Famous Things Three Authors Never Said

The Internet is awash in bogus quotations and here are three of my favorites.

I’ve often seen this quotation from Mark Twain all over Facebook, and the first time was early in the morning, spoiling my first cup of coffee: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.” My warning bells went off immediately because the whole thing sounded too contemporary, especially “putting us on.” Not that Twain couldn’t be scathing about politicians. In A Tramp Abroad he wrote, “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”

While I haven’t read nearly as much Twain as Eliot, I know The Gilded Age well, having read James, Howells, Wharton, and other novelists of that period extensively. I also researched it for a few years to write my own Gilded Age Novel, Rosedale in Love: The House of Mirth Revisited.

There’s one very popular quote people seem to relish during NaNoWriMo that’s supposedly by William Faulkner: “Don’t be a writer, be writing.” It doesn’t show up on searches of Faulkner websites, but it’s on Pinterest and Wikiquotes, and there are lots of Google images of it. That’s grounds for suspicion as much as the Yoda-like quality of the phrase. I prefer certifiable Faulkner, like the advice he gave in a famous Paris Review interview: “I’ve heard people say,’If I could just stop doing this, I would be a writer.’ I don’t believe that. I think if you’re going to write you’re going to write, and nothing will stop you.”

Another outrageously obvious misquotation I frequently see online was supposedly uttered by the brilliant Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Seriously? That sounds like a Nike ad at best. It’s not witty, it’s blunt and ungraceful. But Wilde did write in a letter to Alfred Douglas that “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” I wonder what he would have said about people who disseminate fake quotes?

If you have a favorite classic author, there’s probably a website devoted to sorting the spurious quotes from the authentic ones for that specific writer. So here’s a thought: Before posting an inspiring author quote on Facebook or elsewhere, or tweeting it, why not verify whether the author actually said it? As Jane Austen put it so well, “The truth is always at our fingertips, if only we dare reach far enough.”*

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

*I made that one up. 🙂

Did Winston Churchill Really Say That?

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

–A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

–A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

–An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one above. She also credited Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

When I looked for the source, the brilliant line didn’t show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a cinematic connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

The line’s political lineage extends further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit.

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz wrote that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. He put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers. You can find them on Amazon.  Lev teaches online writing creative workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Goodreads Finally Dropped Its Bogus George Eliot Quote

Back in 2017, I contacted Goodreads several times to let them know that this top-ranked quotation by George Eliot is bogus, sending them proof:

It is never too late to be what you might have been.

Yes, you’ve seen it attributed to Eliot everywhere: Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, t-shirts, kitchen magnets, mugs, bookmarks, tote bags, tattoos. But there’s no source.

I read George Eliot in college religiously, and read about her as well because she was a major inspiration to me as a budding writer. So the first time I saw the quote it felt off to me — a bit too peppy, more like something from a Hallmark greeting card.

I poked around the Internet, and though it’s inescapable, there’s no attribution. Nobody records it as a comment she made, it’s not something she wrote in her diary, and it doesn’t appear anywhere in her writing. That’s been proven by Eliot scholars, as reported in The New Yorker. It’s also been researched by a great web site, Quote Investigator, which shows a long history of mis-attribution and misquotation.

Eventually, someone at Goodreads asked me to post on the “Librarians page” and said the team would investigate. I did, but what was there to investigate? That had already been done by scholars who I imagine have more expertise than the intrepid Sherlocks at Goodreads.

Well, the bogus quote is finally gone, but it took long enough, and should never have been there in the first place. You have to wonder what other fake quotes are on Goodreads that also need to be axed.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books of fiction and non-fiction. He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com

Tracking a Quote To Its Surprising Source

Read any book about World War II and you’re bound to find inspiring quotes by Winston Churchill, along with some withering comments he made about rival politicians or anyone he thought deserved his scathing wit. One of his favorite targets was Clement Attlee who inspired these classic lines:

A sheep in sheep’s clothing.

A modest man, who has much to be modest about.

An empty taxi arrived at 10 Downing Street, and when the door was opened, Attlee got out.

 

Clement Attlee 1945My multilingual mother–given to quotations in Latin, German and French–especially loved the middle one. I seem to recall her also crediting Churchill with the line “Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” She may have been referring to Spiro Agnew.

I could be wrong about her target and even her crediting Churchill, but for years I’ve thought that the line was his.  I’m wrong.  When I recently looked for the source, the brilliant line didnt show up anywhere on Churchill web sites. But there’s a highly tangential Churchill connection: The Dark Horse, a forgotten 1932 political satire starring Bette Davis.

dark horseIt features a nitwit politician whose adviser has instructed him to answer tough questions with “Well yes, but then again no.”  The politician is classed as “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”  You’re wondering about the connection?  His opponent is played by an actor named Churchill.  I know, that’s a stretch.

But the line’s political lineage isn’t just fictional.  It goes a few decades further back to the powerful Republican Speaker of the House Thomas B. Reed, who was nicknamed “Czar Reed.”

In 1909, Pearson Magazine no. 22 reported Reed explaining why he ignored one Representative while paying attention to another:

“Whenever A takes the floor, the House learns something, but when that fellow B speaks, he invariably subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

We have to assume the line had filtered into political discourse enough so that the script writers of Dark Horse could use it to comic effect not too many years later.  Did Reed come up with it on his own?  At first it seems likely, since his recent biographer says he was renowned for his wit:

On one occasion, when a Democratic colleague “was rash enough to quote Henry Clay’s line about rather being right than president,” Speaker Reed shot back the assurance that, “The gentleman needn’t worry. He will never be either.” Harry Truman’s oft-quoted line that “A statesman is a politician who’s been dead 10 or 15 years,” is actually a direct steal from Reed’s earlier, more polished quip that “A statesman is a successful politician who is dead.” Reflecting on his chances of winning a long-shot bid for the presidential nomination in 1896, Reed said of his fellow Republicans, They can do worse. And they probably will.”

Reed did more than quip, though: he sped up action in the House by ending what was in effect an institutional filibuster (too bad he never made it to the Senate).

Teddy Roosevelt, though, would seem to get ultimate credit for the phrase.  Biographers Peter Collier and David Horowitz write that TR used it to dismiss an opponent on New York’s Civil Service Commission when he was the Commissioner from 1889-1895. TR put down his rival with these words: “Every time he opens his mouth, he subtracts from the sum total of human wisdom.”

So many of our current politicians fit that description, don’t they?  Too bad we don’t have more wits like Churchill, Reed, or Teddy Roosevelt around to put them in their place.

Theodore-Roosevelt_The-Talented-Mr-Roosevelt_HD_768x432-16x9Lev Raphael’s comic mystery series, set in the hothouse world of academia, has been praised by The New York Times Book Review and many other newspapers for its wit and one-liners. You can find them on Amazon.