George Gregson Guggengeist

George Gregson Guggengeist
Guggengeist in New York, 1937

George Gregson Guggengeist was born in Hagerstown, MD, on July 14, 1907, to Gregory Guggengeist, a coal miner, and Miriam Guggengeist (née Ganders), a painter and retired trapeze artist.

When Guggengeist was five years old, his father died of injuries supposedly resulting from a fall when the elder Guggengeist attempted to reach the moon by jumping from a cliff. While Gregory Guggengeist was not known to have issues with alcohol abuse or mental illness, George theorized in his autobiography, GGG (Bantam, 1967), that his father had undiagnosed schizophrenia.

In 1915, Guggengeist and his mother moved to New York City, where she married judge John Francis Hylan, who would go on to become mayor of New York in 1918. During his time in New York public schools, Guggengeist began to show great skill with language. He won a citywide poetry contest for high school students in 1922 with his poem "Fatuitous Father" and was awarded a scholarship to Yale University, where he studied philosophy and linguistics.

Although he excelled in his undergraduate studies, early adulthood was difficult for Guggengeist. He developed odd obsessions and compulsive behaviors that crippled him socially. He spent almost all his time alone in his room, compiling handwritten notes about esoteric subjects, which he kept in meticulous order according to a complex filing system understood only to him. He would later describe these years as pure misery, as he felt he could not control himself and longed to lead a "normal" life.

Despite his mental struggles, Guggengeist would go on to earn a Ph.D. in linguistics from Princeton. He was described by fellow students and professors as "maddeningly brilliant" but with only tenuous connections to the world outside his mind. Guggengeist would go days without sleeping, adding to his notes, to which he devoted a room in his home.

His graduate years were less problematic than his undergraduate years had been. While never gregarious or outgoing, he formed a small circle of friends at Princeton who supported him through his problems and helped him overcome many of his compulsive behaviors.

In 1936, Mr. Hylan, who had become Guggengeist's virtual father (although no official adoption had ever taken place), passed away, and Guggengeist returned to New York to be with his mother. He was in the midst of writing what would become his masterwork, The Key of G (Random House, 1937), which he would publish to great fanfare the following year.

The royalties from the success of his book provided Guggengeist with a windfall of money that ensured he would not need to worry about employment. However, as he would later write in his memoir, this also ensured that the mental instability, of which he was finally beginning to take control, would once again consume him. Guggengeist once again closed himself off for days at a time. He became convinced that particular phonetic combinations could unlock unspecified "secrets of reality".

His follow-up book, Gvlork (Random House, 1940), was written partially in his invented language, Gmubga, with little in the way of clues about translation. He argued quite passionately that Gmubga was the truest language possible, and that he could use it to communicate with trees. Naturally, his thesis was not embraced by the general public or by academia. Guggengeist was excoriated by his former colleagues, which led to a complete mental breakdown and his eventual admission to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital in late 1941, which kept him out of World War II.

Guggengeist continued to write furiously while at Bellevue. He disavowed his earlier statements about Gmubga and refused to discuss it for the rest of his life. He spent three years at Bellevue and several other psychiatric wards around the city. He was released in early 1945. None of his writings from this time have survived.

Guggengeist's mother, who had become ill during his time away, died that summer. His desire to care for her is said to be what prompted him to overcome the complacency into which he had sunken while in psychiatric care and pull his life together again. Later that year, Guggengeist published the critically revered Mother's Son (Random House, 1947), a book of revealingly personal poems and recollections related to his mother, whom he regarded as something close to an angel. Thoroughly coherent and deeply moving, the book achieved moderate commercial success, but more importantly, it established him as a functional and capable writer again.

Having found a new voice for himself outside of linguistics, Guggengeist published over 20 books in a 12-year spam from 1948 to 1960. He continued to live alone and expressed a lack of interest in marriage or family life, fearing that his mental illness would pass down to his children, but he was more social than he had been before.

In 1952, Arthur Lubin adapted "Artificial", a short story from Mother's Son, into the film It Grows on Trees. The film retained almost nothing of Guggengeist's delicate, sensitive narrative, its director opting instead to create a superficial comical version. Guggengeist sued successfully to have his name taken off the film's credits and vowed never again to make a pact with Hollywood, whose culture he called "evidence of the devil's work on Earth."

The sixties brought about great changes in America and in Western culture in general, but Guggengeist barely seemed to notice. Critics began to turn on him, labeling his works as old-fashioned and out of touch with modern concerns. He decreased his output, publishing only two books in the first half of the decade. His aforementioned autobiography, GGG, was released in fall of 1967. By that time, it had become somewhat embarrassing for any young hipster to be seen reading Guggengeist, and the book's sales reflected that. GGG, while receiving generally positive reviews (although not on the level of his early work), sold about 10,000 copies and was out of print in less than a year.

Soon after publishing his autobiography, Guggengeist announced his retirement and stepped out of the public eye. He did no interviews and made no public appearances for nearly ten years. Stories differ widely as to what he did for that time, but it is known that he spent time studying in the Middle East.

Then, in summer of 1977, many were surprised to see his name come up on a list of scheduled speakers at a research colloquium at Princeton. Apparently he had reached out to his former colleagues and asked to deliver a short presentation at the meeting. They obliged.

It was there, on July 7, one week shy of his seventieth birthday, that Guggengeist delivered his infamous "Great Literature Begins with G" speech. He stood before an audience containing not only some of the most prestigious linguists, but many of his old fans and members of the media as well. The speech began with what many believe was meant to be a joke (although given the rest of the content, no one could be sure) in which he referred to himself and the audience as "members of the Empire". He proceeded to deliver a bizarre but heartfelt lecture praising the virtues of the letter G. The audience laughed several times, which clearly disturbed him, but he read his speech as planned. Many assumed the entire speech was a joke, although those who knew him well tended to agree that his previous mental instability had once again reared its head.

No one would know for sure, though, as George Gregson Guggengeist was found dead three days later by his cleaning lady in the home he owned in Kew Gardens, Queens. A cause of death could not be definitively determined, though foul play was ruled out. Given his age, natural causes were assumed.

After his death, a search of the premises uncovered a large room in Guggengeist's basement containing meticulously arranged boxes filled with what turned out to be over a million hand-written pages, all of them in what appeared to be his invented language of Gmubga. Unfortunately, he had never made any kind of translation key for the language, and no one ever made any progress in deciphering what he had written (most people who saw them agreed that the writings were gibberish as they contained none of the patterns or characteristics associated with other languages). Apparently Guggengeist had never given up on the ideas that caused him to be laughed out of academia. Based on the condition and quality of the papers, they appeared to have been written steadily over the course of the last thirty years or so of his life.

Guggengeist also appeared to have been working on a new book in English. In it, he claimed to have spoken with numerous inanimate objects (apparently in Gmubga, although this is not explicitly stated) and with a creature "too horrifying to describe" that he referred to as Nature Itself. He also claimed to have uncovered many "disturbing and chilling" secrets about the nature of reality itself. He loathed his former colleagues for what he saw as a personal betrayal and a rejection of ideas they could not understand, and he claimed he would soon finally reveal what he had learned to the world if he could "entice Nature Itself into cooperating".

George Gregson Guggengeist is mostly forgotten today. No major institution of learning includes his works in its literature or linguistics courses, and all of his books are long out of print. His old house has been torn down and replaced by an apartment complex. Even those million pages written in Gmubga are gone, lost to fire at a storage facility where they had been kept. It is as though he never existed at all.


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