Artistic constraint

Gadsby (book)

Gadsby: Champion of Youth is an intrawar account of Branton Hills (a fictional city), by Vin Wright. A story of about 50,000 words, it is possibly most famous of all Anglic-group lipograms (Salomon 2004), and probably most ambitious also (Crystal and McLachlan, Colman).


Gadsby's protagonist, fiftyish John Gadsby, hands civic administration of his town to a local youth organization (Francis Rufus), and in so doing transforms Branton Hills from a stagnant municipality into a bustling, up-and-coming city (Book of Lists). Thrust onward by youthful vigor, this organization campaigns for original civic construction, such as a city park, a public library, and a zoo, and Gadsby soon wins a mayoralty. To solicit donations for such public works, his organization must "work its linguistic ability and captivating tricks full blast" (Park 2002).

If youth, throughout all history, had a champion to stand up for it; to show a doubting world that a child can think; and, possibly, do it practically; you wouldn't constantly run across folks today who claim that "a child don't know anything." A child's brain starts functioning at birth; and has, amongst its many infant convolutions, thousands of dormant atoms, into which God has put a mystic possibility for noticing an adult's act, and figuring out its purport.|||Gadsby, first paragraph

An anonymous narrator, who continuously complains autologically about his own poor writing and circumlocution, is actually Wright, a Californian from Boston. This is shown by implication from his allusion to Wright's nonlipogrammatic introduction:

(Now, naturally, in writing such a story as this, with its conditions as laid down in its Introduction, it is not surprising that an occasional "rough spot" in composition is found. So I trust that a critical public will hold constantly in mind that I am voluntarily avoiding words containing that symbol which is, by far, of most common inclusion in writing our Anglo-Saxon as it is, today. Many of our most common words cannot show; so I must adopt synonyms; and so twist a thought around as to say what I wish with as much clarity as I can.) So, now to go on with this odd contraption ....|||Gadsby, part 2

Wright calls it a story of thrill, rollicking, courtship, patriotism, a stand against liquor, and amusing political aspirations in a small growing town (Gadsby, introduction). Its tacit chronology starts around aught-six, passing through First World War days and continuing up into Prohibition and Harding's administration.

Branton Hills

Not including its narrator, Gadsby is wholly about inhabitants of Branton Hills, a fictional city with a population that grows to about sixty thousand. Many individuals in this story marry during its narration—and usually quickly, "thanks to rascally 'Dan Cupid'" (Park 2002).

  • Narrator (city historian)
  • John "Johnny" and Lady Gadsby (mayor and first lady)
    • Julius (natural historian) and Mary Antor Gadsby (Salvation Army girl)
    • William "Bill" (tailor) and Lucy Donaldson Gadsby (trio vocalist)
      • Addison Gadsby (baby)
    • Frank and Nancy Gadsby Morgan (radio station staff)
      • Lillian Morgan (child)
    • John "Johnny" (organist) and Kathlyn "Kathy" Gadsby Smith (biologist)
  • Councilman and Madam Antor (drunkards)
    • Norman Antor (youth coach)
  • Tom Donaldson (patrolman)
  • Tom Young (councilman)
    • Paul (odd jobs man) and Sarah Young Johnson (night school solicitor)
  • Bill (grouchy councilman) and Nina Adams Simpkins (widow of Irving Adams)
    • Harold (aviator) and Virginia Adams Thompson (trio vocalist)
      • Patricia Thompson (baby)
  • Lady Sally Standish (rich animal rights activist)
    • Arthur "Art" (soapbox orator) and Priscilla Standish Rankin (night school solicitor)
      • Anna (Arthur's aunt) and four orphan Rankins (Arthur's siblings)
  • Parson Brown (pastor)
  • Tom Wilkins (doctor)
  • Clancy and Dowd (night patrol)
  • Old Man Flanagan and Old Lady Flanagan (Irish townsfolk)
  • Marian Hopkins (funds solicitor)
  • Pat Ryan (railwayman)
  • Councilman Banks (councilman)
    • Allan Banks (funds solicitor)
  • Tony Bandamita (Italian councilman)
  • Doris Johnson (trio vocalist)
  • Mayor Brown (prior mayor)
  • Miss Chapman (cook)
  • Mary (girl with puppy)
  • Harry Grant (highway patrolman)
  • John Allison, Dorothy Fitts, Cora Grant, John Hamilton, Oscar Knott, William Snow, Abigail Worthington (additional youths)

Branton Hills's radio station is KBH, from trans-Mississippi radio call sign "K", plus "Branton Hills". Broadway, a main highway, is in its financial district.

Lipogrammatic quality

Gadsby is notorious as a lipogram: any composition which avoids a particular glyph throughout its manuscript (Baldick 2004, Ghirardi 2004). Writing lipograms is a form of artistic constraint that arbitrarily limits an author's vocabulary (Grambs). A typical short lipogram is Carroll Bombaugh's "Bold Ostrogoths, of ghosts no horrow show. On London shop-fronts no hop-blossoms grow", which contains only consonants and "o"'s (Crystal and McLachlan). Gadsby, by contrast, skips from "d" to "f" (Gross and Murphy) in its subvocabulary of around 4,000 valid words, thus omitting a symbol ubiquitous to Anglic-family idioms.

Notwithstanding this artistic constraint, Wright's narration is fully grammatical and lucid. His introduction holds that his primary difficulty was avoiding typical suffixation for past actions; ablauts, modal auxiliary forms, and a short list of participials accomplish that function in Gadsby. Scarcity of vocabulary also drastically limits discussion of quantity, and availability of pronouns and many common words (Book of Lists); Wright dryly broods about his inability to count anything from six to thirty (Gadsby, introduction). Word Ways, a linguistics journal, said that Wright's vocabulary could contain fully half of W. Francis's Brown Corpus, a computational analysis that lists common words; a lipogram with tight constraints, by comparison, could allow only a sixth of such a list (Al Ross, Jr.).

At upwards of fifty thousand words, Wright's book allows short forms of words on occasion, but, as its introduction points out, only if a full form is similarly lipogrammatic, such as with "Dr.", "P.S.", and "T.N.T." (trinitrotoluol). This standard holds for common contractions, including "ain't" (is not), "atta" (that a), and "dunno" (do not know); and for substandard forms by an Irishwoman ("shmokin'" for "smoking"), an Italian ("buncha" for "bunch of"), and a young vagrant ("brung" for "brought"). Wright's subvocabulary also contains such long words as "congratulations", "dissatisfaction", "hospitalization", "inconspicuosity", "orthographically", "philanthropists", "philosophically", and "straightforward". Wright turns famous sayings into lipogrammatic forms, such as "Music truly hath charms to calm a wild bosom", and "A charming thing is a joy always" (Park 2002).


Wright said his motivation for writing Gadsby was his noticing a four-stanza lipogram in print (author now unknown), and his chafing balkily at claims that such a composition could not flow smoothly in styling and grammar (Park 2002). In initial drafts, Frank Morgan was originally cast as "Bob": "First 'Bob' was Wright's romantic swain, but a kibitzing companion said Bob was short for a word containing a taboo symbol, so it is 'Frank' now, not Bob" (Francis Rufus). Wright found it "particularly annoying" that "almost through a long paragraph you can find no words ... and must go way back and start" from scratch, as if "stuck" in a hand of cards. Starting his manuscript in longhand, Wright brought it to fruition through manual typing—but tying down a solitary typing bar with string, to forbid nonlipogrammatic words that "might slip in ... and many did try to do so" (Gadsby, introduction).

Wright, a past naval musician, put Gadsby: Champion of Youth into writing during six months at a California military nursing facility, and took thirty months locating a publishing firm. Finally choosing vanity publication, Wright saw his manuscript into its first run of author drafts. Rumors of his dying within hours of his book's publication lack much support, as a print copy is known with an August inscription, two months prior to Wright's passing away (Oddballiana).

Gadsby was Wright's fourth and final book (Park 2002). A majority of its original printing run was lost in a downtown printing-plant conflagration (also killing a companyman); a public library microform's proof copy informs most printings today ( softback). Accordingly, a first printing hardback can still command up to four thousand dollars (Oddballiana).

Criticism and acclaim

Upon its publication, critics said, "It is amazingly smooth. No halting parts. A continuity of plot and almost classic clarity obtains" (Wisconsin Journal), and, "On and on it flows. No shortcuts of words on phrasing is found, which in full would contain taboo symbols" (Francis Rufus). But commonly, its plot was found "languorous" and its quality both "lofty ('It is an odd kink of humanity which cannot find any valuation in spots of natural glory') and rambunctious ('Books!! Pooh! Maps! BAH!!')" (Park 2002). With authors awarding Jay Gatsby honors as most famous fictional individual (Book 2002, in Park 2002), journalists jokingly brought up Wright's circumlocutory stylings. "Lipogram aficionados—folks who lash words and (alas!) brains so as to omit particular symbols—did in fact gasp, saying, 'Hold that ringing communication tool for a bit! What about J. Gadsby?'" said a typical column (Park 2002).

La Disparition is a similar Francophonic lipogram book (in translation as A Void, by Scottish author Gil Adair, and A Vanishing, by Ian Monk). Its original author saw Wright's book via Oulipo, a multinational wordplay organization (Abish). "Possibly in honour of Gadsby it was also 50,000 words" (Oddballiana). Oulipo's publication of this work "was taking a risk" of finishing up "with nothing [but] a Gadsby", that is, a book of no fascination to critics (In Words). As a nod to Wright, La Disparation contains an Oxford don and Auctor Honoris Causa known as "Lord Gadsby V. Wright" (Sturrock), a "grand anglais savant" and tutor to protagonist Anton Voyl, or Vowl; a composition of Voyl's is actually a quotation from Gadsby (Park 2002). In addition to La Disparition, aspiring lipogrammatists still point to Gadsby as an inspiration today (Kitson 2006). A thick work by Basic Books, about Marot and linguistic music, contains significant parts of Gadsby, for illustration; its author, writing "occasionally lipogrammatically", also now has a thousand-word "autolipography", or lipogrammatic autobiography, put into publication by Stanford (Douglas Richard).

Wright's magnum opus is found in citations by David Kahn's classic history of cryptography, by 'pataphysicians (Oddballiana) such as Christian Bök, and by Book of Lists, a trivia standard. David Crystal, host of a BBC Radio 4 linguistics program, finds Gadsby comparing favorably to "Cat in a Hat" (Crystal) and calls it a "most ambitious work", painting a social portrait contrasting starkly with that of its famous inspirations, Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan (Crystal and McLachlan).



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