The Apocryphal Twain: “If voting made any difference, they wouldn’t let us do 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 has 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 is a favorite source of political cynicism, and justifiably so. With alleged “irregularities” in recent Democratic primaries and renewed concern about potential foreign interference in the 2020 election cycle, the following apocryphal aphorism has again been making the rounds.

QuoteFancy offers nineteen variations of the above meme for users to post to their pages and accounts, all claiming Twain as the source.

The use of this quote surges during election season. Iterations of it were tweeted well over a hundred times in the week following the Iowa caucus, most often crediting Mark Twain. And while proper attribution predictably eludes the usual cast of partisan pundits, motivational speakers, and other social media influencers, it has also eluded sources one might expect to know better. The following tweet appeared on Election Day 2016:

Twain was not cynical about elections because he believed they couldn’t make a difference, but because he believed his countrymen failed to appreciate the difference they could make.

Troublingly, versions of Twain’s most famous defense of enfranchisement have appeared only 22 times in the history of Twitter. His apocryphal degradation of voting often gets retweeted that many times in a single day.

Several fact-checking services have already debunked the attribution to Twain, notably Snopes and the Australian Associated Press (with impeccable sourcing, by the way). So I will move quickly to the more difficult questions. Where did this aphorism actually come from? How did it get wrongly attributed to Twain? And why is the misattribution so pervasive?

The Twain attribution, as usual, appears to be a product of the social media era. While the aphorism itself circulated widely during the late 20th century, I found no instance of it being associated with Twain prior to this relatively innocuous tweet on Election Day 2008:

The misattribution resurfaced only two dozen times over the next eleven months, rarely retweeted, until an unlikely trio of accounts started recycling it daily in October of 2009: a self-described “radical right-wing super villain,” “a mild-mannered…crossword puzzler;” and a “tenor singer.”

Commitment to this type of repetitive barrage has proven a reliable way of amplifying misinformation on Twitter. It is one way accounts with relatively small followings can have outsized influence. The aphorism spread more widely in 2010, picked up by users with increasingly large followings, though no verified user took the bait until 2012:

It has since become a staple on Twitter, recycled ceaselessly, and sometimes by accounts with several million followers.

So, if Twitter was the vehicle for misattributing the quote to Mark Twain, where did it actually originate? One presumed source, not quite as popular as Twain, is Emma Goldman.

But it turns out the attribution to Goldman is just as specious. Like Twain, she died many decades before any version of this aphorism was attributed to her and it is not present in her many published writings and recorded speeches. That said, Goldman’s anarchist politics do seem to conform with later invocations of the quote.

Charles Umney, in his Class Matters (2018), calls it “an old anarchist slogan, frequently found as lamp-post graffiti in university cities.” Umney’s claim is corroborated by several sources. Journalists Harry Goldman, Matt Ridley, and Patrick Traub all reported seeing the slogan tagged on bridges, buildings, and other graffiti sites in Boston, Indianapolis, New York, and Washington D.C. from 1988 and 1992.

The slogan seems likely to have originated in 1960s activism. Two stories in the Reno Gazette-Journal, separated by a decade, report that it was a “typical motto” of the broadcaster and gonzo journalist, Travus T. Hipp. The revised edition of And I Quote (2003) attributes it to Bob Avakian. And in a 2008 interview with The Nation, Father Daniel Berrigan gives the sources as his brother, Father Phillip Berrigan.

Hipp (born Chandler Laughlin III) and Avakian belonged to the same generation of Berkeley radicals, active in socialist, anti-war, and Civil Rights protests throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Hipp continued to appear on California’s KPIG station, critiquing mainstream media and politics, until his death in 2012. In 1979 Avakian became Chairman of the US Revolutionary Communist Party, and so he remains.

Certainly, Avakian’s published work, like Democracy: Can’t We Do Better Than That? (1984), confirms his distaste for electoral politics. But I have not be able to find either Hipp or Avakian using the disputed aphorism in their accessible writings. While there are large repositories of their work – for instance, Hipp’s broadcast back to 2005 in Internet Archive – they also produced a lot of work that evades traditional historical records. Both were active pamphleteers and spontaneous speechmakers. It’s very possible that either or both were part of the popularization and circulation of the slogan in activist communities, further explaining its popularity as a tag decades later.

Father Berrigan was also a prominent antiwar protester in the ’60s and ’70s, associated with multiple plots to disrupt the Vietnam draft. He was, most famously, arrested alongside his brother as part of the so-called Cantonville Nine, who succeeded in stealing and publicly destroying Maryland Draft Board records in 1968. After their case was argued before the Supreme Court, the Berrigan Brothers served three years in federal prison.

By the mid-’80s, the sentiment was ingrained enough in the British Labour Party, than Ken Livingstone gave the book associated with his first campaign for Parliament the ironic title, If Voting Made A Difference, They’d Abolish It (1987).

These attributions, though conflicting and inconclusive, do make a compelling connection between the aphorism and socialist sloganeering operations of the mid 20th century. Within these activist communities, messaging was often collaborative, decentralized, and privileged anonymity. It would not be surprising if a motto coined in Berkeley in the 1960s remained unverifiable.

There has clearly been a resurgence in usage over the last decade, during the same period that the attribution to Twain has become commonplace. This is yet another example of how Twain somehow remains a desirable object of political ventriloquism. This aphorism and its misattribution is as likely to be appropriated by individuals and institutions espousing libertarianism or fascism as by those supporting anarchism or communism. Yet somehow these diverse radicalisms all want to associate their politics with Mark Twain. Why?

The Apocryphal Twain: “The things you didn’t do.”

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.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines! Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover!”

David Sivak of did a story on this ubiquitous piece of Twain apocrypha this week and contacted me for comment, so I figured it was a good time to add it to our own archive. David rightly deduced that this is not something Mark Twain said. The more interesting part of these columns, as far as I’m concerned, is who did the quote actually come from and how did it come to be associated with Twain. Unlike many of the apocryphal aphorism I have trace over the past couple years, this false attribution traces back to before the social media era. Because of that endurance, the attribution seems more credible. Books and periodicals produced by reputable publishers and institution – including, for instance, the US Navy – attributed the quote to Twain before the turn of the 21st century.

As David notes, citing the reliable work of Garson O’Toole, the quote in this particular phrasing likely originated with H. Jackson Brown’s 1990 book, P.S. I Love You, in which Brown attributes the quote to his mother, Sarah Frances Brown. But the basic formula dates back somewhat further. In 1982, as part of a syndicated interview about his retirement, the longtime NBC anchor and host, Hugh Downs, said,

“Don’t be afraid to try something. It never hurts as bad as you think to fail. You seldom regret what you do. You regret what you didn’t do. Don’t try to be invulnerable. Don’t worry too much about security. If you build a wall around yourself, you become a prisoner of that wall. Take a chance!”

Register & Tribune Syndicate (February, 1982)

A couple years earlier, Harry Haun had published his Movie Quote Book, in which he reported that on the set of Mildred Pierce (1945), 31-year-old Zachary Scott told 41-year-old Joan Crawford, “As you grow older, you’ll find the the only things you regret are the things you didn’t do.”

A.B. Guthrie, a writer of midcentury Westerns, notably Shane (1953) and The Kentuckian (1955), wrote in his 1965 autobiography,

“I am free of most encumbrances, so I am free of regret, the most debilitating of indulgences. If you must be regretful, regret what you didn’t do, not what you did. A man lets too many smiling opportunities pass him by.”

The Blue Hen’s Chick (1965)

So how did this bit of wisdom come to be associated with Mark Twain? As best I can tell, we can blame the Peace Corps. In January 1999, they circulated a recruitment advertisement in New York City papers which featured the quote prominently with Twain’s byline.

The next year it showed up in publicity materials from the U.S. Navy and soon thereafter in advertisement for real estate agencies and funeral homes, then became a familiar trope in newspaper editorial and valedictorian speeches.

The Apocryphal Twain: Ron Chernow’s Encomium to The American Press At White House Correspondents Dinner Ends On A False Note

On Saturday night, while Ron Chernow was addressing the White House correspondents and their esteemed guests, I was in Brooklyn speaking to and with an inspiring group of conceptual artists on the final day of “Dirt & Debt,” sponsored by ResidencyUnlimited. Though I was there, foremost, as someone who has tried to narrate the cultural history of American finance, the co-curator who introduced me wanted to also acknowledge my connection the Center for Mark Twain Studies and so had created a slide which featured the epigram from Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Michael Lewis’s bestselling postmortem of the 2008 financial crisis, The Big Short:

Somewhat sheeepishly, I had to inform my gracious host that, in fact, Mark Twain never said such a thing. As I traced in 2016, the false attribution was popularized by Al Gore. In these moments, which are not entirely uncommon, I cannot help but ask myself, “Why do I care?” There is absolutely no reason why a viewer of McKay’s provocative film should suspect they are being misled. Is divesting them of this misconception anything more than a narcissistic display of my own idiosyncratic expertise? There are far more urgent falsehoods to be reckoned with. I could tell that the curator was a little disappointed. She liked the quote, and liked even more the symbolic way in reconciled the seemingly disparate strains of my scholarship. I saw it. I was flattered that she had engaged enough with my work to see it to. Believe me, it would be preferable for me if it were so. It just isn’t.

Back in my hotel room later that night, I logged into the backend of, as I often do at the end of the day, just to see what our traffic looked like. It was surprisingly robust for the weekend, much of it directed to another “Apocryphal Twain” post I wrote on the occasion of the 2018 midterm elections. This one traced the origins of a scatatological assessment of what politicians are typically full of.

It took very little searching to surmise that the traffic was driven by the invocation of this aphorism by Ron Chernow at the conclusion of his speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier in the evening, a speech which was already being widely praised. “As we head into election season, I will leave you with one final gem from Twain,” Chernow said, “Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reasons.”

I was exhausted, but I lay there watching and rewatching the last several minutes of Chernow’s speech. Much of what he said I could sympathize with, but knowing that he had ended on a false note (in fact, a couple of them), the overarching message rang hollow. If America’s leading historical biographer can’t be bothered to properly source the quote he chooses to conclude what he knows will probably be the most-watched speech he will ever deliver, what hope is there of defeating the “relentless campaign against the very credibility of the news media” which he rightly describes.

Just a few moments earlier in the speech, Chernow had brought the room to its feet by calling them “heirs to a grand crusading tradition that dates back to Ida B. Wells…this is a glorious tradition, you folks are part of it, and we can’t have politicians trampling on it with impunity, both here and by autocratic regimes abroad.” A little pandering, sure, but I can get on board with this type of panegyric to the press, in part because it doesn’t rely, as Chernow elsewhere does, upon reductive characterizations of journalists as high-minded arbiters of truth and faultless guardians of facts. The tradition of U.S. journalism that includes Ida Wells, Ida Tarbell, and others who Chernow names, is propelled by a “crusading” impulse.

This tradition is not above using polemic, parody, poetry, and many other genres and rhetorical devices which depend upon journalists’ creative and critical acumen, not just their ability to navigate documents and report what’s happening “on the ground.” The mythic figures of American journalism – Joseph Pulitzer, for instance – habitually eluded details which were inconvenient to the case they were making, published insufficiently substantiated claims, and engaged in heated debates with other public figures that were rooted at least as much in their personal beliefs as the public’s interests. For those of us who spend ample time in the archives of U.S. newpapers, this observation is banal, and not at all bothersome. It is not tantamount to shouting #FakeNews or underestimating how integral the fourth estate is to civil society. Good journalists are not always “fair-minded” and “accurate.” Nor are the politicians and other powerful individuals and institutions who they cover and occasionally crusade against. Via these crusades power is forced to account for itself before the vigilance of a democratic citizenry. That’s the real credibility of the news media and the service they perform in civil society.

Chernow builds his panegyric to the press around facts: “Facts are the foot-soldiers of our respective professions. They do the hard marching and should wear no ideological coloring.” By reifying the myths of journalistic rigor and objectivity, Chernow and the reporters who applaud him are setting for themselves a standard which is both unachievable (because truth is hard) and unprecedented. They are complicit in creating an environment in which every mistake, every retraction, and every misattribution, no matter how trivial, gives that campaign being waged against their credibility more fuel. They can be foisted on their own petard. You don’t get to claim entry in a “glorious tradition” of fact-worshipping and then abdicate the basic fact-checking of statements that happen to be flattering to you, resonate with your worldview, or allow you to appropriate the high-approval ratings of a mythic figure like Mark Twain. Stop fetishizing facts. Perhaps the more potent position, certainly the one more reconcilable with Twain’s legacy, is to resuscitate and revere the historical overlap between muckraking journalists and persuasive realist fiction-writers.

Twain offered his own panegyric to the press in response to Matthew Arnold’s attacks on American journalism in 1888:

“Remind the world that ours is a useful trade, a worthy calling: that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one speciality, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.

“Mark Twain Accepts” Hartford Courant June 29, 1888

I remain steadfastly convinced that if you’re willing to go digging for it, the stuff he actually said is always preferable to the weak witticisms of others we attempt to spruce up by imagining them coming out of his mouth.

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:

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) ·

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

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

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 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

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

Found on

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.

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:


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.