8 Surprising Literary Easter Eggs

AbeBooks
AbeBooks

Video games and movies aren’t the only media to contain inside jokes, allusions, and puzzles; some literary giants are in on the act, too. Whether it’s an odd quotation, invented place, or mysterious pattern, these tidbits—which can escape detection on a first reading—often have a special significance for the author. Eagle-eyed readers have long been searching for and sharing these literary Easter eggs, and we’ve rounded up eight sneaky and surprising examples below.

1. A CHARACTER FROM A PREVIOUS NOVEL // THE GREAT GATSBY

The Great Gatsby cover
Amazon

"Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry 'Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!'"
– Thomas Parke D’Invilliers

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald includes an epigraph (usually a quotation from another writer at the start of a book or chapter) by Thomas Parke D'Invilliers. So far, so normal—except that Thomas Parke D'Invilliers was another character invented by Fitzgerald. D’Invilliers appears as an “awful highbrow” poet and friend of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise, which was published in 1920, some five years before The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald never publicly admitted authoring the epigraph, despite the fact that numerous people asked him for details of D’Invilliers so they might seek permission to use the quote themselves. However, Fitzgerald’s authorship was confirmed when a rare signed and inscribed copy of The Great Gatsby came to light in which Fitzgerald finally claims the epigraph as his own—by scribbling the word “myself” below the imaginary poet’s name.

2. AN ACROSTIC POEM // THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS

Through the Looking Glass book
Simon & Schuster

The huge success of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass meant that author Lewis Carroll was always being asked who the main character of Alice was based on. Carroll was generally coy about giving an answer, although many suggested that she was based on family friend Alice Liddell. It later emerged that he had first invented the story while amusing the Liddell girls on a boat trip down a river. Attentive readers soon noticed Carroll was not so coy after all—he had included an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass entitled "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky," in which the first letter of every line spells out “Alice Pleasance Liddell."

3. A LITERARY FEUD // BETJEMAN BIOGRAPHY

John Betjeman The Biography cover
Amazon

Bevis Hillier, the official biographer of poet John Betjeman, took the Easter egg one further when he concocted an elaborate hoax to fool rival Betjeman biographer A.N. Wilson. Hillier forged a love letter from Betjeman to a work colleague, which found its way into Wilson’s hands. Thinking he had a scoop, Wilson published the letter in his book. Unfortunately, journalists reviewing Wilson’s book soon noticed that the first letter of each sentence in the forged letter spelled out “A N Wilson is a sh*t,” and Hillier later revealed he had orchestrated the hoax in revenge for a terrible review Wilson had written of his Betjeman biography.

4. A SHOUT-OUT TO A SIGNIFICANT OTHER // THE HANDMAID’S TALE

The Handmaid's Tale cover
Books-A-Million

In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, fans puzzled over the significance of some graffiti that main character Offred sees etched into a desk. The letters read “M. loves G., 1972.” Wily readers later noted that Atwood (M) had started a life-long relationship with fellow author Graeme Gibson (G) in 1972.

5. AN EPIGRAM REFERENCING THE JFK ASSASSINATION // ON THE STORM PLANET

Quest of the Three Worlds cover
Amazon

Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym used by East Asia scholar and psychological warfare expert Paul Linebarger to write science fiction novels. In his 1965 novella On The Storm Planet (often included in the collection Quest of the Three Worlds), Smith added references to the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy using an epigram inserted into the text. The first letter of each word in one seemingly-normal string of sentences spells out “Kennedy shot,” and a few pages later another epigram adds “Oswald shot too.” Amazingly, this hidden message does not disrupt the flow of the writing, making the Easter egg even harder to spot.

6. RUNES HIDING A MESSAGE // LORD OF THE RINGS

The Fellowship of the Ring cover
Amazon

J. R. R. Tolkien was a language professor at Oxford University, and his love of words and language inspired his novels. On the original title page of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien inscribed two of his invented writing systems in the borders, which at first glance appear to be mere pretty decoration. However, some clever fans have since translated the lettering to reveal his hidden message. The full translation reads: “The Lord of the Rings translated from the Red Book of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth the history of the War of the Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the Hobbits.”

7. A FORESHADOWED PROTAGONIST // IT

It cover
Simon & Schuster

Stephen King is well-known for including numerous Easter eggs in his novels, often linking characters and places from one book to the next, creating a complex criss-cross of allusions and references. One of King’s most random Easter eggs is included in his novel IT (1986), in which one of the tormented children is Eddie Kaspbrak, who King casually mentions lives next door to Paul Sheldon and his family. Paul Sheldon then turns up as the unfortunate protagonist in King's novel Misery (1987) just a few years later.

8. COLLEGE DOPPELGÄNGERS // LESS THAN ZERO

Less Than Zero cover
Pan Macmillan

Bret Easton Ellis reimagined his own alma mater, Bennington College in Vermont, a number of times in his books, renaming it Camden College. Known in the 1980s for being one of the most expensive American schools, Bennington was also famed for its openness to experimentation and, some say, debauchery—elements Ellis used in his plots. "Camden College" first appears in Less Than Zero (1985), but also crops up in The Rules of Attraction (1987), American Psycho (1991), The Informers (1994), and Glamorama (1998). Strangely, Ellis isn’t the only one to use “Camden College” in his books—fellow Bennington alum Jill Eisenstadt (in From Rockaway, 1987) and Jonathan Lethem (in The Fortress of Solitude, 2003) also use Camden as a cipher for Bennington in their novels. Nor do the Bennington doubles end there: Donna Tartt, another classmate of Ellis, also uses a Bennington-esque college in The Secret History (1992), but she names it Hampden.

Artificial Intelligence Identifies Shakespeare's Co-Writer on 'Henry VIII'

Scott Barbour, Getty Images
Scott Barbour, Getty Images

William Shakespeare has long been celebrated as the greatest playwright of all time (and he's certainly the most quoted). Historians have speculated whether his name might be a pseudonym for a lesser-known writer or whether he had assistance in composing his plays, among other theories. In 2016, Oxford University Press credited Shakespeare's contemporary Christopher Marlowe as co-writer of three plays in Henry VI.

Now, new evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Shakespeare’s sole authorship, this time for Henry VIII. According to an analysis [PDF] published prior to peer review on arXiv.org, the Bard wrote roughly half of Henry VIII. His contemporary, playwright John Fletcher, wrote the rest.

The conclusion was based on the findings of an algorithm taught to examine word choice and writing style, created by researchers at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague.

The program first "learned" each writer’s approach to their craft by reading four plays by Fletcher and by Shakespeare, written at about the same time. The algorithm identified traits unique to each. Fletcher, for example, tended to use ye instead of you, or ‘em in place of them.

The algorithm was then applied to Henry VIII. It earmarked the first two scenes as being written by Shakespeare. Fletcher wrote the next four. The writers' styles then mixed until later in the play, when Shakespeare’s voice appeared to take hold.

Collaboration among playwrights was common in the era, and scholars have long believed Fletcher was somehow involved—possibly assisting an aging Shakespeare.

Nineteenth-century literary analyst James Spedding theorized in 1850 that Fletcher had co-written the play; Fletcher had succeeded Shakespeare as the house playwright of the King’s Men Acting Company following the Bard's death in 1616. Spedding even surmised who wrote which scene. This most recent analysis loosely lines up with his findings.

[h/t Smithsonian]

11 Fascinating Facts About Mark Twain

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mark Twain is widely considered the author of the first great American novel—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—but his rollicking tales aren’t the only legacy he left behind. His poignant quotes and witticisms have been told and retold (sometimes erroneously) over the last century and a half, and his volume of work speaks for itself. Over the course of his legendary career, Twain—real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens—wrote more than a dozen novels plus countless short stories and essays and still found time to invent new products, hang out with famous scientists, and look after a house full of cats.

1. Mark Twain is a nautical reference.

Like many of history’s literary greats, Mark Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) decided to assume an alias early on in his writing career. He tried out a few different names—Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom, and, more plainly, Josh—before settling on Mark Twain, which means two fathoms (12 feet) deep in boating jargon. He got the idea while working as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River—a job he held for four years until the Civil War broke out in 1861, putting a halt to commerce. (However, another popular theory holds that he earned the nickname in a bar. According to reports in a couple of 19th-century newspapers, he’d walk into a pub and call out “mark twain!,” prompting the bartender to take a piece of chalk and make two marks on a wall for twain—two—drinks. Twain denied this version of events, though.)

2. In addition to being a steamboat pilot, Mark Twain also worked as a miner.

Shortly after his stint on The Big Muddy, Twain headed west with his brother to avoid having to fight in the war. He took up work as a miner in Virginia City, Nevada, but the job wasn't for him. (He described it as "hard and long and dismal.") Fortunately for Twain, he didn’t have to work there long. In 1862, he was offered his first writing job for Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, where he covered crime, politics, mining, and culture.

3. A story Mark Twain heard in a bar led to his “big break.”

An old photo of the Angels Hotel
Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress), Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 1864, Twain headed to Calaveras County, California in hopes of striking gold as a prospector (he didn’t). However, it was during his time here that he heard the bartender of the Angels Hotel in Angels Camp share an incredulous story about a frog-jumping contest. Twain recounted the tale in his own words in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. It was published in 1865 in The New York Saturday Press and went on to receive national acclaim.

4. It took Mark Twain seven years to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

A cover of an old copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Twain started writing the sequel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, but he wasn’t too pleased with his progress. After writing about 400 pages, he told a friend he liked it "only tolerably well, as far as I have got, and may possibly pigeonhole or burn" the manuscript. He put the project on the back burner for several years and finally finished it in 1883 following a burst of inspiration.

5. Mark Twain invented a board game.

While Twain was putting off writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was busy working on a game he dubbed Memory Builder. It was originally supposed to be an outdoor game to help his children learn about England’s monarchs, but he ended up turning it into a board game to improve its chances of selling. However, after two years of work, it was still too convoluted to be marketable and required a vast knowledge of historical facts and dates. That didn’t stop him from patenting the game, though.

6. Mark Twain created "improved" scrapbooks and suspenders.

Memory Builder wasn't Twain's only invention; he also patented two other products. One was inspired by his love of scrapbooking, while the other came about from his hatred of suspenders. He designed a self-adhesive scrapbook that works like an envelope, which netted him about $50,000 in profits. His “improvement in adjustable and detachable straps for garments” also ended up being useful, but for an entirely different purpose than Twain originally intended. According to The Atlantic, “This clever invention only caught on for one snug garment: the bra. For those with little brassiere experience, not a button, nor a snap, but a clasp is all that secures that elastic band, which holds up women's breasts. So not-so-dexterous ladies and gents, you can thank Mark Twain for that."

7. Thomas Edison filmed Twain at home.

Only one video of Twain exists, and it was shot by none other than his close friend, Thomas Edison. The footage was captured in 1909—one year before the author died—at Twain’s estate in Redding, Connecticut. He’s seen sporting a light-colored suit and his usual walrus mustache, and one scene shows him with his daughters, Clara and Jean. On a separate occasion that same year, Edison recorded Twain as he read stories into a phonograph, but those audio clips were destroyed in a fire. No other recording of Twain’s voice exists.

8. Mark Twain did wear white suits, but not as often as you might think.

Mark Twain standing near a window while wearing a white suit and smoking a pipe
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

When you think of Mark Twain, you probably picture him in an all-white suit with a cigar or pipe hanging from his lips. It’s true that he was photographed in a white suit on several occasions, but he didn’t start this habit until later in life. According to The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum, “In December 1906, he wore a white suit while appearing before a congressional committee regarding copyright. He did this for dramatic emphasis. Several times after that he wore white out of season for effect.” He also refused to trade his white clothes for “shapeless and degrading black ones” in the winter, no matter how cold it got. So take that, people who subscribe to the “no white after Labor Day” rule.

9. At one point, Mark Twain had 19 cats.

Twain really, really liked cats—so much so that he had 19 of them at one time. And if he was traveling, he would “rent” cats to keep him company. In fact, he had a much higher opinion of felines than humans, remarking, “If man could be crossed with the cat, it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” He also had a talent for coming up with some great cat names; Beelzebub, Blatherskite, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, Zoroaster, Soapy Sal, Pestilence, Bambino, and Satan were just a few of the kitties in his brood.

10. Mark Twain probably didn’t say that thing you think he said.

Twain is one of the most misquoted authors in history. According to one quote wrongfully attributed to him, “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” What Twain actually said was, “[He] was endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times and tie.” There are many, many examples of these.

11. Mark Twain accurately predicted when he would die.

When he was born on November 30, 1835, Halley’s Comet was visible from Earth. It appears roughly every 75 years, and Twain predicted he would die the next time it graced the sky. As he put it in 1909, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ Oh, I am looking forward to that.” He ended up passing away at his Connecticut home on April 21, 1910, one day after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky once again.

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