Kernahan letters, Part One

As I’m said before (and I’m sure people are sick of hearing me say it), we don’t have a lot of William Hope Hodgson’s letters.  This is a tragedy as it severely limits our understanding of WHH as a man and as a writer.  Probably the most significant find was a small cache of nine letters from William Hope Hodgson to Coulson Kernahan.  I found these at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin and have no idea what they were doing there.  To this day, I still do not know much about Coulson Kernahan and it’s my hope that perhaps one of the readers of this blog will enlighten us all about this mysterious figure in WHH’s past.  That he, and his wife, were writers can be drawn from WHH’s letters but that is mostly all we know.

These 9 letters formed the basis of my article, “Writing Backwards: The Novels of William Hope Hodgson”.  From these I formed my theory that WHH wrote his novels in the reverse order in which they were published.  That makes THE BOATS OF THE “GLEN CARRIG” the last book written (but first published) and THE NIGHT LAND the first book written (but last to be published).   I posted this article on the blog previously and, if you haven’t read it, you can find it here:

Over the next few posts, I will be presented the complete texts of all NINE letters.  Some are important, some are merely interesting but they all deserve to be read and studied by Hodgson fans and scholars.  This first letter is one of the longest and most revealing.  I am reprinting it as he wrote it with no editing.–Sam Gafford

Letter #1

c/0 W. Bird, Esq.,

127, Barnsley Road,


Near Barnsley

January 17th–05.

Dear Mr. Kernahan,

I have just finished cleaning my typewriter; if, therefore, a queer little air of virtue peeps out ever and anon between the lines, you will know that there is justification.

Your letter came to night.  Had you been maid and I man, it had not—– No!  you must guess the rest.  Were I with you this night I would say unto you:– “Shake!”

Curious, was it not, that I was on the point of writing to you?  I had a confession to make, and, like all confessions, it must be made after a circular pattern.

Firstly, then, an unaccepted writer is–in that respect, at least– a maiden.  That being granted, it is well known that such creatures are allowed to change their minds.  I, being a maid, claim that privilege.  I  have changed my —- mind.  In my last letter to you, I said I would send the “GHOST PIRATES” to Mr. John Long, with a word that you thought well of it, and him.  I changed both my mind and the MS., and sent “OUT OF THE STORM”, and with it the following quotations from your letter.  Note how blatantly I–a maiden–have praised my ‘charms’, and never a blush.  I have quoted you only in those parts where you said terrible nice things, and have omitted all less (in mine eyes) matters.  Truly am I grown shameless.  Thus, O White Man, ran the selections:

(First, I introduced them with a graceful little passage thus:–“As I am sending you this particular MS., it struck me that the following passages from a letter by Mr. Coulson Kernahan might prove of interest:–)

“Your stories…seem to me to have a touch of something like Edgar Poe’s genius… I have read nothing more impressive than that human fungi story for years… Have you tried Mr. John Long?  He publishes for my wife, and we have found him straight and energetic.”

Now, how relieved I feel.  I have not grace

To linger in this penitential mood;

Therefore, to other things I change, and thou

Shalt follow on, and following on, for–

It lies with you to decide the finish.  And now to the other ‘things’.

Is there some great Thing in next Place determined to starve me into subjection!  I cannot get even an article into a newspaper.  I had an introduction, when I was in Town, to Philip Wilson, of the “DAILY NEWS”.  He asked me to do him a strong paper on the sea, to be entitled “WHY I AM NOT AT SEA”.  He would not guarantee its insertion in the paper until he had seen the sort of ‘stuff’ I could do.  I showed him the short sketch–“OUT OF THE STORM”, and he seemed pleased a bit.  Thought it very smart, don’tcherknow!  I sent him the article as soon as I got home–to be accurate, Nov. thirtieth.  It came back to day, with regrets!  Do you know I’m getting nervous.  I’m afraid someday I shall open an envelope, and find— an acceptance.  Such things do happen.  By the way, if ever you do write to me again, I should so much like to know how the short ‘key-note’ sketch–OUT OF THE STORM–struck you.

I say, may I ask you who the Publisher was who accepted that chap’s book.  Of course, if this question is–well, indiscreet, keep an opposite silence.

An idea has struck me.  Young, original writers are unnatural.  If Nature had intended such, she would have made ’em without tummies.  Yes, it’s plain that they’re abnormalities.  Nature abhors a vacuum– so do I.

Somehow the letter-writing feeling has run away.  I’m feeling kittenish, or is it sentimental?  I’ll pull this letter out of the machine, and see if I can write verse…


Worse! and worse!  I shoved in a fresh piece of paper, and thumped the keys for awhile.  After a bit, I seemed to detect an odd grumpety grumple, grumbling sort of note coming to the surface of the melody.  I grew suspicious, and pulled out the paper.  Really!  I’m beginning to lose faith in this instrument; it is losing its one-time modesty.  Such a subject!  The PUBLIC have no appreciation of this form of indelicacy–


We’re “writin’ chaps”, O Lord;

Yet had we all been mummies

We’d had more beef aboard

Our tummies.

Why, Lord, this vacancy–

This empty ache to fill?

Sure, in our infancy,

Thou lack’st Thy usual skill;

Or, Chance, Thou dids’t know

Or that to which we’d grow,

Else Thou had’st made each one, Good Lummy!

Without a tummy.

For a “writin’ chap”, O Lord,

Who scribbles “stuff” that’s rummy

Is likely only to be bored

By’n (empty) tummy.

So, Lord, we pray Thy Might,

That Thou will give us dummies;

Else shall we have to cease to write,

                   To fill our tummies.

Now, look here, Mr. Kernahan, if this wretched machine wanted oil, that is no excuse for spoiling what might have been a decent piece of verse.  I shall have to repeat the whole operation.  It’s as bad as spoiling a bunch of sausages.  Think of what it might have been–

“WE ARE SEVEN”— Ah me!  the might have beens (Not the vegetables).  Confound that sentimental note !  It will keep coming to the surface.

And now to try and stop rotting.  You know, I am so tremendously in the dark.  Who are the big publishers and who the little?  I suppose Unwin, Methuen, Smith Elder, Macmillan, Ward Lock, are big guns, and yet even among these I may be mixing them up.  I’m afraid I’m very much out of the world up here.

The barrier of ‘refusals’ continues unbroken.  I have just had back both the GHOST PIRATES and the HOUSE OF MYSTERIES.  From the Strand Magazine, however, there has been a variation of the monotony.  They seem to have lost the MS. of one of my short stories, instead of ‘regretting’ it.  I suppose that even they tire of so much regret.  I can scarcely blame them.  I have been projecting a letter to serve as a missile at Editots and Publishers.  It is to run somewhat as follows:–

Dear Sir,

It may interest you (probably it will not) to learn that I have had one thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine refusals of such ‘stuff’ as that which I submit.  If you care to increase the number to two thousand, kindly return the enclosed as regretfully as possible.

                                     Yours faithfully,

On consideration, I shall not send it.  A photograph might be more effecutal.

Thanks muchly for your suggestion re Arrowsmith of Bristol.  If I find that I cannot make an impression otherwise, I shall certainly try it.  Though, why should Arrowsmith prove more (shall we say) foolish, or foolhardy, than his bretheren?  Was he not that man who published “CALLED BACK”?  At least, I think that is its title.

No, I won’t give in, not as long as I can sit at the typewriter.  I say, man, you must understand that I do most thoroughly appreciate your thoughtful kindness and interest in the matter of my failures.

You say that you wish you could do something ‘practical’ to lend a hand.  Well, do you not think you are helping me by your advice and sympathy?  Nay, but you have extended a most hartening hand-grip across the present dismay.

Of a truth, but Faith doth smite me shrewdly!  I write verse; but even that the wretch refuses to smile upon.  It is not bad stuff, as you shall have proof of definitely by the piece which I inclose.  Whether THE DEATH CRY will appeal to you, I cannot say; for you may have no liking for verse: yet, for all that, it is not without some quality to command attention.  But, think you an Editor would look at it?  Nay!  save it be to utilise the blank underside for scribbling upon.  Well! well!  ‘Tisn’t given to everyone to discourse sweetly upon Little Lambs (whether Mary’s or anothers).  For my part, being other than a Publican, I catch myself thanking God that I am not as these others!  Dear me!  Youth is very flatulent.  On second thoughts, though I cannot discourse upon lambs; yet could I discuss mutten in a manner eminently satisfactory to myself.  Woa!  If I don’t watch the machine it’ll be getting back again to that most disreputable subject.

I didn’t know you went in for Editorial work.  I do wish you were putting more time in at creative work.  Plenty of clever men–who lack entirely the creative ability–could do much of the work you are doing, couldn’t they?  And leave you more time to put in at creating.  Yes, from what I’ve read of yours, I know very well that you’ve ideas.  Why not let the men who lack ’em do some of your more ephemeral work?  I feel sure that you will not think me in any way officious in thus commenting upon your actions.  I do hate to think of power running to waste.  Winter comes very quickly, when the streams run no longer.

This letter had been with you a fortnight gone, only that the gods evinced a desire to extend their love to me.  I am dressed for the first time to day after a sudden collapse which sent me to blanket fair for some ten or twelve days.  The Doctor said ‘overwork’.  I added (to myself) ‘disappointment and bad temper.’

Well, well, I may hang out yet to see something of mine in print.  Hope so, at any rate.

You will note that the address at the top of this letter is changed.  I expect to be here for about a month; so, if you decide that it is the will of the Celestials that you should write to this lonesome one, please to send your letter here.

And now, if thou has come through so far as this in safety, I will commend thee to the Watchers.  May they deal kindly with thee.  They will love thee none the less for thy kindly thoughts and words.

S’longa, White Man,

[signed “William Hope Hodgson”]



Filed under Hodgson, William Hope Hodgson

2 responses to “Kernahan letters, Part One

  1. Oh, this is so delightfully delicious and insightfully clever. One of my pet sadnesses is with today’s tech. as researchers/historians will have one hell of a time understanding authors and their thoughts because the art and desire to write real letters is a very dying art (if not dead and buried).

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