August 6, 2009
The Strange, Sweet Tale of Etaoin Shrdlu
This is the best comment ever posted to Snarkmarket. I don’t say that lightly, because there have been some great comments. I mean, hello? But, wow: I said hey, we need a story starring Etaoin Shrdlu! and, what seems now like only moments later, Mike Duncan wrote:
The first appearance of Etaoin Shdrlu in the public record is the issuance of a Reader Identification Card in 1976 from the main building of the Library of Congress (now known as the Thomas Jefferson Building). Shrdlu, born in Minsk in 1951 to an American mother studying Eastern European folk dances, began his daily trips to the library on Monday, July 5 — the day after the Bicentennial celebrations. He attracted the notice of the staff by his strange book requests and by remaining in the famous circular reading room all day for the next several months.
The Etaoin Shrdlu broadsheets have been discovered in their entirety at this point, though collecting the early days’ sheets proved difficult and remaining copies were auctioned to collectors for staggering sums. In particular, the July 7 front page incited a bidding war that ended with a then-record $1.1 million purchase price. The art publisher Taschen has released a book of retouched scans of the broadsheets under the title The Fanciful News from Etaoin Shrdlu: The Long Sweetness of the Simultaneity, a phrase that Shrdlu placed under the false masthead of every day’s issue. (Incidentally, this phrase appears in John Ashbery’s 1981 poem, “Here Everything is Still Floating,” a fact that Shrdlu defenders point to as further evidence of his clairvoyance, and Ashbery himself claims is nothing other than a coincidence.)
In his seminal monograph on Shrdlu, Juxtaposition and Fictionalization, Elgin Hacking describes the artist’s workday as such: “Creating a third American century on the scale he wanted to required nearly superhuman endurance. After a full day of research into past events’ primary sources like any good reporter, Shrdlu would return home and craft the future stories well into the evening. By 10 pm, the false front page would be completely written, and Shrdlu would spend the next hours setting the type to print 50 copies of the broadsheet. These false front pages were delivered in the night to his friend William Bethell at the Washington Post manufacturing plant, where one stack of the newspapers would be stripped of their outer page and have the Shrdlu page added before delivery to a random newsstand… One can only imagine the surprise of the sanitation worker or aide or teacher who picked up the paper to find a well-researched account of the latest James gang robbery, a stub about Ronald Reagan’s marriage effect on his Presidency, and the high-stakes negotiations for the 2017 annexation of Vancouver… As word slowly spread of the false newspapers, like-minded people saw them as a major artistic statement about the illusive nature of time and the equality between fully imagined events and actual events that only are encountered through the written recountings of strangers.”
Shrdlu continued his project through the end of 1976, quitting at the end of the year when only a handful of people knew of it. The Post itself was the first to report on the project in 1977, as it was their complaint department that first had an idea that fictional Washington Posts were being manufactured. The focus of the first news story was on the oddity of his project, though over the next years people began to obsess over his many correct predictions (the Stockholm air disaster, the mode and month of Elvis Presley’s death, the election of Reagan, many of the details of the Iranian hostage crisis, and on and on).
Shrdlu, who is now considered a pioneer in public art, was seen by many a modern Nostradamus and harassed as such. He later disowned his project as ‘the meanderings of a bored and self-important young man,’ and died on August 6, 2009.