The following interview with James Hopper was originally published in My Maiden Effort: Being the Personal Confessions of Well-Known American Authors as to Their Literary Beginnings (1921).

My maiden effort was two. I am aware of the fact that there is something wrong about this sentence both grammatically and physiologically but, rushing along, have no time to fix it.

Also, these two maiden efforts were the product much less of effort than of a certain cussedness.

Somewhere around the age of fourteen, I fell into a streak of perversity which lasted several years. I, who up to that time had been a good little boy, peaceful and diligent, collecting with regularity report cards full of A’s and Ones, and One Hundreds, who occupied the seat of honor on the boys side of the room, and was captain in the spelling-matches—I suddenly and inexplicably entered upon a long and stubborn duel with my teachers—the teachers whose pride and joy I had been.

Whenever called to recite now, I would smile a small superior smile and say “I don’t know” being careful to pronounce the phrase with an inflection which would leave the teacher forever doubtful as to whether I had or had not known. It was at that time that I changed my copper-plate, impeccably Spencerian handwriting for my present singular and ignoble chirography one which astounds me anew each time I am placed face to face with it.

Another of my tricks was to look far, far away, with idiot dreaming eyes, while my patient teacher expounded with reiteration, with all the known pedagogic wiles, some intricate point in the mathematics of interest and insurance, of carpet-laying and wall-plastering.

But where the climax of scandal in my conduct was reached was in the matter of “compositions.”

I flatly refused to write “compositions.” The teacher could engross with the most loving care, with catlike cajolings of curve and flourish and light-and-shade with chalk upon the board such subject for our meditations, such provocation to the assault of our pens, as “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Flats as Compared with Detached Houses.” I refused to bite, I refused to fall. I sat lack-lustre-eyed and inert in my seat, with pen idle in the slot. She could summon me to her desk, and with all her arts of persuasion seek to persuade; she could try tender expostulation or severe sarcasm—nothing doing. “I can’t write about that” was all that could be gotten out of me.

Usually, I finally landed in the Principal’s office. The Principal—he was a man—always said the same thing. He looked at me thoughtfully and said, kindly: “Well, if you can’t write about that subject, we’ll let you write about another.” He thought a long time, then smiled brightly, and said: “Why don’t you write the story of your life?”

But I refused to write the story of my life.

What was the matter with me those days? I am not sure. But I think it was simply the assertion of the young male. The young male discovering suddenly to his disgust that he was being taught and ruled and bossed by women. By arid old maids.

This lasted two years. How did I (for I did) get through the Grammar School? That is today a profound mystery to me. For two years I steadfastly refused to write a composition; yet at the end of the two years I was in High School. It must be that beneath the arid exterior of those old-maid school teachers there beat hearts tenderly maternal and indulgent and wise. I say wise because, looking it over, I am very glad I did not stick forever in the grammar grades or finish my education in the grammar grades. My hair rises at the thought: I would have missed all the good time I had later playing football.

A first-year student in High School (we were called Juniors in those days), I was still in revolt. And the first subject given us for composition in English I took as a personal insult. The subject was: An Original Story.

An Original Story! I thought. What rot! Why, kids couldn’t write stories. Stories were written by writers. Famed writers—with beards. I looked about me with contempt at the bent backs of all my little schoolmates already innocently at work at this impossibly pretentious task. They didn’t know, of course. But I did. By Jove, I wouldn’t do it, that’s all; I wouldn’t!

Then it occurred to me that perhaps what I had been able to pull off in grammar school would not go in high school, that perhaps here wile would have more chance than open defiance. I sought some stratagem by which I could circumvent the teacher, by which, in some way, I could punish her and found it. I knew! I would plagiarize! I would write something I had read—and she’d never know it! But I would know it, and thus be avenged!

There was a little story I had read which I remembered perfectly. It occurred in one of Jules Verne’s books—in The Children of Captain Grant. It had to do with a boy who, hunting birds nests, had been caught in the chimney of an old castle—remaining in that awesome situation for twenty-four hours before being rescued.

I wrote that story with my tongue in my cheek. It stood there in perfect picture before my mind’s eye; I could remember every word of it, every turn of phrase. With my tongue in my cheek, I toiled to render it exactly as I had read it, taking a malicious pleasure in the thoroughness of my dishonesty.

A week later, before the class, the teacher (and really, I see it now, she was a most charming young woman) reported on the compositions. “And,” she said, at the end, “there is one story which is so good that it deserves to be published in the school paper. That story was written by James Hopper.”

I blushed—and the blush was not merely, as she thought, the natural modesty of the sterling author. I went home troubled by my conscience. Remorse pricked me. By evening, seized with a perverse desire to make sure of the completeness of my transgression, I got out The Children of Captain Grant, and looked up my story—Verne’s story, I mean. I turned all the pages over carefully. And it wasn’t there. It wasn’t there at all. All there was was one line. Somebody said “Once I was caught in a chimney.” And that was all. . . .

So, you see, my maiden effort was really a maiden plagiarism—which failed. Since it failed, then my second effort is the maiden one, and the first sentence of my paper is grammatical, and I am glad I did not change it. One should never correct anything. If one will only write enough after a mistake, the mistake always automatically rights itself.

I meant to tell you about this second maiden effort which—while the first was an attempt at plagiarism which proved original—was a plagiarism which wasn’t—was an attempt at something startlingly original which later proved to be a plagiarism. But I have already passed out of the space severely allotted by the editor. I’m out of bounds—and vanish.


If you enjoyed this article, check out James Hopper’s book 9009.

James Hopper

James Hopper