A Man Wrote An Entire Book Without The Letter ‘E’

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance. As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.” —Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

In A Nutshell

You may not be overly familiar with an American author named Ernest Vincent Wright, but he once pulled off one of the greatest literary accomplishments conceivable. It was also one of the most peculiar self-imposed challenges you can imagine, as he penned an entirely novel of more than 50,000 words without once using a word that contained the most common letter in English, the humble “e.”

The Whole Bushel

One of the most famous literary challenges in history was when Dr. Seuss received a challenge from his publisher that he could only use 50 words to write an entire book. That’s all well and good, and it’s a tough challenge, to be sure. However, Ernest Vincent Wright would no doubt scoff, as he challenged himself to pen an entire 50,000 word novel without once using the letter “e.”

What’s more, he somehow managed to pull it off. The final product was Gadsby, which is about a man named, well, Gadsby, who tries to save his city with the help of a youth group. Yeah, Gadsby isn’t exactly, well, “Gatsby” but what do you expect from a self-published book with such insanely rigid writing constraints? It took Wright nearly six months to complete the work, and in his introduction pages he mentions how coming up with the numerous challenges that came up along the way.

One of the biggest challenges faced was replacing pronouns, since it’s tough to write a sentence, let alone a novel, without words like “he” or “she” or “her” and so forth. Additionally, he was forced to find ways to work around using past tense words that typically end in “-ed” which, as you might imagine, is more than a little tricky.

Still, Wright did manage to come up with 50,110 words and a full story without any cheats, making it one of the most successful lipograms in the history of writing. Wright self-published the book in 1939, though as anyone who has self-published before can relate, the book didn’t receive much attention, and even the attention it did get was merely to talk about whether it was some stunt. The novel was read primarily by people scouring it to find any slip-ups or cheats, so convinced were they that Wright simply must have used them.

The entire novel is available online to read for free, as it entered the public domain in 1968. It’s a good thing, too, as the warehouse that contained the majority of the copies burned down, destroying enough of the books that it has since become a rare book collector’s prize, with copies being valued at thousands of dollars due to their scarcity.

At the end of the day, of course, it remains a truly spectacular accomplishment. After all, “e” is the most commonly used letter in the English alphabet, with more than 11 percent of all words in the Oxford dictionary containing at least one “e.”

Show Me The Proof

Oxford Dictionaries: What is the frequency of the letters of the alphabet in English?
Bookride: Gadsby
Gadsby, Ernest Vincent Wright