The editor in chief was madder than a terrier with a toad when he charged me with conspiracy at 7:30 one morning (in another city, and it was long ago).
"Mitchell, don't try to fool me. It's a damn conspiracy and I'm going to find out who's behind it. This is the third morning in two weeks we've published the date of Easter wrong."
I was the third, needless to say. We ran corrections all through Lent about the date of Easter that year. The reason was understandable and I won't go through the whole litany, except to say there was no conspiracy. Three reporters made the same intelligent (and wrong) inference from material sent by the editor himself.
Which taught me editors are not only occasionally the source of grievous error but also tend to believe reporters are plotting against them. Of course that is not true here, but in many places, and when I was an editor of a magazine in which the name of Clare Boothe Luce was spelled wrong twice by different writers in the same issue, I could only conclude it was a conspiracy to embarrass the editor and bring shame to the publication.
So one way or another I have been rather a connoisseur of errors, and their subsequent (often wrong) corrections for many years. Now a colleague, Sharon Isch, has returned from England with a very fine newspaper correction, as good as any I ever read. It's from a rural newspaper and purports to clarify certain "inaccuracies" in a story about a Mr. Harris:
"After returning from India, he (Mr. Harris) served in Ireland four years and not six months as stated; he never farmed at Heddington, particularly not at Coate Road Farm as stated; he has never counted cycling or walking among his hobbies; he is not a member of 54 hunts, and he did not have an eye removed at Chippenham Hospital after an air raid."
The story, I suspect, was essentially correct.
I once made an error -- 1949, if memory serves -- and feel sympathy for those who write about the Mr. Harrises of the world, except when the correction is breathtakingly dumb, or more offensive than the original blunder. Thus a perfectly enchanting writer once referred to a secretary of state as living, some years after his death, and corrected it by saying she had learned he was "just a teensy bit dead." Which I thought a bit much.
A novelist friend of mine was once referred to as "cohabiting with a goat" in a letters to the editor column of a newspaper. He was on fire to sue everybody top to bottom, but I dissuaded him.
"What are you going to do in court?" I sensibly asked. "Swear on the Bible that you do not cohabit with a goat? And what do you want the correction to say, that you are respectably married and have a pet goat but do not cohabit with it?" This is typical of the outrageous error that can hardly be corrected.
But now for something completely different: I have in my hand a letter from a fellow in New York, John Mosedale, who I imagine is notably amiable and learned. He alludes to a recent comment of mine, that Shakespeare spoke so beautifully of the hound -- that is, the basset -- whose ears sweep away the morning dew and so forth.
The writer sensed something amiss. When I phoned to ask him to use some of the letter, he said sure, "but of course it's not a correction -- you are perfectly right in the beautiful quotation from Shakespeare about the hound."
Yes. But the implication was that supreme types like Shakespeare adored the hound, a thing you might easily conclude from the quotation I used.
"I am the former owner of a truly dreadful dog, now deceased," he writes. "I once described him for a book I wrote as the world's worst animal and he was. So I came up short when I read your mention of Shakespeare's singing vividly of the beauty of the hound.
"That is perfectly true. But I blame part of my problems with Bounce, for such was his name, on my paying insufficient attention to Shakespeare, the patron of the world as you say; the name of one of our redeemers as Anthony Burgess says, and a man for whom no human epithet is enough, in the phrase of Edna O'Brien.
"Too little attention, for Shakespeare warned us. He hated dogs as he hated the stink and sweat of London. As Caroline Spurgeon notes in 'Shakespeare's Images,' it was the habit in Elizabethan times to have dogs which were chiefly of the spaniel and greyhound type, at table, licking the hands of the guests, fawning and begging for sweetmeats, which they were fed, and of which if they were like dogs today they ate too many, dropping them in a semi-melting condition all over the place.
"So we have Caesar attack 'low-crooked court'sies and base spaniel fawning.' We have Hotspur speak of Bolingbroke as 'this fawning greyhound,' and Antony crying 'Villains . . . you fawn'd like hounds' and in 'Twelfth Night' we hear of 'fell and cruel hounds.'
"Indeed, in 39 hound images, Miss Spurgeon found Shakespeare on the side of hounds and hunters only once . . .
"I figure if I had just paid more attention to Shakespeare I might have had better luck with Bounce."
Well, what the hell did Shakespeare know about hounds? Not much.
Even so, I concede that one nice pat does not a hound-worshiper make, and I apologize for unintentionally misleading anybody about Shakespeare's true (and revolting) distaste for those princes of the faunal kingdom.
It would be all right to go up one side of Shakespeare and down the other for his dislike of hounds. It is not all right to select a unique line of praise about hounds and imply that this was Shakespeare's view of the lovely dog.
This all resulted partly from lapse of memory and partly from my charity. When Shakespeare says snotty things about hounds, I ignore them for I am a kindly man and think anybody is entitled to be flat wrong in some passing comment.
This is not altogether, or precisely, the same as a writer's hearing what he wants to hear. But somewhat. And somewhat more than I am proud of.
When I think of mischief, I think it rarely comes from saying Mr. Harris was a member of 54 hunts. More often it is from implying unintentionally that Shakespeare loved hounds when in fact he hated them.
And yet you see what a project it is to correct even this simple misleading item. A writer really has to be virtually a supernatural genius to avoid error, and sometimes we, or at least I, slip slightly. Let's see, now. 1949, and now 1985.