The Apocryphal Twain: “Politicians are like diapers.”

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.

Mark Twain did not hold politicians in high esteem. He was particularly spiteful towards the legislative branch in novels like The Gilded Age (1873) and short stories like “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868). “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress,” he wrote in Puddn’head Wilson (1894). In “What is Man?” (1906) he speculated that “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” Given the viciousness of his real attacks on elected officials, spanning across his whole career, it is probably no surprise that the corpus of Twain apocrypha includes many pot-shots at politicians.

On the eve of what is anticipated to be one of the highest-turnout midterm elections in US history, one such aphorism is proving particularly popular:

While he might have appreciated the sentiment, it is pretty easy to determine that this is not something Twain actually said. Not only does the quote fail to appear in his published works, nor in his many accessible private writings, I can’t even find an instance of Twain using the term diaper, except in a joke about the “Royal Diaperer” in The Prince & The Pauper (1891). That he would only invoke the term in a novel which is, in part, a send-up of British aristocracy, is telling. The word diaper was not part of the common parlance of America during most of Twain’s life. As the following Google ngram shows, diaper did not supplant the nappy (or napkin) in American vocabulary until late in the 19th century, and did not achieve anything rivaling its widespread contemporary usage until the second half of the 20th.

Rather than Twain, the man most responsible for the popularity the aphorism now enjoys in probably Robin Williams. In the film Man of the Year (2006), Williams’s character utters the lines, “Remember this ladies and gentleman: It’s an old phrase, basically anonymous, politicians are a lot like diapers, they should be changed frequently, and for the same reasons. Keep that in mind the next time you vote.”

This speech not only appears near the climax of the film, but also figured prominently in the publicity campaign surrounding the film’s release in the Fall of 2006. Predictably, the quote started appearing regularly on social media soon thereafter. However, I can find no instance of its being attributed to Twain until two years later, first in a series of tweets by Dr. Larisa Varenkova. It was retweeted several times, then bounced around social media in relative obscurity until, in September of that year, Mike Hanes, a motivational speaker with tens of thousands of followers, took it upon himself to start tweeting it multiple times every day from two separate accounts. This continued for several months, and probably marks the point after which the misattribution to Twain became widely accepted.

But who is actually responsible for this nugget of bawdy political wit?

It seems likely that Barry Levinson, the screenwriter for Man of the Year, got it from Paul Harvey. Williams’s character is populist political commentator with folksy charm, which is also an accurate description of Harvey, whose syndicated “The Rest of the Story” was a staple of ABC Radio for more than half a century. Obituaries for Harvey in the New York Times and Forbes following his death in 2009 give him credit for a very similar aphorism targeting “occupants of the White House” and it also appears in newspaper accounts of his public appearances from the 1990s.

But Harvey himself, in a syndicated editorial from June 1994, credits the exact quote – “Politicians, like diapers, should be changed often. And for the same reasons.” – to Tom Blair, a longtime columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Harvey likely got this attribution from a 1993 issue of Reader’s Digest in which the aphorism was excerpted with Blair’s byline.

But, when one tracks down the article which Reader’s Digest quoted from, one discovers that Blair himself was quoting a local candidate on the Libertarian ticket. John Wallner used the line repeatedly during his unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in 1992, and thus it found its way into several major papers, including the Los Angeles Times, which dubbed it “the best line in a losing cause.”

One can’t help wondering whether Wallner would’ve still endorsed this catchphrase had he won.

Be kind to each other this Election Day…if not to your Congressmen.

The Apocryphal Twain: Tom Wolfe Memorial Edition

Mark Twain is frequently treated as a precursor to the New Journalists who rose to prominence in midcentury America, writers like Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday. Like many of them, Twain began his career as a conventional reporter (insofar as there was any such convention in the 1860s) and developed a habit of inserting himself into his stories, so much so that his carefully constructed persona – cynical, self-assured, and, at times, comically inept – became as integral to his accounts as the places, persons, and events he was assigned to cover.

Wolfe, who coined the term New Journalism and is generally treated as one of the genre’s foremost innovators, began wearing white three-piece suits when he joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, a practice he would continue for the rest of his life. He claimed it was not an intentional homage to Twain, that they simply shared a fondness for a particular brand of southern elegance, but Wolfe clearly recognized that he was inviting comparisons with Twain, and this did not bother him.

Wolfe was hardly alone amongst the New Journalists in making frequent and loaded references to Twain’s life and work. They all shared Twain’s tendency to blur the line between journalistic liberty and outright fabulism. But Wolfe, perhaps because he spent so many years living in Twain’s aesthetic shadow, was particularly prone to inventing anecdotes about his idol.

At a lecture sponsored by the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford in 2003, he repeatedly refers to Twain’s “holy trinity” of “God, money, and the spirit of money, which is known as stocks.” Wolfe was perhaps merely misremembering the deeply satirical lines from Twain’s “Revised Catechism” – “Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock – father, son, and the ghost of the same – three persons in one: these are the true and only God, might and supreme” – which he proclaims should be spoken in honor of the prophet, Boss Tweed, and a series of Gilded Age capitalist saints, including Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Wolfe can perhaps be forgiven for treating Twain’s celebration of “the holy spirit of golden money” (something else Twain never said) as sincere, given that it supports his larger theme of admiration for Twain’s ambitiousness and his commitment to what Wolfe calls “the Aristophanic oath”: “First, entertain.” To entertain, Wolfe defines as “to make a person pass the time pleasantly with no physical effort whatsoever.” He implores the audience to look up this definition in Webster’s Dictionary. (I have consulted over a dozen editions and found no such phrase.)

Wolfe goes on to quote Twain as having said, “There is nothing that assures your spiritual standing more securely than the sanctified odor of cash.” While one can certainly imagine circumstances in which Twain might have expressed such a sentiment, the admirable phrase – “the sanctified odor of cash” – not only appears nowhere in Twain’s sizable corpus, but, so far as I can tell, has never appeared anywhere in print. It is a small tragedy that by misattributing these words to Twain, Wolfe was prevented from publishing them himself.

Wolfe returns repeatedly to the theme of Twain’s self-conscious celebrity, another obvious resonance with New Journalism. He resuscitated this anecdote for the New York Times seven years later:

England gawked. Europe gawked. The whole globe gawked, even India. It has been recorded that Twain once returned from India and said to a friend, eyes wide, mandibles agape, soul in a state of utterly sincere self-awe: “In India, they know only three things about America…Wall Street…the Statue of Liberty…and Mark Twain!”

Where this “has been recorded” eludes me. Richard Zacks recently dedicated nearly a hundred pages to Twain’s tour of India in Chasing The Last Laugh (2016). Numerous other scholars, notably Seema Sharma and Keshav Mutalik, have written at length on the subject without unearthing this charming and, in Zacks case, highly relevant anecdote. What Zacks says, to the contrary, is that “India didn’t discover Twain; Twain discovered India.” The author performed to several sold-out crowds of primarily British colonists and sold a small stock of books on the back of his tour, but was moderately disappointed to find that “the various Indian-language papers would largely ignore him” and “almost no one would recognize him in the streets.”

The largely invented account Wolfe forwarded of his idol is revealing. Wolfe is so seduced by Twain’s place as “the most famous American writer of all time,” he is induced to further exaggerate that fame. What Wolfe likes most about Twain is his sales. In his 2003 talk, Wolfe compliments Twain on Huckleberry Finn, not for its pathbreaking novelistic techniques or its progressive politics, but because the author recognizes, decades before marketing teams would, that sequels sell!

In essays like “Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast” (1989) and “The Three Stooges” (2000), Wolfe decried what he perceived as an abandonment of populist realism by his most critically-acclaimed contemporaries, including John Irving, Philip Roth, and John Updike. In the latter essay, he expressly mocked the poor sales of these literati.

Wolfe’s appropriation of the white suit – representative of Twain’s precocious talent for personal branding – reveals the nature of Wolfe’s appreciation for Twain. He is not envious of Twain’s incisive social commentary, his innovative wit, or his proto-metafictionist techniques, though Wolfe does emulate these traits, but rather, in awe that “Twain had actually lived, in the flesh, as that heroic figure every American writer…dreams of being: Big Spender from the East.”

The renowned excoriations of the opulence and ostentation in Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) apparently do not apply equally to Twain (or Wolfe). In every commentary he makes about Twain, he refers to the author’s gaudy Hartford home, “a Victorian palace whose many turrets were over the top, even for the Gilded Age.” Wolfe, who struggles to accurately recount the plot of Twain’s most-famous and influential novel, has perfect recall for numerous details about the woodworking, the furnishings, and the servants in the Clemens massive mansion. He gleefully imagines what it would be like to have “this heavenly vision of worldly success be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.”

One is reminded of a line from The American Claimant (1892):

“I’m opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position…I would leave the funeral of my dearest enemy to go and assume its burdens and responsibilities.”

The Apocryphal Twain: “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.”

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.

In the era of #fakenews, it’s not surprising that this quote is rising the ranks of social media fodder. To Denzel’s credit, he did not offer an attribution, though many who reported on his statements did…to his point. This aphorism, adaptable to so many polemical circumstances, demonstrates, once again, how eager we are to appropriate Twain to our causes:

https://twitter.com/marinprice/status/882676605583335424

As the always dependable Garson O”Toole has pointed out, there’s no evidence Twain ever said anything of the sort. The earliest attributions of the quote to his name do not appear until 1998 or later, and these are hardly from reliable sources. O’Toole finds versions of this sentiment in the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Orville Hubbard. He also notes that Evra Taft Benson, who would become President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, told a congregation at Brigham Young University in 1979,

“The less newspapers have to say of value and of truth, the more pages they seem to take to say it. Usually a few minutes is more than sufficient to read a paper. One must select wisely a source of news; otherwise it would be better to be uninformed than misinformed.”

Given the ongoing theme of mistrust in mass media within this sermon and Benson’s other writings, it’s likely he had outsized influence on the popularization of the logic to which was added a rhetorical flare befitting Twain.

It is also possible that Benson was borrowing, ironically, from a newspaper columnist. A few year earlier, the widely-syndicated Tom Anderson had written  a spirited anti-intellectual rant against “eggheads,” speculating that it was “better to be uninformed than misinformed.”

For reasons that remain unclear, the attribution to Twain became common practice in 2007. Over the next couple years, the aphorism was repeatedly used as a crutch for lazy columnists. Thus emerges a meta-irony which Twain would undoubtedly have appreciated: newspaper writers writing in newspapers about the unreliability of newspaper writing and citing an unreliable source to testify to that unreliability.

Twain Misquote Misinformed 3Twain Misquote Misinformed 3 · Tue, Aug 14, 2007 – Page 27 · The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois) · Newspapers.com

Twain Misquote Misinformed 2Twain Misquote Misinformed 2 · Sun, Nov 4, 2007 – 26 · The Town Talk (Alexandria, Louisiana) · Newspapers.com

Twain Misquote MisinformedTwain Misquote Misinformed · Sun, Oct 18, 2009 – Page B004 · The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, New Mexico) · Newspapers.com

The aphorism made the leap to social media soon thereafter:

Twain was, undeniably, quick to make a joke at the expense of fellow journalists. He pokes fun at the unreliability of the press more or less continuously throughout his career (see, for instance, “How I Edited an Agricultural Paper” [1870]). But, from his exposes of San Francisco police in 1864 to the posthumously published The Mysterious Stranger, the printing press is always associated with an ability to strike fear in the hearts of the powerful. Though he was critical of both institutions, Twain would undoubtedly agree with Jefferson, who wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have government without newspapers or newspapers without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

The Apocryphal Twain: “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.”

As we near the end of fall term, the days get shorter, the mornings get colder, and students, teachers, and parents alike get increasingly agitated. Under such conditions, the problems of our schools, real and imagined, are magnified and exaggerated. November is a ripe season for anti-intellectualism and dozens of Tweeters turn every day to one of the most enduring apocryphal aphorisms of America’s leading iconoclast:

Twain recognized that educational attainment was neither an exclusive product of schools, nor guaranteed by them, but he is not the source of this tired maxim. As Garson O’Toole has shown, one of Twain’s contemporaries and fellow novelists, Grant Allen, inflicted this bit of self-satisfied wit upon his readers half a dozen times, starting more than a decade before it was ever attributed to Twain.

Allen, by the way, earned a degree from Oxford and started his career as a professor. How convenient it is for holders of post-graduate degrees to glorify the school of hard knocks.

Twain, who would receive honorary degrees from Oxford and Yale despite having no formal education beyond primary school, was characteristically self-effacing and cynical about “the self-taught man” who “seldom knows anything accurately” and “does not know a tenth of as much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers.” He cautioned that the man who bragged of his lack of formal education was merely “fooling other thoughtless people into going and doing the same as he himself has done.” These words we can confidently attribute to Twain, as they were part of the posthumously published essay “Taming the Bicycle,” written in 1884.

While there is little to add to Dr. O’Toole’s attribution, I do think it is interesting to note that this aphorism seems to have fallen almost entirely out of circulation during the first half of the 20th century. I found only two, very obscure, invocations of it between 1907 and 1957. Then, in April of ’57 it was part of a profile of Dr. Charles Crampton of Delphi, Indiana. Crampton must have been something of a local celebrity, as the Journal & Courier profile by Joan Burke, who attributed the quote to the good doctor himself, was syndicated to half a dozen other newspapers in the northern half of the state. Soon thereafter, the quote began popping up with greater frequency, always attributed to Twain, most notably finding its way into a dispatch from the nationally syndicated columnist, L. M. Boyd, in 1972.

Given its anti-intellectual undertones it is probably no surprise that the maxim was embraced early and often by social media influencers, making its first appearance on Twitter in August of 2007 and tens of thousands of times since. Over the course of the last decade it has been correctly attributed to Grant Allen 11 times.

The Apocryphal Twain: Golf is a good walk spoiled.

Malcolm Gladwell began the second season of his Revisionist History podcast with an episode about the public subsidization of expensive private golf clubs. He called the episode “A Good Walk Spoiled,” but wisely refrained from attributing that now ubiquitous phrase to any particular source. Many have not shown the same restraint.

Unlike many of the aphorisms which we’ve traced in these pages, the substance of this quip was definitely in circulation during Twain’s lifetime, as this passage from Arthur Myers’s Lawn Tennis At Home & Abroad (1903) evidences:

Garson O’Toole of QuoteInvestigator.com has unearthed several other variations on the joke which appeared around the same time. O’Toole credits William Gladstone with the particular “good walk spoiled” phrasing around which the aphorism has since codified. However, Garson draws Gladstone’s claim from an anecdote which circulated in 1924, part of the publicity for Frederick E. Smith’s America Revisited (1924)

Found on Newspapers.com

There have been occasions when Gladstone’s wit and Twain’s might potentially be confused:

Found on Newspapers.com

However, more than ten years before this quote appeared in Smith’s memoir, it had circulated in much the same language as part of a Liverpool Post clipping that appeared in papers throughout the U.S. In this brief collection of golf-related wit, the “good walk spoiled” aphorism is treated as an already tired cliche.

While I still think it unwise to attribute “Golf is a good walk spoiled” to Twain, who was not alleged to have said it until, as O’Toole notes, a Saturday Evening Post story in 1948, Gladstone is also a specious source.

Perhaps the observation that the tedium of golf exceeds that of all other forms of exercise truly is common sense.

Enjoy your weekend!

The Apocryphal Twain: “Kindness is language the deaf can hear.”

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.

“Kindness is language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – The Apocryphal Twain

The Occam’s Razor of Twain attribution is: 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 it, 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.” Thus, it struck me as unlikely that Twain had such pithy things to say about kindness when this quote began circulating in 2009.

It would appear the popularity of this quotation, which is tweeted dozens of times everyday, as well as the widespread acceptance of its attribution, can be traced to a single individual. “Brad D.” introduced the aphorism to Twitter in January 2008 and has tweeted it 124 times since.

A year into this barrage, he hooked his first influencer: Allison Holker, a veteran dancer from High School Musical who was then appearing as an “All-Star” on  So You Think You Can Dance and would join the Dancing with the Stars cast a few years later. 

Embraced thereafter by the usual community of quote bots, life coaches, and motivational speakers, many of whom have tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers, the aphorism was now in daily circulation. Roughly two weeks later it would be tweeted from the accounts of The Trevor Project, The NOH8 Campaign and its founder, celebrity photography Adam Bouska. These LGBT outreach organizations have a combined following in the millions, including many public figures.

In the ensuing years, the quote has remained a staple of social media inspiration and activism. However, its misattribution pre-dates its digital perpetuation. It was credited to Twain in a series of self-help books from the 1990s, the first of which, A Compendium of Caring Thought, was produced by The Caring Institute, a non-profit founded by a prominent philanthropist of the elderly and disabled, Val J. Halamandaris.

Only one of these books, Meladee McCarty’s Daily Journal of Kindness (1996), actually got the attribution right. The aphorism originates from Christian Nestell Bovee. In his Thoughts, Feelings, & Fancies (1857), Bovee wrote “Kindness is a language the dumb can speak and the deaf can hear and understand.” With phrasing slightly altered it appeared again in the revised and expanded Intuitions & Summaries of Thought (1862):

Bovee was a minor Transcendentalist who operated at the fringes of American literary culture for most of the 19th century, dying in 1904 at the age of 84, an incredible endurance for the time. He published his earliest aphorisms in the American Review during the same years Edgar Allen Poe was placing several of his most famous works with the magazine. He was an occasional participant in the Saturday Club which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He contributed to William Dean Howell’s Atlantic Monthly and later, as a publisher of his own magazine, supported several journalists, like Brander Matthews, who went on to become notable muckrakers and naturalists.

Like Twain, his views were generally progressive for his time, with little patience for religion – “Altogether too much thought is give to the next world. One world at a time ought to be sufficient for us.” – and less for politics – “The great number of offices, and the facilities for acquiring them, in a democratic state, induce at intervals an indecent scramble for offices, from which the men of superior worth, after a season, are apt to retire in disgust, leaving the field to be occupied by the less worthy and the more importunate.” But, unlike Twain, Bovee believed “only the optimist looks wisely on life.” “A genial optimist who praises much scatters flowers in our way,” he wrote, “A pleasant illusion is better than a harsh reality.”

The Apocryphal Twain: “When the rich rob the poor, it’s called business.”

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.

“When the rich rob the poor, it’s called business. When the poor fight back, it’s called violence.” – The Apocryphal Twain

There are, of course, many things we wish Mark Twain would’ve said. And this aphorism, with its elegant structure, and its biting cynicism certainly sounds like Twain, particularly early polemics like “Open Letter to Commodore Vanderbilt” (1869) and The Gilded Age (1873). It is not terribly difficult to find instances of Twain skewering the rich, even after he counted himself one of them. As late as 1906, he recast the opening lines of his “Revised Catechism” (1871) as “the gospel left behind by Jay Gould,” the gist of which was, “Get money. Dishonestly if you can, honestly if you must. But, by any means, get money.” This witticism, clearly one of Twain’s favorites, was a poetic inversion of something Judge Frederick Loew said in 1868.

But I digress.

The above aphorism seems so apt to contemporary political debates because it came from them. It was not associated with Twain until October of last year. The first specious attribution I tracked down was made on the Facebook page for The Birds of Paradise, an independent film about “psychic hipsters” involved in Occupy Wall Street.
facebook-apocryphal

The film, according to IMDB, is still in pre-production, but its subject provides insight into the quote’s true origin. I will not speculate as to a single, reliable source, but it is apparent that it began circulating on social media in the weeks just before the Occupy protests, which began on September 17, 2011. The earliest iteration I found was this one (on Twitter):

As the protests persisted, the slogan would appear on signs and, on at least one occasion, be chanted by demonstrators:

apocryphal-2

It would be picked up by sympathizers around the world, attributed to Priyanka Ghandi and Drake, among others, but, for the next four years, never to Twain.

This quote deserves to have its anonymity preserved. As a genuinely crowdsourced piece of collective wisdom, rather than just another sharp jab from America’s favorite satirist, it speaks much more directly to the inequality and injustice it describes, as well as the idealism of the Occupy movement.

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

The Apocryphal Twain: “Things we know that just ain’t so.”

Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning film The Big Short opens with the above epigraph.

Seems appropriate enough, for a cautionary tale about financial bubbles inflated by mass delusion. The film, like the Michael Lewis book upon which it is based, focuses with sometimes queasy admiration on the handful of financiers who bet against the conventional wisdom of the Greenspan era: that U.S. housing prices would rise in perpetuity. The epigraph describes what, in The Alchemy of Finance, George Soros calls a “fertile fallacy,” a principle of investment regarded as scientifically irrefutable because over a short term it has proven conveniently enriching.

Twain is a natural mouthpiece for such a sentiment, considering his deep familiarity with financial crises, his own capacity for what John Kenneth Galbraith calls “speculative euphoria,” and his tendency to admire, and aspire to, contrarian truth. McKay, who has evolved from workmanlike director of Will Ferrell’s slapstick bromances into incisive satirist of the 2008 subprime crisis, no doubt feels a certain kinship with the penny paper fabulist who became America’s Shakespeare. The pregnant pause before Twain’s name appears beneath the quotation suggests a director who fully appreciates the gravitas the author brings to the proceedings.

There’s only one problem with the epigraph. Twain never said it.

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?” Cataloguing our attempts to dutifully answer, The Apocryphal Twain will be a regular feature on MarkTwainStudies.org. In this space, I will, whenever possible, track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

In his Quote Verifier, Ralph Keynes notes that some variation of the “just ain’t so” quip has been attributed not only to Twain, but also Yogi Berra, Eubie Blake, Frank “Kin” Hubbard, Charles Kettering, Will Rogers, and Artemus Ward. Keynes speculates that several of them may have borrowed the punchline from another 19th-century American humorist, Josh Billings. Among the “affurisms” listed in the 1886 edition of Billings’s complete work is the one-liner, “I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.”

Keynes also notes that Vice President Al Gore frequently attributed the quote to Twain, most famously in the Oscar-winning documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore started using the line in public appearances at least as early as 1994. It seems likely he is disproportionately responsible for perpetuating the myth of Twain’s authorship. My search yielded only one occasion prior to 1994 when the line was attributed to Twain, in an obscure government report on medical liability. It is not inconceivable that the legendarily wonkish Gore, who was a senator when the report was commissioned, actually read it and extracted this little tidbit he could stump on.

Gore was not the first politician to recognize the aphorism’s sloganeering potential. Former Vice President Walter Mondale used it repeatedly during his 1984 presidential campaign. One of the highlights of the first debate was when Mondale responded to President Ronald Reagan’s denial that his administration was dismantling welfare by saying, “Well, I guess I’m reminded a little bit of what Will Rogers once said about Herbert Hoover. He said, ‘It’s not what he doesn’t know that bothers me, it’s what he knows for sure that just ain’t so.”

New York Times fact-checkers could not confirm the Rogers/Hoover anecdote. They speculated the quote actually came from Billings, Hubbard, or Ward. It seems likely that variations on this punchline were passed around the American humor circuit during the late 19th and early 20th century. Twain obviously belonged to this community, but there is no substantive evidence he created this wisecrack, or stole it.

The spike in attributions to Twain in the late 1990s was also aided by Joe Schwarcz, the Canadian public intellectual who often used the quote in his efforts to debunk medical myths and promote science education.

From 1994 to 2006, it was increasingly common for Twain, never associated with the quip prior to 1991, to be cited as its source, but Rogers and Yogi Berra were still mentioned with some regularity. After An Inconvenient Truth became one of the most successful documentaries in cinema history, grossing $50 Million worldwide and enflaming the climate change debate, Gore’s promotion of Twain’s illegitimate claim became widely accepted. In the last decade more than fifty newspapers, including several outside the U.S., have attributed the quote to Twain without qualification, as have a dozen law reviews, a handful of academic journals, and, of course, hundreds of websites.

This apocryphal aphorism has proven itself a convenient untruth.