Reading Between (and Through) the Lines

     The July/August issue of American Photo contains an article entitled “Chasing the Invisible,” which describes how researchers are applying hyperspectral photography to peer deeply into historical documents. The primary example cited shows conclusively how Thomas Jefferson changed the word subjects to citizens in the Declaration of Independence which historians interpret as Jefferson’s way of thumbing his nose at the crown by rejecting subservience for equality.

     Although many readers will find the revelations on those six pages intriguing, I viewed the information as second-hand news because I get my close-up views firsthand without employing a 39-megapixel camera system that captures images at discrete bands using ultraviolet and infrared spectra to do it. All I need is the X-ray specs I ordered from a Johnson Smith catalog decades ago and my keen vision (and imagination). Now that peeking under the top layer of the past and altering our appreciation of the legends is popular, I humbly present my conclusions based on my close examination of manuscripts and documents.

     Charles Dickens did not originally begin A Tale of Two Cities with a set of balanced paradoxes. His initial thought was “The good times were not that good with a bunch of fools acting like wise blokes who could not reason if it happened to be day or night or if they should laugh or cry or break every bottle in the workhouse and run away from home.”

     Cole Porter intended “Begin the Beguine” to just be the same two bars played repeatedly which is why the first title was “Begin at the Beginning.”

    Translators of Anna Karenina have never captured the true intent of Tolstoy’s commentary on home life: “All happy families look like they have had too much schnapps; every unhappy family would stop complaining after a week in Siberia.”

     The real American crisis giving Thomas Paine in 1776 was tootsies, not tyranny, as he complained “These are the corns that make me cry, ‘Get Dr. Scholl.’”

     Tennyson had a prescient eye on the ball diamond, not the battlefield, in the lilting poem he initially called “Discharge of the Light-Hitting Blighters” that began “Minor League, Minor League,/Halfway to the Minors downward,/All in the throes of a wretched slump/That has him below the .190 mark.”

     On a very warm day John Greenleaf Whittier considered opening one of his gems with this couplet: “Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan,/Get out of the sun and get a fan.”

     When improving Poor Richard’s Almanac, Benjamin Franklin thought of toning down the bluntness of his initial maxims and thus covered up the second half of “A word to the wise is enough, but a kick in the pants gets faster results.”

     Hidden under Edward Young’s oft-quoted “Procrastination is the thief of time” was a less instructive night thought: “Write this some other day.”

     Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had a dramatic rather than pastoral opening in mind for Evangeline so the first draft began “This is the forest, prime real estate. Come, chop it down before the tree-huggers get here.”

     Thomas Gray, who also valued the charm of rustic life, inserted some proper nouns into stanza 15 of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and did the same in an early draft of stanza 19: “Far from the madding crow’s ignoble strife,/Their peaceful spirit ne’er came to much harm;/None lived the cool and sequestered life/Like Ma and Pa Kettle down on the farm.”

     Willa Cather’s observation in O Pioneers! that there are only two or three human stories that go on repeating themselves was stated more boldly in the first draft: “There are eight million stories out on the naked prairie.”

       Horace Greeley would have avoided any controversy regarding attribution of “Go West, young man” if his advice to aspiring young men had not the general “turn your face to the great West, and there build up a home and future” but his more specific first thought: “Before you leave for California, get your teeth fixed or you will end up being a gaffer.”

     More revelations may come later as my research continues. After all, I have just started to scratch the surface.   







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