I've been a big fan of Willard R. Espy's books ever since I first encountered An Almanac of Words at Play, back in high school. I always meant to write him a letter thanking him for the books, and suggesting new material for any future ones he might write. But I never got around to finding out how to contact him. Now it's too late.
Willard Espy died last Saturday (20 February), in New York City, at the age of 88.
(If any of you have been putting off sending fan mail to your favorite living authors, I urge you to stop putting it off. Write to people who've enriched your lives and tell them how much you appreciate them, while they're still around. If you can't contact an author through the Internet, you can usually do so through their most recent publisher.)
My opinion of Espy's work is not totally positive. The anagram verses that got him started in writing about wordplay never did much for me, for instance. (These are poems in which several of the words are anagrams of each other; the anagrammed words are replaced by asterisks, and you're supposed to figure out the missing words from context and/or explicit clues.) In fact, I was never terribly fond of many of his poems: they often attempt to be clever but fail to be amusing, and they frequently smirk at women and sex with a sort of dirty-old-man leer, and his overtly nonsensical verse doesn't have the charm of Carroll or the best of Lear. But never mind his poetry; Espy as editor had flawless taste. His Almanacs remain the funniest, most interesting, and most all-around worthwhile collections of wordplay, word information, and light verse I've encountered. I once embarked on a project to bookmark all of my favorite items in one of the Almanacs; by the time I was done, there was a bookmark every four to six pages throughout the book. These books remain the standard that I strive to emulate in this column.
It was in the Almanacs that I found William Cole's marvelous line "What a friend we have in cheeses!"; that I learned what a lipogram was, how to write a double dactyl, and how to spell "minuscule"; and that I first encountered Tom Stoppard, Hilaire Belloc, Mary Ann Madden, and the skewed sayings of Casey Stengel and Samuel Goldwyn. It was from these books that I acquired an appreciation of headline humor; Espy would probably have been amused by a recent New York Times headline (3/1/99) that read "Car Designers Make Shifts As Buyers in the U.S. Age." And the tidbits from Perelman and Twain, the epigrams and parlor games, the Tom Swifties and Spoonerisms, the puzzles and cartoons, still entertain and amuse me fifteen years after my first encounter with them.
Espy (pronounced /'Es pi/) is also known as a genealoger and chronicler of the history of Oysterville, a small town in southwest Washington state founded by some of his ancestors. His books that I know of, most of which are sadly out of print, are:
- The Game of Words (1971)
- An Almanac of Words at Play (1975)
- Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa's Village (1977)
- O Thou Improper, Thou Uncommon Noun: A Bobtailed, Generally Chronological Listing of Proper Names That Have Become Improper and Uncommonly Common, Together With a Smattering of Proper Names Commonly Used ... and Certain Other Diversions (1978)
- Another Almanac of Words at Play (1980)
- Say It My Way: How to Avoid Certain Pitfalls of Spoken English Together With a Decidedly Informal History of How Our Language Rose (or Fell) (1980)
- Have a Word on Me: A Celebration of Language (1981)
- A Children's Almanac of Words at Play (1982)
- The Garden of Eloquence: A Rhetorical Bestiary (1983)
- Words to Rhyme With: For Poets and Song Writers (1985)
- Skulduggery on Shoalwater Bay (1998)
I'm not sure of dates on these five:
- Omak Me Yours Tonight or Ilwaco Million Miles for One of Your Smiles
- Espygrams II: 80 New Anagram Verses [presumably there was an earlier book titled Espygrams]
- The Life and Works of Mr. Anonymous
- Word Puzzles: Anagrams from America's Favorite Logophile
- The Word's Gotten Out
In Another Almanac (12 June), Espy included a letter that he wrote, but did not send, to the New York Times Book Review: "Sir or Madam: For an autobiography, I should be grateful for recollections from anyone who can remember me." It's too late to send recollections to him now, but take a minute to pause and remember him.
E is also for epitaph, encomium, and eulogy. Mr. Espy, we'll miss you.
The title of this week's column is what Richard Nixon said about Adlai Stevenson, as quoted in Another Almanac (6 November).