The Apocryphal Twain: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
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 social 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.
Variations on the “fight in the dog” aphorism are most often invoked in relation to sporting events or military culture. Here are two representative recent tweets:
The contemporary association of the aphorism with sports and war hints at the history of its usage. For a period of forty years, the quote was nearly always attributed to one of two men: University of Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant, or US President and famed World War II Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
President Eisenhower is on the record first. In a speech to the RNC on January 31, 1958 he said, “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight – it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” But within a year, newspapers quoted Bryant using the same aphorism, as he apparently did with great frequency in the ensuing decades. (It’s prominently featured in Jim Dent’s 1999 bestseller, Junction Boys, for instance.)
For the remainder of the 20th century, the quote was almost always attributed to one of the two men. And, indeed, at the outset of the social media era, these remained the most popular attributions. In the first two years of Twitter’s archives, the aphorism is always either unattributed or credited to Eisenhower, Bryant, or, on one occasion, another football coach, Archie Griffin (who was four-years-old when Eisenhower gave his RNC speech). It isn’t until February of 2008 that the Mark Twain connection is floated. Thereafter, it rapidly became the most popular attribution on social media. In the last week, the “fight in the dog” quote has been tweeted hundreds of times. Nobody has attributed it to Bryant. Two people attributed it to Eisenhower. The rest? Mark Twain.
But, in truth, all of the above are incorrect. And this is where things get interesting.
The quote had been in circulation for decades before Eisenhower and Bryant appropriated it, though not as far back as Twain’s life. For most of the first half of the 20th-century, it was far less popular and circulated in very different contexts, primarily in business and professional settings. For example, in 1930, the President of the Western Retail Implement & Hardware Association, Fred Taylor, featured the aphorism in a convention speech that was reprinted in Hardware Age, a trade magazine.
This context hints at the real source of the aphorism, a poet whose name has since largely been lost to history.
Arthur G. Lewis, also sometimes cited as “A. G. Lewis,” was not, like Mark Twain, a professional writer, nor was he, like Bryan or Eisenhower, a renowned public figure. He led a relatively anonymous life as a travel agent in Norfolk, Virginia.
In 1892, he started submitting aphorisms, which he called “Stub Ends of Thought” (a common cliche in the 19th-century press) to local Norfolk newspapers, occasionally getting them published. A few years later, in 1897, Lewis’s then employer, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, launched a magazine: Book of The Royal Blue.
Book of The Royal Blue was a predecessor to the 20th-century “in-flight magazine.” Available to passengers on the oldest and one of the busiest railway routes in the United States, which traveled from the mid-Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River, the magazine was a mix of light reading material and corporate self-promotion. In one comic example, the magazine offered the history of the United States as a prequel to its summary of the annual meeting of the railroad’s board of directors.
But in retrospect, the contents of The Royal Blue are a rather fascinating snapshot of turn-of-the-century American culture. They are liberally sprinkled with poetry, pop history, sketches and photographs, sporting tables, business and technology columns, nature writing, and patriotic editorializing. In a single issues, one could find a mildly humorous dialect account of a B&O brakeman, a brief history of the city of St. Louis, a poem comparing locomotives and marriageable women, an encyclopedia entry on the Mason-Dixon Line, and a recommendation of places along the route where one would find the best bass-fishing.
In February 1899, Lewis, identified as a “passenger agent” stationed at the Atlantic Hotel in Norfolk, placed his first poem in the pages of The Royal Blue. It was an example of what would prove to be one of his (and the magazine’s) specialties: misogynist verse.
He submitted several more poems in the coming months, and in 1900 he was given his own column: “Stub Ends of Thought.” While continuing in his day-job, Lewis reliably published “Stub Ends” for a decade, until (as far as I can tell) B&O discontinued Book of the Royal Blue sometime in 1911. During this time, Lewis also collected and self-published two volumes of Stub Ends of Thought & Verse.
Over the years Lewis was writing his backpage column B&O railroad carried millions of passengers. Selections from “Stub Ends” started showing up in newspapers and other publications across its territory, sometimes with generous estimations of Lewis’s talents and instructions on where readers could acquire his books.
In the April 1911 issue of Book of the Royal Blue we find the original appearance of the now ubiquitous “fight in the dog” aphorism.
This particular “Stub End” struck an immediate nerve. Before the year was out, it had been reprinted in over a dozen newspapers, as well as other curious venues, like medical journals and trade magazines. The rail riders of 1911 clearly loved it as much as midcentury Republicans and Bama football fans later would.
The quote continues to show up sporadically for the next two decades, then largely falls out of circulation until Eisenhower resuscitates it. The attribution to Lewis disappears after 1911, however, as does Lewis himself. I have thus far been unable to find any further reliable documentation of Lewis’s life after Book of The Royal Blue folded.
It’s not surprising that this quote doesn’t originate from Twain. Twain was an animal lover who spent much of his life surrounded by other animal lovers, notably his youngest daughter, Jean Clemens, and his sister-in-law, Susan Crane, the original proprietor of Quarry Farm, which was, among other things, a menagerie.
Some of the most heartbreaking passages in Twain’s memorial to Jean following her tragic death in 1909 come when he discusses the plaintive behavior of her dog. A few years earlier he had published “A Dog’s Tale” (1903), which is, among other things, a denunciation of animal cruelty. Even early in his career, though he acknowledged the existence and popularity of dog-fighting, most notably the case of the pit bull named Andrew Jackson in “Jim Smiley & His Jumping Frog” (1865), he uses the pastime to reflect the callousness and ignorance of the people involved, who force the dogs to do something antithetical to their nature. The narrator of “Jumping Frog” concludes his anecdote by saying it “always makes [him] feel sorry” to think about Andrew Jackson’s fate.
In other words, Mark Twain is an unlikely candidate for romanticizing dog-fighting.
And the “fight in the dog” aphorism was never attributed to him until 1997. The culprit, as is frequently the case, was a handbook for public speaking. In his appropriately-titled How To Give A Damn Good Speech Even When You Have No Time To Prepare (1997), Philip Theibert lists Mark Twain as the author of the “fight in the dog” aphorism. By the following year, the misattribution was being perpetuated in newspapers, yearbooks, advertisements, and websites.
4 thoughts on “The Apocryphal Twain: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.””
Thank you for this excellently researched and illustrated post. There are so many misattributions floating around on the internet, it’s good to see one corrected. Congratulations.
Thanks a lot! Seit mehr als 30 Jahren kenne ich den “Hunde-Satz”, jetzt verstehe ich dank Euch mehr.
deeply grateful for your excellent research
Absolutely superb research, dedication and attention to detail. I will forever pull that nugget of knowledge out with friends for ever! Ps even been attributed to Churchill around Brit pubs