“A poet can survive anything but a misprint,” said Oscar Wilde. Yet misprints seem to be an inescapable fact of life for all published writers.
A missing letter or misspelled word in a book, magazine, or newspaper can cause tremendous torment. Writers have been known to rend their clothes and to curse their wretched existence, all due to a misplaced comma. While typographical errors may seem trivial and even humorous to the general reading public, they create misery, embarrassment, and sometimes danger to those who wield a pen or pound a keyboard.
The poet Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) receives little attention today, but during the First and Second World Wars his patriotic verse enjoyed wide popularity in his native England. In his poem “In Time of War” Noyes wrote of a young soldier dead on the battlefield:
All night he lies beneath the stars and—dreams no more out there.
What must have been the poet’s anguish when the Irish Times turned the dead soldier into a drunk by printing the first line
All night he lies beneath the stairs and—dreams no more out there.
Charlotte Mary Yonge must have felt some distress when she first looked through her newly-published novel Dynevor Terrace (1857). On page 33 of the first volume a character greets several visitors “without stretched arms.” This was a society novel, not a horror tale or crime story. The phrase should have been “with outstretched arms.”
Misprints torment not only writers, but also innocent people just minding their own business. English Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) had every right to be displeased when a newspaper announced that he had been “peasant shooting with a party of fiends.” And a famous orator may have felt chagrined when he read in another British newspaper how he had been enthusiastically welcomed to the city: “The crowd rent the air with their snouts.”
Samuel Clemens (1835-1910) recalled how miserable he felt when a misprint ruined his debut as a national literary figure. By 1866 his pen name had become familiar to readers in parts of California and the Nevada Territory. Yet few people in the eastern states had heard of it. But finally he placed a piece with a New York magazine and thought his fame assured. Soon the name MARK TWAIN would be celebrated throughout the land.
He sat up nights for a month, he said, dreaming of the notoriety that shortly would be his. He thought of giving a banquet to herald his entrance onto the national literary stage. But all his aspirations fell flat when the work on which he had pinned so much hope appeared in the magazine under the name MIKE SWAIN. “I was not celebrated, and I did not give the banquet. I was a Literary Person, but that was all—a buried one; buried alive.”
In his autobiography, Mark Twain describes an incident in which a misprint nearly cost Bret Harte (1836-1902) his life. Harte was then a young man working for a small weekly newspaper in Yreka, California, where part of his duties was to read proof. One day he spotted an error in the obituary column. One of the notices contained the sentence, “Even in Yreka her chastity was conspicuous.”
Harte figured that chastity was supposed to be charity, so he drew a line under the word and wrote a question mark in the margin, enclosing the question mark in parentheses, thus calling the printer’s attention to the error. But in so doing he violated a proofreader’s law. “That law,” explained Mark Twain, “says that when a word is not emphatic enough you must draw a line under it, and this will require the printer to reinforce it by putting it in italics.”
Next morning Harte glanced at the obituary column, immediately put down the paper, walked outside, borrowed a mule no one was watching, and rode out of town. He knew, said Mark Twain, that the widower would soon be showing up with his gun. The reason was that the sentence now read, “Even in Yreka her chastity was conspicuous (?)”. What had begun as a compliment had turned into “a ghastly and ill-timed sarcasm!”
As Harte discovered, sometimes trying to correct a misprint only leads to more trouble. A newspaper reporter once wrote a story about a “battle-scarred veteran” only to see the phrase printed in the early edition as the “battle-scared veteran.” The later edition attempted to correct the error, but now it read “bottle-scarred veteran.”
Newspapers, of course—not just small town newspapers like Harte worked for, but big city newspapers as well—have long been fertile ground for misprints. The rush of editors, writers, reporters, and distributors to meet deadlines breeds disaster.
One time in 1940 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt came down with a severe cold. The Washington Post next morning ran the headline FDR IN BED WITH COED. Roosevelt, unlike most victims of misprints, found the error hilarious. He ordered 100 copies of the newspaper to give to friends.
Mark Twain, again in his autobiography, tells about the time as a boy when he worked in his older brother Orion’s printing shop. An illustrious preacher from Kentucky came to Hannibal, Missouri, and delivered a sermon that he afterward wanted to get printed in Orion’s shop. The text ran to sixteen pages, which put a strain on the shop’s limited resources of type, but the young and inexperienced compositors managed to set the type properly, lock it into a form, and strike a proof.
Only then did Wales McCormick, the principal typesetter, notice a problem. “He had left out a couple of words in a thin-spaced page of solid matter and there wasn’t another break-line for two or three pages ahead. What in the world was to be done?” It would take half the afternoon to reset the entire section, and it was Saturday. Saturday afternoon was the only time the young compositors had to themselves, and they wanted to go fishing and swimming.
Then Wales, who had caused the problem, had an idea. In the line in which the mistake had been made occurred the name Jesus Christ. Wales shortened it to J. C., and that made room for the missing words. They sent a proof copy to the preacher for his approval, and soon the illustrious man himself arrived looking highly displeased. He said, “So long as you live, don’t you ever diminish the Saviour’s name again. Put it all in.” And he repeated “Put it all in” several times for emphasis.
“In that day,” Mark Twain pointed out, “the common swearers of the region had a way of their own of emphasizing the Saviour’s name when they were using it profanely and this fact intruded itself into Wales’s incorrigible mind…. He enlarged the offending J. C. into Jesus H. Christ. Wales knew that that would make prodigious trouble and it did. But it was not in him to resist it…. I don’t remember what his punishment was but he was not the person to care for that. He had already collected his dividend.”
Beverly Sills (1929-2007), the noted soprano, enjoyed a distinguished operatic career from the 1950s through the 1970s. Just after Bubbles: A Self-Portrait, the first of her two autobiographies, rolled off the press and began distribution in 1976, someone at Bobbs-Merrill, her publisher, noticed a horrible misprint in the opening sentence. How had editors and proofreaders missed it? But they had.
The opening sentence read: “When I was only three, and still named Belle Miriam Silverman, I sang my first aria in pubic.” The publishers hastily gathered up all copies they could find of the first edition and soon brought out a second first edition. One missing letter cost them a great deal of trouble and expense, and it nearly cost Ms. Sills some painful embarrassment.
Henry Benjamin Wheatley wrote in Literary Blunders: A Chapter in the History of Human Error (1893) that “it may be very seriously doubted whether an immaculate edition of any work ever issued from the press.” If that be true, then writers who get their works into print must simply inure themselves to the inescapability of misprints and the misery they will suffer as a consequence.