rough key.”

Read the entire article, “Code Used by RI Founding Father Is Finally Cracked.”

2.  Literary Mystery Solved:  Code Deciphered

After I finished reading the utterly fascinating article about Roger Williams and his “code,” I immediately remembered the code used to write another famous American literary work: The Secret Diary of William Byrd II.  Spanning 1709-1712, Byrd’s diary captures his more wordly and  sexual side; therefore, he wrote in code.  It was not until the 1940’s that Marion Tinling and Louis B. Wright deciphered the code and made Byrd’s Secret Diary  public. (Byrd’s code was a shorthand system developed by William Mason in the seventeenth century.)

Read selections from his diary at the National Humanities Center Resource Toolbox:  Becoming American:  The British Colonies, 1690-1763.  The Diary of William Byrd II of Virginia, 1709-1712.

3.  Literary Mystery Unsolved:  Lost Manuscript

No doubt manuscripts have been lost frequently, never to be recovered, but on the American scene, one looms large:  Ernest Hemingway’s suitcase filled with short stories.

Paris.  December 1922.

“Hemingway’s wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, always known as Hadley, was in Paris, where they were living at the time. She packed up all of Hemingway’s papers in a suitcase, to take them to him in Switzerland. She packed everything she could find.

“While the train was still standing in the Gare de Lyon, Hadley went to buy a bottle of Evian water for the trip. She left the suitcase unattended on the train while she did so. When she came back, it was gone.”

Read more about it at the Lost Manuscripts blog post, “Hemingway’s Lost Suitcase.”

4.  Literary Mystery Solved:  Found Manuscript

January 20, 1961.  Washington, DC.  John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration.  Poet Robert Frost wrote a poem entitled “Dedication,” and he was scheduled to read it at the inauguration.  But as the sun “bounced” off his manuscript, Frost shifted gears and instead decided to recite his poem “The Gift Outright.”

“So what happened to Dedication, the poem — actually, more like a sonnet because of its length and rhyme — that Frost wrote for Kennedy’s inauguration ceremonies?

“Frost gave the typed reading script to Udall and the original handwritten text to Kennedy, after writing a personal inscription on the page. The original ended up in the possessions of Frederick Holborn, a special assistant to Kennedy. Holborn’s estate donated the handwritten poem to the JFK Library in 2006 and an archivist found a note on the back of the frame from first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to her husband that reads, in part: ‘First thing I had framed to put in your office.'”

Read Catalina Camia and Naomi Jagoda’s full story:  “Why Poet Frost Made a Last-Minute Switch at JFK’s Inauguration.”

5.  Literary Mystery Unsolved:  The Missing Gold Medal

Obviously, the digression that “soyfig” has caused me to take could go on and on and on.

However, I shall end with one final gleaning, one close and dear to me as editor of The Infant Sphinx:  Collected Letters of Mary Wilkins Freeman.

Freeman was the first recipient of the William Dean Howells Medal, awarded in 1925 by the American Academy of Arts and letters for distinguished work in fiction.  (The award is given every five years.  Other recipients have included Willa Cather, Pearl S. Buck, Ellen Glasgow, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, William Styron, and John Updike, to name a select few.)

Hamlin Garland—a friend to Howells and to Freeman—presented the award.  When Freeman returned home to Metuchen, NJ, she wrote to her friend Marion Boyd Allen:

“I am getting the usual aftermath of honor, catty letters and more honors. … My gold medal weighs a ton and I don’t know what to do with it.  Hamlin Garland told me I could hock it. … I am going to display it to a few friends, shall take it to New Brunswick to P. J. Young’s store where the girls all know me and will be interested, and to my lawyer in Perth Amboy.  Finally I shall put it in my safe deposit box in Boston although I doubt if a burglar would consider it.  I simply don’t know what to do with it!”

Freeman died on March 13, 1930.  When her estate was auctioned, the Howells Medal fetched a measly $10.00.

Unfortunately, Freeman’s gold medal seems to have disappeared.   I’m still looking.  Who knows:  one day, somewhere, I might just find it.

We all love mysteries—solved and unsolved!  Happy reading!

6 thoughts on “Literary Mysteries: Solved and Unsolved

  1. Professor K: It certainly is a mystery, and as in the best of Poirot or Holmes, don’t reveal too much to the impatient chief detectives, assistants, and never forget the suspects, all plodding alongside…


    • Yes, of course: Poirot and Holmes. But let us hasten back to the beginning: Poe. And let us hasten back to his “Purloined Letter.” Notice what he says there “The best place to hide anything is in plain view.” I am, Sir, in plain view. And, perhaps even more important, because I am in plain view, no scrupulous “impatient chief detectives, assistants, and never forget the suspects, all plodding alongside” would dare take advantage of all that I am revealing–or not revealing, right now–as part of this “mystery” and steal my work. I think not. We are, Sir, too honorable. And did I mention Copyright?


  2. With pipe clenched between teeth I am wondering about the “male” gender references you make. I must read some of the essays to see if this fact is no mystery. Perhaps the Wired Researcher is tossing us a curve?


    • First, you MUST read the essays, as I make them available to you. I hope that you read…really READ (in the Frostian sense of “read”)…the first essay that I provided in my November 26 blog post. Second, remember that there are clues and then there are “red herrings.” “Male”? “Female”? Hmmm. I’ll stick with “Male.” It is, after all, the 18th century. Finally, remember Emily Dickinson’s poem: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant, / Success in circuit lies, / Too bright for our infirm delight /The truth’s superb surprise.”

      This mystery, when solved, will surprise!


  3. It seems that The Humourist wants to be identified! He started playing the identity game in his first essay and didn’t even stop with his cryptic farewell. If he thought his writing style would identify him, I hope that 17 essays and miscellanea will contain enough clews for our Wired Detective — I mean Researcher!


    • What an interesting angle: “The Humourist wants to be identified.” What if, on the other hand, he really didn’t NEED to be identified. What if readers of the South Carolina Gazette KNEW who he was, and, all along, he was simply humouring them with his word play. Now I have to stop and think even more: maybe they really KNEW! What an angle. I know that’s not what you meant, but that’s where you led me. Again, thank you!


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