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5 Literary Legends That Just Aren’t True

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?

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nicole #

    I love this post! Super fun to read. Also, it still baffles me so much that Lee and Capote were friends: the author of a book I so thoroughly enjoyed reading in high school and the author of a book that made me sleep with the light on for months in college.


    April 11, 2014
  2. Urband Myths.. tell me about we’re have more about the MH370.. I can’t believe people take the time to write out such lies!


    April 11, 2014
  3. An interesting topic for a blog post. The Angry Raisins is very amusing, it is a pity it is an urban myth, but if it wasn’t one would assume that the interior would also be very poorly translated, which would have been a shame. The Grapes of Wrath is my favourite novel.


    April 11, 2014
  4. Hilarious! I’ll take keyboards and violin.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 11, 2014
  5. Susan #

    I’ve always been amused by the effort people will put into creating elaborate conspiracies when they require 3 things that groups of humans are incapable of sustaining: planning, organization, and secrecy. (One, ok; two, maybe; all three? Never!).

    And I call dibs on the tambourine.


    April 11, 2014
  6. Reblogged this on Chapters in the Box.


    April 11, 2014
  7. Love The Angry Raisins! I had never heard any of these myths, so either I’m living under a rock or I dismiss silly things when I hear them. It does beg some thought, however, to the many, many things of this nature flying around the media and cyberspace these days. We should all be a bit responsible about what ‘truth’ we spread.


    April 11, 2014
  8. Great post ‘angry raisins’ fantastic, I will await your first album with anticipation. Thanks for the post.


    April 12, 2014
  9. I personally want to quash the rumor that I am not Jonathan Franzen and I did not write “Ulysses”. Although I suspect that I did writer it in a former life. Oh, and I do a mean set of drums.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 12, 2014
  10. Reblogged this on michaelanson and commented:
    Truth or fiction?


    April 13, 2014
  11. Did Steinbeck really lose the manuscript of The Red Pony and re-write it almost exactly?


    April 16, 2014
  12. Reblogged this on agentbaure's Blog.


    April 21, 2014
  13. Reblogged this on .


    April 11, 2016
  14. Those that claim William Shakespeare was really Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser, writing as a team, is another ridiculous CT.

    Liked by 1 person

    April 11, 2016

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