Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A Quagmire of Quotations

Mark Twain is justly known for his many quips, witticisms and pithy observations. Across his novels, short stories, letters, speeches, plays and newspaper stories, he left a vast amount of quotable statements on everything from “Abstinence” to “Zug.” Seemingly he had an opinion on everything – human nature, animals, war, religion, politics, literature, love, family, money, history, friends and enemies. There are volumes dedicated to his succinct and often humorous assessments on a plethora of subjects.

One challenge with Twain quotations is the frequent misstatement of what he said. An example is the infamous “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” quote. We have used this quote in print ads and on a t-shirt in our store. It is, in fact, not what he said – or at least not how he said it in the following note written in May 1897:

“James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness, this report of my death was an exaggeration.”

Shame on us for perpetuating this mistake!

The famous quote attributed to Twain “I am not an American. I am the American.” makes for great copy. Unfortunately, Twain himself (American or not) did not say this about himself – he was repeating a quote from his friend Frank Fuller. Similarly, the much-repeated “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics” is attributed to Twain who was, in fact, quoting Benjamin Disraeli. The very funny “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” was actually said by the very funny Edgar Wilson Nye.

Recently I was asked by two visitors to our website to confirm the provenance of two quotes commonly attributed to Twain:

“Golf is a good walk spoiled.”

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

After doing some research and asking around, these two popular quotes that are routinely attributed to Twain could not be definitively confirmed as his words. I reached out to Barbara Schmidt, the webmaster and creator of the superlative and asked her to share some of the most commonly repeated apocryphal Twain quotes. In her words (and, yes, I am attributing this quote with confidence): “Twain has been labeled a ‘quote magnet.’ Anything that sounds good is often misattributed to him.” The following is her list of some of the most frequently misattributed quotes.

"The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco."

“Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

“Be careful of reading medical magazines; you might die of a misprint.”

“Don't argue with people who buy ink by the barrel.”

“Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” (or “Denial ain’t a river in Egypt”)

Barbara is not saying that Twain didn’t say these things per se. On her website, some of these alleged quotes are followed by the statement, “This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.” When in doubt, Barbara recommends the following: “One of the best ways to research misattributed quotes is to use Google book and Google news archive searches for exact phrases. You will often find the first usage of such a phrase long after Clemens's death and not in any of his known works.” When we are in doubt, we generally turn to Barbara’s website or Caroline Thomas Harnsberger’s excellent Everybody’s Mark Twain and Mark Twain at Your Fingertips. Of course, our store has several terrific Twain books that are filled with correctly attributed quotes.

Much like the “Telephone Game,” these supposed Twain quotes may have been passed along, reported, re-reported, misstated, attributed and misattributed. In the end, many of them are simply very funny and therefore sound very Twain. He probably would be amused, but just like all of us, he probably would not be thrilled to have people put words in his mouth!

Jacques Lamarre

Director of Communications

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