In this space a couple of weeks back, I wrote about a mass email containing 25 Will Rogers “quotations.” As I explained in the post, I am virtually certain none of them were actually said or written by Rogers. Now, after reading Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, I realize that the misattributions were a result of “Host” — one of the 10 mechanisms by which, according to O’Toole, so much false attribution happens nowadays. He explains that figures like Rogers, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker, and Winston Churchill
are quotation superstars. Personas of this type are so vibrant and attractive that they become hosts for quotations they never uttered. A remark formulated by a lesser-known figure is attached to a famous host. The relationship is symbiotic and often enhances the popularity of both the host and the quotation. Each host attracts specific types of quotations that conform to his or her character or accomplishments.
(He calls the other mechanisms Synthesis, Ventriloquy, Proverbial Wisdom, Textual Proximity, Real-World Proximity, Similar Names, Concoctions, Historical Fiction, and Capture.)
The book grew out of a wonderful website O’Toole has been conducting since 2010; the title, Quote Investigator, describes the content. It in turn developed from O’Toole’s realization of a paradoxical truth about the internet. While it has been the prime culprit in the modern-day epidemic of fake quotes, it also offers at the same time tools undreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio, for determining actual quotation provenance. Not your basic Google search, which will yield more bad information than good, but such full-text databases as Google Books and the proprietary NewspaperArchive and ProQuest (accessible to most college and university employees), which let you search for exact wording in millions of published texts going back centuries. O’Toole is a bit mysterious about his identity (Garson O’Toole is not his real name, for example), but he owns to being a Ph.D., and he brings mad research skills and dogged determination to tracking down the real stories behind famous quotations.
On the website, a good portion of the quotes are found to be genuine, such as “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes” (Warhol) and “Eighty percent of life is showing up” (Allen). O’Toole decided to make the book consist mainly of fakes, however, I suppose because they lead to better yarns.
For example, that popular saw, “If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.” It’s often attributed, like so many other witticisms, to Twain. Over five pages and 18 footnotes, O’Toole shows us how very wrong that is. The “earliest strong match for the adage” he has found occurred at an educational research conference in 1962, where a professor named Abraham Kaplan was reported to have offered “Kaplan’s Law of the Instrument: ‘Give a boy a hammer and everything he meets has to be pounded.’” The following year, the psychologist Silvan S. Tomkins introduced a crucial word: “If one has a hammer, one tends to look for nails.” In 1966, the psychologist Abraham Maslow made the final improvement of the quote (O’Toole’s mechanism of Synthesis) by observing, without attribution: “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
O’Toole traces the Twain attribution to a 1984 letter to the editor to InfoWorld, whose writer affected a pedantry that is rather impressive, considering the bogosity of his claim: “For the record, the accurate quote is: ‘If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’ I have added emphasis that Mark Twain left to his rhetoric.”
As for the title of the book and this post, it brings to mind a quote that surprisingly O’Toole does not cover on the website or in the book: “Murder your darlings.” (Often misattributed to Robert Louis Stevenson, the authoritative Yale Book of Quotations confirms it was written by Arthur Quiller-Couch.) That is, just as a writer is well-advised to delete his or her most treasured and “fine” flights of rhetoric, so one’s favorite quotes sadly often turn out to be bosh. And so it goes with that wonderful tale about Hemingway being challenged to write a short story in six words, and coming up with, “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” O’Toole traces more than a dozen iterations and variations going back to 1906, including an item in a 1921 newspaper column attributed to a reader named Jerry:
There was an ad in the Brooklyn ‘Home Talk’ which read, ‘Baby carriage for sale, never used.’ Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?
The above item, which O’Toole harvested from NewspaperArchive, is a good example of his research chops in action. It wouldn’t pop up in a search for the supposed Hemingway quote (in quotation marks or not) because it refers to a carriage, not shoes, that was never used, not worn. I’m still not exactly sure how he got it.
The Hemingway connection, he goes on to explain, stems from a play produced in 1989 where “Hemingway,” the character, used the baby shoes line. There is no evidence that the real Hemingway ever did.
There is one darling O’Toole doesn’t murder. It’s perhaps my favorite quote of all time: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” O’Toole finds that it has been misattributed to John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Woodrow Wilson, but confirms that it was written in 1657 by Blaise Pascal. If he hadn’t, I might just have had to murder him.