Saturday, April 17, 2010

Say it ain't so: Unravelling misquotations

Presented to the Club by Roger B. Linscott in December, 1996.

I have been, for most of my adult life, an avid collector of quotations. This began more than 40 years ago, when I took a leave of absence as a young reporter at The Berkshire Eagle to do the research for a volume that Harper's publishing company was putting together on the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt — to be published in 1958 on the centennial of TR's birth.

The project immersed me in a remarkably colorful era. Teddy Roosevelt was, of course, one of the most quotable figures in American history, with dogmatic opinions on just about every subject under the sun and not the slightest hesitancy about expressing them. Many of his contemporaries in that post-Civil War era, when the country was being catapulted into the role of an industrial giant and world leader, were similarly outspoken in their political views and equally skilled in the arts of verbal rough and tumble.

With that as a starting point, I began filling what with time have become a dozen notebooks with colorful quotes and noteworthy aphorisms — for the most part of the sort that one doesn't find in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, which draws the bulk of its material from the Bible, Shakespeare, Cervantes and the other great authors, and from eminent statesmen and philosophers of history — and relatively little from the journalistic, political, sporting and entertainment sort of figures that populate my own unpublished book of quotations.

Like many others who have become addicted to the mining of celebrated sayings, I soon made a basic discovery: An astonishingly high percentage of the world's most familiar quotations, when one researched them a bit, turn out to be misquotations — often plagiarized by the persons credited with originating them, usually re-worded almost beyond recognition over the years, and frequently totally spurious.

Let me cite a few well-known examples.

Every sports buff is familiar with the heart-rending link, "Say it ain't so, Joe" — addressed to the baseball great, Shoeless Joe Jackson, by a juvenile Chicago fan when Jackson was being led into a courthouse grand jury hearing as one of eight White Sox players charged with throwing the 1920 World Series in exchange for a gambler's bribe. Shoeless Joe's famous response to the tearful young admirer was, "Yes, kid, I'm afraid it is."

The interesting thing about this poignant exchange is that, in reality, it never took place. It was wholly the invention of an imaginative sports reporter, and Jackson never knew about it until he read it in the Chicago Herald-Examiner some days after it was supposed to have happened.* The fact that it was counterfeit was pointed out at the time — but nobody cared to listen. The story expressed a widespread feeling of disenchantment and lost innocense, and people wanted to believe it whether or not it was true.

Here's another example from the sporting world. Back in 1946, the Brooklyn Dodgers were leading the National League when their rivals, the New York Giants, were ignominiously occupying seventh place. The Dodgers' aggressive manager, Leo "the Lip" Durocher, was acidly badmouthing the Giants' capabilities to a group of sports writers one day when Red Barber, the sports announcer, jokingly said to him, "Why don't you be a nice guy for a change?"

"Nice guy?" said Durocher, pointing to the Giants' bench, "They're the nicest guys in the world — and where are they? In seventh place." Within a few days, Durocher's remark had been bounced around in the nation's sports pages, and by a process of fast osmosis, had becoming the much pithier dictum: "Nice guys finish last." That's the quote that is endlessly repeated today, half a century later, and no one is bothered by the fact that it isn't what he actually said.

Or take an example from the entertainment industry. the best-remembered saying of W. C. Fields, the great comedian and misogynist, is: "Any man who hates dogs and children can't be all bad." A nice one-liner, with only one problem: Fields never said it. At a 1939 Hollywood banquet in which Fields was the guest of honor, one of the minor speakers on the dais was Leo Rosten, an obscure academic, who was called upon after a number of windy eulogies had been offered. In an effort to bring the boring evening to an early end, Rosten confined himself to one sentence: "All I can say about Mr. Fields, whom I have admired since the day he advanced upon Baby Leroy with an ice pick, is this: Any many who hates babies and dogs can't be all bad." The remark brought down the house — and because Fields was famous while Rosten was not, it was quickly attributed to Fields. It has now become an unshakable part of his legend.

Somewhat comparable —to move from Hollywood to the grand stage of world history — is the case of Marie Antoinette, Austrian-born wife of Louis XVI. The one thing tht the world remembers about her is that when told that France's impoverished peasants had no bread, she airily replied, "Then let them eat cake." Over the centuries it was served as a tag line for callous indifference to the poor — and incidentally, the title of one of the Gershwin brothers' best Broadway scores — but no historian has ever been able to come up with evidence that Marie Antoinette said it. The saying had been mentioned many years earlier in Roosseau's Confessions has having come from the mouth of some provincial duchess (the wording was "Let them eat brioche," not cake) and other variations have been traced back through earlier centuries. Marie Antoinette, cordially disliked by the French populace, was just a handy name to hang it on.

This illustrates another phenomenon well known to collectors of quotes: Famous remarks require famous names. The line about hating dogs and children would have died aborning if it had been credited to the obscure Mr. Rosten; it achieved immortality only by its false attribution to Mr. Fields. Likewise, "let 'em eat cake."

One of my favorite bon mots was uttered by the second Lord Melbourne, a British Whig prime minister of the early 19th century. Speaking of his contemporary, the distinquished but somewhat arrogant historian Macaulay, Melbourne said, "I wish I were as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything." The phrase languished uncelebrated for many years until Disraeli — who was a good phrase-maker himself, but was quite shameless about stealing phrases from others without attribution — used it against his political arch-enemy, Gladstone. That immediately made it a familiar quotation, for which Disraeli is generally given credit.

Ironically, Disraeli himself has been the victim as well as the perpetrator of plagiarisms. The adage "Never complain, never explain" was credited to him by a biographer at the turn of the century. But for the American public, at least, it is generally credited to Henry Ford II, hardly a likely source of perceptive observations. Two decades ago, when Ford was arrested in Santa Barbara while driving under the influence with a lady who was not in fact his wife, his public relations man got to the scene before the newspaper reporters did. The consequence was that Ford limited his press comments to the phrase "Never complain, never explain" and received credit among the unknowing as a man of the world — and a phrase-maker as well.

Probably no American writer has been given credit for more things that he didn't say than Mark Twain. He was, of course, a very funny man, especially on the lecture circuit; but many of his best lines were not, in fact, his. A good example is the widely-quoted observation that "Wagner's music is actually a lot better than it sounds." The actual source of that witticism was a late-19th century humorist named Bill Nye — and Twain in his autobiography was careful to say so, to no avail. "We see this all the time," said Robert Hirst, curator of the Twain papers at the University of California. "Attributing something to Mark Twain adds to the joke: When they hear his name, people are disposed to laugh. That's the reason why he's saddled with so much stuff that isn't his."

Twain is only one of the many people who have become peculiarly strong magnets for quotes. In our own time, Winston Churchill is perhaps the most striking example. He was, of course, a magnificent phrase-maker, as his writings and particularly his inspiring wartime speeches attest. But because of his celebrity and verbal brilliance, he became the subject of far more than his share of apocryphal stories which people continued to tell even after he had denied their authenticity.

One of the best-known of these was the episode at a dinner party at which a lady sitting next to him declared indignantly, "You're drunk!" — to which he is supposed to have replied, "Yes — and you, madam, are ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober." The other legendary exchange of insults involved Lady Nancy Astor who, according to the story, said, "If I were your wife I'd put poison in your tea" — to which Churchill allegedly replied, "And if I were your husband, I'd drink it." No Churchill biographer, including his son Randolph, has ever found a scrap of evidence to authenticate these anecdotes which, among other things, are totally inconsistent with the prime minister's distaste for personal insults and his deferential manner with women. Still another famous Churchill put-down which in fact is in the realm of fiction is his supposed remark that Clement Atlee, his Labor Party opponent, "is a modest man who has much to be modest about." Mr. Churchill vigorously denied ever having said this — in part, he explained, because he didn't consider Mr. Atlee at all modest.

On this side of the Atlantic — and many removes from the world of Churchillian eloquence — a notorious magnet for quotes during the golden age of Hollywood from World War I to the emergence of television was the irrepressible movie mogul Sam Goldwyn. A Polish immigrant who never fully got the hang of the English language, he was already famous in my youth 60 years ago as master of malaprops and a butcher of his adopted tongue. When he was told that a proposed movie script was "too caustic," he was said to have replied, "To hell with the cost — if it's a good picture, we'll make it." On the same theme he supposedly declared: "I don't care if my pictures don't make a dime, so long as everyone comes to see them."

On another occasion, he was quoted as declaring that "a verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's written on." Perhaps most famously, it was reported in Variety that he had broken off a tense labor negotiation with the statement, "Gentlemen, include me out."

By the mid-thirties, the word "Goldwynism" had been added to the American vocabulary, and inventing new ones became a cottage industry among press agents and celebrities, to the point at which it was impossible to know which quotes were authentic and which were fake. One of the best of the latter was his supposed dictum that "Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined." Quote detectives finally attributed this one to the playwright Lillian Hellman after Goldwyn himself had denied authorship on the grounds that he himself had been to psychiatrists on many occasions.

In addition to the dictum that famous remarks need famous names attached to them, an axiom of the quotation business is that words of wisdom should be as concise as possible, ideally punchy enough to fit on a bumper sticker. This tends to be a problem for people like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who sounded off with great sagacity on a wide range of subjects, but whose words tend to get severely abridged in the retelling. One of America's most cherished quotations is "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door." But one can search Emerson's journals in vain to find any reference to mousetraps at all. He did once write, "If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards or pigs to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs than anyone else, you will find a broad, hard-beaten path to his house, though it be in the woods." The bumper-sticker version substituting the mousetrap for Emerson's list of products was, in fact, concocted in 1920 by Elbert Hubbard, a popular editor and orator, who attributed it to Emerson in a book entitled A Thousand and One Epigrams, rather a bestseller in its day.

Emerson has suffered from abridgement in an equally familiar quotation that is still being retailed under his name. What he actually said was, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines" — but the abridged version that that is almost universally quoted ["Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds"] omits the crucial word "foolish" and simply pictures consistency itself as a vice, thus converting a sensible observation into a handy and rather meaningless aphorism for people addicted to changing their minds.

Another example of the tendency to give famous remarks the Reader's Digest treatment is a familiar quotation that is closely associated with Berkshire County — the statement that the ideal college would consist of "Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other." The quotation is attributed to James Garfield, then a U.S. senator from Ohio; Mark Hopkins was the revered president of Williams College from 1836 to 1872, and Garfield's words in his praise were spoken at an alumni dinner in New York in 1871. No copy of Garfield's speech exists, and no two alumni who attended the session agreed afterward on just what he had said. But after Garfield became the 20th president of the United States 10 years later and was martyred by an assassin's bullet shortly after taking office, he became the subject of a eulogy penned by his friend and fellow-Williams alumnus John Ingalls, an enormously popular figure on the national lecture circuit. It was Mr. Ingalls who arbitrarily boiled down the late President Garfield's comments about higher education to the log with a student and Hopkins at opposite ends. In its abridged form it may have put it quite differently than Garfield did, but by wrapping it up in a concise package it provided an enduring commentary on the concept of teacher-based education.

Well, having commented at such length on the fact that many of our most cherished popular quotations are wrongly remembered, wrongly attributed or just plain fictious, one should probably ask whether that actually matters very much. Probably not. Yet, aside from being a fascinating pastime, the study of how we misquote, and why, does tell us a great deal about ourselves that we can't learn in any other way. As one of the most literate of contemporary scientists, Stephen Jay Gould, has observed, "Almost all 'standard quotations' are wrong. The stories of their rectification give us great insights into human foibles and cultural biases."

*Or maybe it was the Chicago Daily News, according to a piece about Jackson in Sport Magazine in 1948:
I guess the biggest joke of all was that story that got out about "Say it ain't so, Joe." Charley Owens of the Chicago Daily News was responsible for that, but there wasn't a bit of truth in it. It was supposed to have happened the day I was arrested in September of 1920, when I came out of the courtroom.

There weren't any words passed between anybody except me and a deputy sheriff. When I came out of the building this deputy asked me where I was going, and I told him to the Southside. He asked me for a ride and we got in the car together and left. There was a big crowd hanging around the front of the building, but nobody else said anything to me. It just didn't happen, that's all. Charley Owens just made up a good story and wrote it. Oh, I would have said it ain't so, all right, just like I'm saying it now.
Photo: "Shoeless Joe" Jackson 

1 comment:

  1. What a great paper! I'm really sorry that I never got to hear any of Roger's paper. And, oh my, it just struck me. I was elected to the club to fill his seat! His place I can hold. Fitting into his shoes? Not a chance! Erik