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'Hemingway Didn't Say That' (And Neither Did Twain Or Kafka)

Apr 4, 2017
Originally published on April 5, 2017 1:35 pm

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee marked Abraham Lincoln's birthday by sharing a charming, if banal, aphorism attributed to Lincoln: "In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years."

The problem is there's no evidence Lincoln ever wrote or said it, which critics on Twitter were only too delighted to point out. The RNC took down the tweet, but all that trouble could have been avoided if they'd first checked in with Garson O'Toole. That's the pen name of a man who has tracked down the true origins of hundreds of quotes on his website, Quote Investigator.

O'Toole has collected some of those investigations into a new book called Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations. He says, "It's a lot of fun to uncover these hidden histories, and I'm also very glad when I get to give credit to the person who actually said it."


Interview Highlights

On why quotes often get wrongly attributed to Mark Twain

Mark Twain is known for having a fantastic sense of humor, and if you preface a quotation by saying it's from Twain, then people are prepared to laugh at it, to think that it's wonderful. Many quotations, they're anonymous or from lesser-known comedians reassigned to Twain. There might be a joke and somebody would say it's Twain-like and then the next person will say, "No, actually, it's from Twain."

On the origin of the quote "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt," which has been wrongly attributed to both to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain

The earliest evidence that I was able to find was a 1907 book by Maurice Switzer. And it seems to contain a lot of original material and it includes the statement "It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it." So it's slightly different phrasing, but I believe that is what evolved to generate the modern common version.

On the quote by author Anne Rice that even she mistakenly attributed to Franz Kafka

"Don't bend; don't water it down; don't try to make it logical; don't edit your own soul according to the fashion." ... It was in an introduction to a collection of stories by Franz Kafka, and she was talking about how she'd been inspired by him. It was her perception of the way Kafka thought when he was writing his stories, but somebody reading that introduction thought that it must have been Kafka that said this instead of Anne Rice and so it started being distributed in that way.

I got an email from an individual who said that on Facebook Anne Rice had posted this quotation and she had attributed it to Kafka. And so that was enormously confusing to me because I thought that if anyone would be able to recognize that quotation, it would be the person who created it. So I sent a Facebook message to Anne Rice; she replied very quickly and said she would look into it to try to find out who actually created it. And then she came back with another reply saying that she'd discovered that in fact it was her words and that she had written it in this introduction, and as evidence of that she gave me a URL that pointed to my website. ... And it's understandable: She's written a large number of words and she'd written this more than a decade in the past.

On why he feels this work is important

Many of these quotations are cultural landmarks. They affect the way we think about, say, environmentalism. Let me find this quote: "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children." That's been attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson; it's considered a Native American proverb; an Amish saying. But the earliest evidence I found: There's an activist named Wendell Berry and he was discussing good stewardship of the environment ... and I think he deserves credit for this kind of a cultural landmark.

Editor Melissa Gray and digital producer Nicole Cohen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

There are so many famous sayings, so many quotes from famous people and so many that are just plain wrong, like this one.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.

SIEGEL: That is not a Chinese proverb.

MCEVERS: It does not belong to Maya Angelou, even though it did appear on a U.S. postage stamp with her.

SIEGEL: And it is not the coinage of former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz.

MCEVERS: Though you probably could have guessed that.

SIEGEL: No. A bird doesn't sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song belongs to Joan Walsh Anglund.

MCEVERS: Author of children's books, and one of the many people who don't get the credit they deserve for their perfectly crystallized thoughts. Until now.

GARSON O'TOOLE: There's so many of these quotations that have been transformed and evolved and been reassigned from one person to another.

SIEGEL: Garson O'Toole - that's his pen name - has dedicated himself to writing these literary wrongs on his website, Quote Investigator. He's also written a new book called "Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations."

MCEVERS: And here's another one that you or someone you know might have unwittingly messed up.

O'TOOLE: Don't bend. Don't water it down. Don't try to make it logical. Don't edit your own soul according to the fashion.

MCEVERS: It's Kafka-esque. Well, a lot of people think it is writing advice from Franz Kafka but it's really about Kafka.

SIEGEL: It's from another writer, Anne Rice, who included it in a foreword to a 1995 collection of Kafka's work.

MCEVERS: And how does this get mixed up? It's like a game of telephone.

SIEGEL: Rice writes about Kafka.

MCEVERS: Someone mistakenly repeats her writing as Kafka's.

SIEGEL: For years, this mistake bounces around on social media.

MCEVERS: And then Anne Rice herself, not recognizing her own work, posts the quote on her own Facebook page and attributes it to Kafka.

O'TOOLE: And so that was enormously confusing to me because I thought if anyone would be able to recognize that quotation, it would be the person who created it.

SIEGEL: Not so, it turns out. Such is the potency of today's fake quote.

MCEVERS: Garson O'Toole sent Rice a message, and she corrected the mistake in a follow-up post.

SIEGEL: Now, O'Toole says there are a couple of patterns in the way false quotations mutate. There are people who have reputations for saying smart or funny things, so it's easy to assign other quotes to them.

MCEVERS: Like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Marilyn Monroe, Yogi Berra or Mark Twain.

O'TOOLE: There might be a joke, and somebody would say it's Twain-like. And then the next person will say no, actually it's from Twain.

SIEGEL: And then there are quotations that are fake from the get-go.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "POWDER")

JEFF GOLDBLUM: (As Donald Ripley) It's become appalling clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.

SEAN PATRICK FLANERY: (As Jeremy Reed) Albert Einstein.

MCEVERS: I heard it in a movie, it must be a thing. Hollywood wouldn't have misled us.

SIEGEL: Ah, but they would. That Einstein quote is an invention of screenwriter Victor Salva from the 1995 movie "Powder."

MCEVERS: He had Jeff Goldblum's character say that, Einstein never did. But once it's out there posted underneath a picture of Einstein, good luck taking it back.

SIEGEL: But Garson O'Toole is trying. He enjoys poring through the histories of these famous expressions. And...

O'TOOLE: I'm also very glad when I get to give credit to the person who actually said it instead of some later, better-known person.

SIEGEL: So before you quote, remember this wisdom that's not from Mark Twain.

MCEVERS: (Laughter).

SIEGEL: A lie can get halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.

MCEVERS: And then consult the site Quote Investigator or Garson O'Toole's new book, "Hemingway Didn't Say That."

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIFE DAWG SONG, "THOUGHT U WUZ NICE - INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.