The Apocryphal Twain: “The two most important days of your life…”


There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why. – The Apocryphal Twain

This is currently the most viral piece of Twain apocrypha. In just the hour prior to this writing, the quote appeared in seven independent Facebook posts. It has been tweeted by over 900 separate accounts, reaching over 5.2 million users, in the past twelve days.* Antoine Fuqua made it the epitaph to his 2014 action film, The Equalizer, starring Denzel Washington, which grossed nearly $200 Million worldwide. Perhaps appropriately, in a year which has officially been deemed post-truth, the most frequently encountered example of Twain’s notorious wit is something he most certainly never said.

The Occam’s Razor of Twain attribution is, as follows: If the aphorism in question indicates a sentimental, nostalgic, or otherwise optimistic attitude towards humanity, it probably didn’t come from Twain. As Louis Budd put is, Twain indulged a “lifelong suspicion that the mass of mankind is venal, doltish, feckless, and tyrannical, that the damn fools make up a majority anywhere.”

The “two most important days” quotation clearly fails this test. It was invented and popularized by a cottage industry of self-help books and motivational speakers many decades after Twain’s death. Twain would’ve viewed this industry as representative, at best, of doltish naïveté and, more likely, as cynical charlatanism. The corporate, pseudo-psychiatric, and evangelical “life coaches” the aphorism has been repeatedly attributed to include Don Boyer, Les Brown, Kyrbyjon Caldwell, Dave Martin, John C. Maxwell, Danny McDaniel, J. Sewell Perkins, Bob Proctor, Felicia Shaw, Dianne Wilson, David Wood, and Darlene Zschech. It was also, conspicuously, cited by two celebrated faces of the Hurricane Katrina recovery. Lt. Gen. Russel Honore attributed it to his army chaplain, while Red Cross Chairwoman Bonnie McElveen-Hunter credited it to the prominent Presbyterian pastor turned “randy reverend,” Dr. Rev. Thomas K. Tewell.

The aphorism most likely has an ecclesiastical origin (making its association with Twain all the more ironic). The generally dependable Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole, traced a permutation of this aphorism to Ernest T. Campbell, Minister of the Riverside Church in New York City, who gave the relevant sermon in 1970 and published it as “Give Ye Them To Eat” in 1973. Unfortunately, I have been unable to consult this source myself, though I have no reason to doubt Dr. O’Toole. The earliest source my own search yields is the short book, A Woman & Her Self-Esteem, published by the Mormon devotional writer, Anita Canfield, in 1985.

Ask yourself a most profound question: “What are the two most important days in my life?” THE DAY YOU WERE BORN and THE DAY YOU REALIZE WHY YOU WERE BORN! And why were you born? You were born to bless the lives of others. You were born to make a contribution.

I would venture to speculate that this passage, with it typographical and syntactical idiosyncrasies, is unlikely to have been directly or consciously “borrowed” from another writer, though the sentiment may well have been part of the Christian oral tradition in the late 20th century. For a variety of obvious reasons, the long-dead author of The Mysterious Stranger was neither party to this tradition, nor likely to be celebrated by it.

Regardless of origin or attribution, the circulation of this aphorism was relatively limited until well into the 21st century. As best I can trace, that changed at 3:10 AM on February 14th, 2011, when the stand-up comedian, syndicated radio personality, and game-show host Steve Harvey tweeted:

Harvey is the first in a series of social media “influencers” who brought the quote, and then its specious association with Twain, into mass circulation. To this day, Harvey is semi-regularly cited as the original source of the quotation. Prior to his tweet, the aphorism had been tweeted only a few dozen times (according to Twitter’s own search engine) since the company’s launch in 2006. On the rare occasion attribution was offered it was always to one of the motivational speakers cited above, never to Twain.

The aphorism’s viral perpetuation, aided by Harvey, happened more or less simultaneously with its arbitrary association with Twain, although the two trends would not coalesce for several months. The first attributions of the quote to Twain on Facebook and Twitter appeared within days of Harvey’s tweet. The earliest (remaining) iteration on Twitter came from Phil Goldsberry, currently pastor of the Christ Life Church in Arizona:

This misattribution found, however, little initial support. Over the next six month, only eighteen Twitter users circulated the aphorism with Twain’s name attached, a miniscule number compared to what would soon follow.

The viral spread of social media information, fictional and otherwise, depends heavily on so-called influencers, accounts with noteworthy “reach” – large numbers of friends, followers, and avid readers. The forensic account of social media viruses generally runs through a series of increasingly prominent influencers. Such is evidently the case here.

We might call DJ Mo Twister the patient zero of this apocryphal aphorism. Mo, the Filapino-American host of “Good Times With Mo” on Magic 88.9 FM in Mandaluyong City tweeted in late August of 2011,

In the parlance of Twitter, this tweet received a modest, but not insubstantial 318 “retweets” and 109 “likes.” More importantly, Mr. Twister, resuscitated the misattribution which was rapidly fading into obscurity. For three consecutive months, nobody on Twitter had associated this phrase with Mark Twain. Over the next month, the phrase and its apocryphal origin would be tweeted by 195 independent accounts. The slow spread during the six weeks following Twister’s tweet was followed by a contagious surge in late October, thanks to three new influencers, each more prominent than the next. At 7:56 AM on October 24th, recording artist and 2007 American Idol winner, Jordin Sparks, tweeted,

Exactly two hours later, the 31-year-old actor best known as the teenage star of the ABC sitcom Boy Meets World, did the same,

On the morning of October 31st, a self-described “quotes queen,” took it upon herself to tweet this tidbit of received wisdom at a set of fifty celebrities, including actors Jared Leto and Paul Walker, singers Nelly Furtado and Rihanna, the comedian Dane Cook, Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney, the bands Coldplay and One Republic, and a hip-hop legend, Rev Run.

The legendary co-founder of Run-D.M.C., whose account boasts nearly 4.5 Million followers, took the bait, Eight hours later, he wrote,

And, a few weeks later, reiterated,

In total, Rev Run’s two tweets would be retweeted over 6,500 times. As recently as July, not a single Twitter user had associated this quotation with Mark Twain. In November, over 1800 independent accounts would post some version of the misattribution. The apocryphal aphorism had no doubt reached tens of millions of Twitter users by this time, and migrated to other social media platforms and across the web. But my account of its saturation would not be complete without one additional influencer.

 

 

 

 

*Based on tracking from Tweetchup and Tweet Archivist