The Surprising Literary Origins of Wile E. Coyote

Looney Tunes via Facebook
Looney Tunes via Facebook / Looney Tunes via Facebook

by Matt Edwards

In the world of cartoons, where a Tasmanian devil can spin into a twister and a rabbit can squabble merrily with a hunter, there is no sorrier figure than Wile E. Coyote. The calamitous desert dog has been desperately trying—and spectacularly failing—to catch his nemesis, The Road Runner, for nearly 70 years now, all the while utilizing the constantly malfunctioning products of the ACME Corporation. Poor Wile E. Coyote can never count on the mechanics of his gadgets, the timing of his plans, or even the laws of physics to play their part in his schemes.

Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner were created by acclaimed animation director Chuck Jones in 1948 ahead of the pair’s first appearance in the 1949 cartoon Fast and Furry-ous, which sees Coyote’s plans undone by an uncooperative boomerang and an even more uncooperative rocket. The short was written by Michael Maltese, who would go on to collaborate with Jones on 16 more cartoons featuring the pair. Coyote and Roadrunner remain key fixtures in the colorful world of Looney Tunes to this day.

When putting the character of Wile E. Coyote together, Jones drew from a surprising source of inspiration— specifically, the writing of Mark Twain. In his 1872 book Roughing It, Twain describes a coyote that he sees on his travels as a "long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton," and Jones cited this passage as having informed his character. In the same book, Twain describes the coyote as "a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry … He is always poor, out of luck and friendless," also a fitting image of Jones's hapless cartoon character.

Jones also took a cue from philosopher George Santayana when creating a list of rules that Road Runner cartoons needed to adhere to. Rule #3 states that "The coyote could stop anytime—if he were not a fanatic." Jones then added a reminder, quoting Santayana: "A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim."

An apt description of the bungling but dedicated Wile E. Coyote if ever there was one.