What is a Lipogram?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureA lipogram is a literary work that does not use certain letters. For example an author could write a novel using words that do not contain a particular vowel. A lipogram is one of many types of a broader category of constrained writing, a literary technique in which the author adheres to a specific pattern (e.g., using words that are only one syllable, or words that begin with the same letter), excludes certain writing elements (e.g., certain letters or punctuation), a mandated vocabulary (e.g,, using only words found a specific literary work), or a restricted length (e.g., six-word memoirs: 6 words; twiction: a short story that is 140 characters long).

The most famous example of a lipogram is Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright (1872-1939) published in 1939. Wright was a graduate of MIT and a veteran of WWI, living in Los Angeles. Prior to Gadsby, he had published three books. Wright was 67 when he published the book and, sadly, died the year his book was finally published. Gadsby, consisting of 43 chapters, 260 pages and over 50,000 words, does not contain the letter “e.” The book was published as a hardcover book with a dust jacket by a vanity press (Wetzel Publishing Co.). The dust jacket of the first edition contains the subtitle: “A Story of Over 50,000 Without Using the Letter ‘E.’” Since the book was self-published the first edition print run was short; moreover, a warehouse fire destroyed most of the copies that had not been distributed.  Thus, a first edition in fine condition is extremely rare and highly sought after by bibliophiles, word lovers, lexicographers, and lipogrammatists. As of this writing, there are two copies for sale, one for $6,500 and another for $9,375. If you don’t have deep pockets, you can order a digital reprint for about $10 for a paperback and $20 for a hardcover. Since the novel is in the public domain, it can also be viewed online for free.

In the introduction to Gadsby, Wright makes an exception and uses words that contain the letter “e.” He explains that he conceived of the book over many years, but it took “five and a half months of concentrated endeavor, with so many erasures and retrenchments that I tremble as I think of them.” His main motivation was to prove to many naysayers that a lipogrammatic novel could be written; Wright explains “This story was written, not through any attempt to attain literary merit, but due to a somewhat balky nature, caused by hearing it so constantly claimed that ‘it can’t be done.’” (One is reminded of John Locke’s famous phrase used frequently in the ABC hit show Lost: “Don’t tell me what I can’t do!”) Wright also discusses his process in typing the manuscript: “The entire manuscript of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down; thus making it impossible for that letter to be printed. This was done so that none of that vowel might slip in accidentally; and many did try to do so!” Astute readers, of course, caught some of the words that actually slipped in: “the” (pages 51, 103, 124) and “officers” (page 213). Writing a novel without a commonly-used vowel had its challenges. Wright elaborates, “The greatest [difficulty is] 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… Pronouns also caused trouble; for such words as he, she, they, them, theirs, her, herself, myself, himself, yourself, etc., could not be utilized. But a particularly annoying obstacle comes when, almost through a long paragraph you can find no words with which to continue that line of though.”

I know what you are wondering: is Wright’s Gadsby related in any way to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, The Great Gatsby and its protagonist? No, not at all — they are completely different stories. Wright’s 43-chapter novel begins in 1906. A unnamed narrator shares the history of the fictional town of Branton Hills up to the early 1920s and introduces the protagonist, John Gadsby. In the second half of the novel, Gadsby, now 51, is disconcerted by the town’s decline. He inspires young people to take pride in their town and invest in its rehabilitation. Over time, the town’s quality of life improves, businesses begin to thrive once again, and the population grows dramatically from 2,000 to 60,000 residents. At the novel’s conclusion, all the young people who contributed to the town’s success are rewarded with diplomas and Gadsby becomes mayor. Since he is alive at the end of the novel and has risen in stature, I suppose that does make him the Great Gadsby (or the Grait Gadsby, since we can’t use the letter ‘e’). Also note that Wright’s Gadsby is unrelated to The Story of the Gadsbys published by Rudyard Kipling in 1888. The book, written as a play with eight scenes, follows the life of Captain Gadsby, a career military man, who falls in love and marries. Through dialogue, the reader witnesses the peaks and valleys of the captain’s bittersweet married life. 

The novel opens up with these two paragraphs:
If Youth, throughout all history, had had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn’t constantly run across folks today who claim that “a child don’t know anything.” A child’s brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult’s act, and figuring out its purport.

Up to about its primary school days a child thinks, naturally, only of play. But many a form of play contains disciplinary factors. “You can’t do this,” or “that puts you out,” shows a child that it must think, practically, or fail. Now, if, throughout childhood, a brain has no opposition, it is plain that it will attain a position of “status quo,” as with our ordinary animals. Man knows not why a cow, dog or lion was not born with a brain on a par with ours; why such animals cannot add, subtract, or obtain from books and schooling, that paramount position which Man holds today.

The novel ends with the following sentences:
A glorious full moon sails across a sky without a cloud. A crisp night air has folks turning up coat collars and kids hopping up and down for warmth. And that giant star, Sirius, winking slyly, knows that soon, now, that light up in His Honor’s room window will go out. Fttt! It is out! So, as Sirius and Luna hold an all-night vigil, I’ll say a soft “Good-night” to all our happy bunch, and to John Gadsby—Youth’s Champion. Finis.

Besides Gadsby, there have been several notable lipogrammatic novels published. Here are a few:

Green Eggs and Ham (1960) by Dr. Seuss (pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel). Bennett Cerf, Seuss’ editor at Random House, bet Seuss $50 that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words. Seuss not only won the bet, he made publishing history by becoming the bestselling children’s book of all time — selling more than 200 million copies!

La Disparition (The Disappearance) (1969) by Georges Perec. Inspired by Wright, Perec also used words that did not contain the letter “e.” The novel, written in French, has been translated into many languages, adhering to the vowel omission of the original novel.

Alphabetical Africa (1974) by Walter Abish. Abish’s novel is a tautogram, a form of alliteration in which all words in a sentence began with the same letter. Abish’s 52-chapter novel begins chapter one using only words that begin with A. In chapter two, he uses words that begin with A and B. In chapter three, he uses words that begin with A, B, and C, and continues in that manner until chapter 26, then reverses the process to chapter 52 that contains only words that begin with A.

Never Again (2004) by Doug Nufer. Never Again is an example of a writing using a mandated vocabulary. In this case, Nufer never used a single word more than once.

Le Train de Nulle Part (The Train From Nowhere) (2004) by Michel Thaler (the pen name of Michel Dansel). Thaler’s novel also uses a mandated vocabulary. In his 233-page book, Thaler does not use a single verb.

let me tell you (2008) by Paul Griffiths. Griffiths uses a mandated vocabulary, specifically the 480 words spoken by Ophelia who appears in William Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

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For further reading:
Gadsby, Ernest Vincent Wright, Wetzel Publishing Co., 1939.
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925.
The Story of the Gadsbys, Rudyard Kipling, Standard Book Company, 1930.