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This sentence uses the letter "e" ten times. So it might seem impossible for a writer to completely avoid using the most common letter in the English language. In fact, the letter “e” is the most commonly used letter in several languages, including German, Spanish, Swedish, French, Italian, Danish, and Dutch. Remarkably, a handful of modern writers have managed to complete lipograms – written works that deliberately omit a certain letter. Perhaps the most notable is American author Ernest Vincent Wright. In 1939, he wrote the 50,000-word novel Gadsby without using a single word containing the letter “e” (except for in the short introduction).
The book, not to be confused with F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, tells the story of mayor John Gadsby and his efforts to revitalize the town of Branton Hills. But the plot seems almost secondary to marveling at Wright's word choice. As you might expect, omitting the letter “e” in any form of written text is a major challenge. After all, you can’t even use the word “the.” There’s definitely a scarcity of word options available, and it makes the writing much more difficult and abstract. For example, Wright was unable to use common pronouns like "he," "she," and "they," as well as most numbers, prepositions, and many other commonly used words. Wright reportedly tied down the letter “e” on his typewriter to make sure he didn’t accidentally use it.
Ernest Vincent Wright had significant difficulty finding a publisher for Gadsby and eventually turned to a self-publishing press called the Wetzel Publishing Co. Gadsby was never reviewed, and most copies were destroyed in a warehouse fire shortly after the book was printed.
What did he have against the letter "e"?
- Sadly, Wright died the same year that Gadsby was published, so he didn't live to enjoy any public appreciation for the difficulty of the task he had accomplished.
- These days, due to its scarcity and oddness, original copies of Gadsby have been priced as high as $7,500 by book dealers. Curious to read it for yourself? You can view an electronic version here: https://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/Gadsby-by-Ernest-Vincent-Wright.pdf.
- Inspired by Ernest Vincent Wright, author George Perec published his own novel without the letter “e” in 1969. Entitled La Disparition, it was originally written in Perec's native language, French, and was arguably an even more difficult task than Wright's. The book was translated into English in 1994 with the title A Void and has since been translated into several other languages, all without the letter "e."