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Putting Words in Mark Twain's Mouth

By Carl M. Cannon - December 10, 2012

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Some were familiar, if wrong. There is no evidence, for instance, that Twain ever deadpanned that quitting smoking was easy because “I’ve done it thousands of times.” Others were comically wrong. It was a 20th century baseball player, not Mark Twain, who quipped that age was a question of mind over matter (“If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter”).

I’ll go through the entire HuffPo list at the end of this piece, but first let’s look a bit more closely at one of its entries: the folk wisdom that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. This thought has also been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, without proof, although it’s the kind of thing Lincoln might have said -- because the sentiment is found in the Old Testament book of Proverbs.

The “Yale Book of Quotations” finds the “fool” line in a 1923 letter to the editor of a Chicago newspaper. Quote Investigator, a website run by another Yale man named Garson O’Toole, finds an earlier usage -- in a 1907 book titled “Mrs. Goose, Her Book.”

The point of this example is that lists of quotes without specific and verifiable citations -- where and when it appeared -- are useless, and invariably rife with errors. Websites with names like “Brainyquote” and “Thinkexist.com” are essentially Internet compost piles.

In the pre-Internet days, “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” and “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” were the gold standards, although sometimes misattributed quotes found their way into those volumes. Much of this material is now online, but the best source of accurate quotes today is the “Yale Book of Quotations,” edited by the rigorous and charming Fred R. Shapiro.

Many of the most frequently misquoted historical figures have websites devoted to keeping the record straight for their heroes. These range from one established by a conscientious amateur Twain aficionada named Barbara Schmidt to WinstonChurchill.org, which is run by the Churchill Centre and Museum in London. The latter site even has a section called “Quotes Falsely Attributed.”

In his anthology, Shapiro goes the extra mile in tracking down the origin of erroneous quotes. Thus, he is no stranger to the misuse of quotations or even obvious forgeries. But even he was astonished at the casual speciousness of the Huffington Post inventory.

“This list goes beyond even the usual level of Twain misattributions,” Shapiro told me. “It seems to regard ‘Mark Twain quotation’ as a synonym for ‘quotation.’ ”

For those who venerate the real Mark Twain, the list is all the more frustrating because the great man actually addressed the subjects of some of the fake quotes -- smoking, for instance. In a Dec. 19, 1870, letter to a friend named Joseph Twichell, Twain weighed the hazards of his beloved cigars: “When they used to tell me I would shorten my life ten years by smoking,” he wrote, “they little knew the devotee they were wasting their puerile words upon -- they little knew how trivial & valueless I would regard a decade that had no smoking in it!”

On the occasion of his 70th birthday party, Twain amplified on this idea. “I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time,” he said. “I have no other restriction as regards smoking.”

Likewise, although there is no evidence Twain ever said, “History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme,” he did write (in an unpublished manuscript that Bernard DeVoto highlighted in a 1940 collection, “Mark Twain in Eruption”), “It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.”

In other words, it is folly trying to improve on Mark Twain, and rarely possible. As Twain himself put in an Oct. 15, 1890, letter to George Bainton, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter -- it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

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Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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