If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.
[quoteleft]Sound familiar? It probably sounds even more familiar in its abbreviated form, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." Who said it? Ralph Waldo Emerson, right? That's what everybody thinks. But as far as anybody knows, the earliest attribution is in a book of quotations published by the ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland in 1889, He died in 1882. It appears nowhere in his published or unpublished writings, and it is not attested by anyone who knew him, either. It's an orphan.
Most people think of misquotation as a form of corruption. I'm going to show you that it is a form of improvement. What people say, especially in the heat of debate or when the bullets are flying, is clumsy and unmemorable. It requires the services of a literary Good Samaritan to turn the ill-considered, awkward, prolix remark into a memorable, concise, well-turned phrase. Take old Emerson, for instance. The first, longer "quote" says what he should have said, but didn't; the second turns that diamond in the rough into a sparkling little gem of a quotation.
Many of the sayings of Mark Twain are a case in point. One of the best-known, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it," appeared anonymously in the editorial column of the Hartford Courant. Twain may have written it, but there is no evidence that he did. And there is a hostile school of thought which attributes it to Charles Dudley Warner.
We all wish the U.S. Postal Service would be efficient. Perhaps that is why everybody thinks its motto is "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." This passage is inscribed on New York 10001, the main branch, which is how it got associated with the USPS. In fact, it's what Herodotus said about the Iranian postal system of 2500 years ago. (This had particular poignancy for me when I mailed a letter to my sister, who has Iranian citizenship, at her address in Shiraz during the revolution a few years ago, to have it cone back stamped in purple ink: IRANIAN POSTAL SYSTEM ACCEPTS NO MAIL. Sic transit gloria mundi.)
Not only did General of the Armies John J. "Black Jack" Pershing - he had commanded black cavalry units at Fort Sill during the Indian Wars - not have the presence of mind to say, "Lafayette, we are here"; he was as mystified as anybody could be as to why the remark had been put in his mouth. The real author never stepped forward. Marie Antoinette, for her part, never said, "Let them eat cake" - or croissants, either - although this expression of contempt for the starving masses exactly suited her political enemies, who apparently concocted it. And the Duke of Wellington never said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. There's no room for interpretation about that one. There were no playing-fields at Eton until after the Iron Duke was dead.
There are two principles involved here, and the common denominator between then is improvement. Either what the quotee said was not up to snuff and had to be improved an, or else he didn't say what he should have said under the circumstances - and so a suitable quote gets cocked up. The principle can be seen at work with particular clarity in the construction of newspaper headlines. When New York needed Federal guarantees to help it out of its financial crisis, The New York Daily News quoted President Ford with the ingenious headline, "FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD." As someone who appreciates literature, I think that headline was inspired. If I wore a hat, I would take it off to the man who came up with it. Unfortunately, it created the impression in a very large number of pliable minds that that was what Jerry actually had said, word for word.
The case of William Tecumseh Sherman is a bit more subtle. What he said at the Republican Convention of 1884 was, "I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected." Not the sort of stuff you need to shore up the roof of re neoclassical public building. It was rewritten in trochaic meter: "If nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve." Now that has bounce to it. (Incidentally, it was because that convention was held in Chicago that the Democrats referred to it in the ensuing campaign as "The Windy City." Average wind-velocity in Chicago is below median for cities over 500,000. I'd apologize for getting off the subject, but I'm in a cliche-busting mood.)
When Martin Luther perorated to the Diet of Worms, he ran off at the mouth for hours. The elegant "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen," is just the Reader's Digest condensed version of his closing statement. And David Glasgow Farragut never said, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" What he actually said was, "Damn the torpedoes! Captain Draytcn, go ahead. Jouett, full speed!" Draytan? Jouett? Who, the hell are they? Clancy, I want you to cut all these extraneous clowns and reset in dactyls, and I want it by press time!
Lincoln Steffens' report an his trip to Russia, "I have been over into the future, and it works," sounded awkward. It was improved into "I have seen the future..." and then attributed to John Reed, who was better known as a Bolshevik. Captain James Lawrence, who was dying of wounds received in the battle of Lake Erie, should have made better use of what time he had left than saying, "Tell the men to fire faster and not to give up the ship - fight her till she sinks." But that's what he said. We remember it as "Don't give up the ship!"
Movies constitute a special case. I think that every U.S. citizen who has attained majority knows by now that Humphrey Bogart did not say, "Play it again, Sam," to Dooley Wilson out of nostalgia over his break-up with Lauren Bacall, referring to "As Time Goes By," which was written for Casablanca (wrong an 18 counts). But how many people know that it was Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce who were responsible for, "Elementary, my dear Watson," a phrase that appears nowhere in The Sacred Writings? Does anybody ant there know that it was not until his portrayal by Ronald Coleman that Sidney Carton intoned in that damn nasal tone of his, "It is a far, far better thing that I do," et cetera? Read your Dickens. The list is endless.Quite a lot of cur folkloristic literature -- including an awful lot of the things you think you know - was written by self-appointed press agents. The pity is that their principals never got to collect the royalties.
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