Putting Words in Mark Twain's Mouth

By Carl M. Cannon - December 10, 2012

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By Carl M. Cannon

Not an early adapter to social media, I became a Twitter convert after RealClearPolitics’ co-founder Tom Bevan impressed upon me the value of using tweets to tout my colleagues’ work -- a worthy cause.

Other uses for the medium presented themselves in the past year: being apprised of last-minute changes in presidential campaign schedules, fact-checking alerts, and news bulletins on unfolding events ranging from Hurricane Sandy to the perfect game being hurled by Seattle’s “King Felix” Hernandez.

Yet, Twitter also lends itself to one of the Internet’s most noxious features -- the dissemination of bogus and misattributed quotations. My “friends,” to use the nomenclature of another social networking site, know phony quotes to be my pet peeve. But Twitter is more egalitarian than Facebook, so I’ve been deluged, along with everyone else, by the counterfeit Churchill, the fabricated Lincoln, the fake Twain.

Friday a week ago, Arianna Huffington tweeted: “Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain. - Mark Twain”

I wasn’t familiar with that line, but it sounds nothing like Mark Twain. (He often mentioned death, but not as something to be dreaded. In an Oct. 15, 1871, letter to his wife, Olivia, he described death as “a great leveler . . . an Alp from whose summit all small things are the same size.” Fourteen years later, in another letter to her, this one in reference to his friend Ulysses Grant, Twain wrote: “Manifestly, dying is nothing to a really great and brave man.”)

But I digress.

Receiving such missives, even if they are only 140 characters long, presents an ethical dilemma. Although no one likes being branded a scold, does a failure to correct them connote acquiescence?

The question is not solely one of etiquette. What is a journalist covering the 2012 election supposed to do when iconoclastic presidential candidate Buddy Roemer tweets (as he did last March), “Let the people know the facts, and the country will be safe – Abraham Lincoln.”

And is it best to keep silent when Cory Booker, Newark’s charismatic mayor, tweets out inspiring quotes on a daily basis -- even if they are of equally dubious provenance? (Example: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change – George Bernard Shaw.”)

I like Buddy Roemer, find Cory Booker refreshing -- and maintain good relations with Arianna Huffington. But cognizant of the relatively new axiom that “nothing digital ever dies,” I try and gently correct such inaccuracies when I can, which I did with the Twain misquote.

Nov. 30 was the great writer’s birthday, as it happens, and I’d mentioned a few of his pithy observations in a morning essay I’d written myself. But Arianna kept tweeting out “Twain” quotes -- it seemed she was touting a slideshow on the Huffington Post -- so I clicked on it with a sense of trepidation.

My fears were well-placed.

What awaited the reader were 27 quotes, most of which were not Twain, starting with the first one: “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. . . . It was here first.” Although that sounds vaguely like Twain, it’s actually from Robert Jones Burdette, a Union private from Illinois who after the Civil War became a prominent Iowa newspaper humorist and then a California pastor.

If my sleuthing is correct, only 11 of the 27 were authentic. The rest were purloined from other writers, fabricated out of whole cloth, or of unknown derivation, but not traceable to Mark Twain.

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 “” 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, 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.”

So, too, is it with right quotes.

Here is the Huffington Post list:

1. “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” [Not Twain; Robert Jones Burdette.]

2. “I have a higher and grander standard of principle than George Washington. He could not lie; I can, but I won’t.” [True]

3. “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn’t matter.” [Not Twain; Satchel Paige]

4. “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” [This is Twain, but slightly garbled.]

5. “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.” [True]

6. “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.” [Not Twain; Maurice Switzer.]

7. “A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” [Not Twain. Source unknown, but earliest documented usage, according to famed quote verifier Ralph Keyes, is the Dec. 31, 1914, edition of a South Carolina newspaper.]

8. “Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.” [Probably Twain; found in “More Maxims of Mark,” a 1927 collection of quotes considered mostly reliable.]

9. “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” [Not Twain; this is a variation on an old joke -- told by W.C. Fields, among others -- about drinking. It was first applied to smoking, and to Twain, by the Journal of the American Medical Association and Reader’s Digest in the 1940s.]

10. “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” [True]

11. “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.” [True]

12. “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” [Not Twain; Oscar Wilde said something close to this, but variations of this sentiment predate Twain by centuries. The “Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs” traces similar lines to the 14th century.]

13. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” [Not Twain. Earliest known source is 19th century essayist Grant Allen.]

14. “After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.” [True]

15. “Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.” [No source for this adage, which sounds nothing like Twain.]

16. “Classic -- a book which people praise and don’t read.” [True]

17. “In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” [No known source for this peculiar idea linking it to Twain or anyone else.]

18. “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you're inclined to write ‘very,’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” [Not Twain. This was said by famed Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White.]

19. “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you're misinformed.” [Not Twain; no known source.]

20. “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” [Probably true.]

21. “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” [Unknown source; nothing tying it to Twain.]

22. “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.” [Not Twain; source unknown.]

23. “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” [Not Twain -- and this line has no known source -- but as “Mark Twain in Eruption” points out, he did say: “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.”]

24. “A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.” [Not Twain; no known source, and nearly the opposite of his expressed sentiments.]

25. “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” [Not Twain; “Yale Book of Quotations” traces it back long before Twain was born to French mathematician Blaise Pascal, who expressed this sentiment in 1657, and to John Locke (1690) and Benjamin Franklin (1750). It’s a reflective observation, but it’s not Mark Twain’s.]

26. “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” [True]

27. “There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, and a tragedy.” [True] 

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

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