E is the most frequently used letter in the English language. Although estimates vary as to just how common it is, you can expect the letter E to account for around one in every nine letters you will read or write in an English text on average. (Contrast that to poor old Q, which only pops up once in every 500!)
Given E’s status of commonness, some remarkably inventive poets and writers have enjoyed challenging themselves over the years, by attempting to come up with various works of poetry and literature that deliberately avoid using the letter E. And of all of these E-less works of literature, probably the most famous is a bizarre novel called Gadsby.
Published in November 1939, Gadsby was written over six months by the American author Ernest Vincent Wright. Apart from the author’s name on the cover, a brief introduction, and a final concluding note, not a single one of the 50,000 words in Wright’s novel contains a single letter E.
If you think that that sounds all but impossible, you’d be right. Wright even acknowledged as much, by claiming in his book that many of his friends believed that what he was trying to do was entirely unmanageable. (“All right,” Wright proudly explains in the introduction, “the impossible has been accomplished.”)
Of course, if you think that excluding, on average, one in every nine of the words in the English language might lead to some fairly bizarre prose, then you’d be right there too. When a wedding ceremony takes place in the story, for instance, Wright is forced to describe it as “a grand church ritual” to avoid the E’s in words like wedding or ceremony—or, for that matter, words like bride, bridesmaid, congregation, and guests!
To ensure that he never once broke his own extraordinary self-imposed restriction, Wright taped down the E key of the typewriter on which he wrote his story. And to excuse the bizarre, verbose language he was forced to use in his book, Wright cleverly created a narrator for his tale who openly acknowledges his own bizarre way of talking, and accounts for it as nothing more than proof of his poor command of English. In that context, curious phrasings like a “grand church ritual” suddenly do not seem quite so bizarre.
Sadly, Wright never lived to see the success and the bizarre glory that his remarkable novel would go on to achieve. He died on October 7, 1939, just one month before Gadsby was finally published. Nevertheless, he is now considered one of a remarkable set of writers and authors who have written some of literature’s most peculiar constrained works—some of which date back over many centuries.
The 4th-century Greek poet and writer Tryphiodorus, for example, rewrote Homer’s epic tale the Odyssey as a series of 24 short books, each one excluding a different letter of the Greek alphabet. A Spanish renaissance playwright named Lope De Vega Carpio likewise wrote a series of five novels in the late 1500s and early 1600s, each of which omitted a different one of the five core vowels, A, E, I, O, and U. And in 1972, the French writer Georges Perec wrote a novella entitled Les Revenentes, that excluded every vowel except the letter E. Les Revenentes, ultimately, is essentially the direct opposite to Ernest Wright’s Gadsby!