[PW] Wall Street Journal Book Review of Garson O'Toole Book

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at yale.edu
Sun Apr 9 19:46:34 PDT 2017

Tomorrow's Wall Street Journal has a book review, written by me, of Garson O'Toole's wonderful new book, Hemingway Didn't Say That.  I have pasted the review below.

Fred Shapiro

If you hear that “Mark Twain said” something, the one thing you can be pretty sure of is that Mark Twain never said it. Famous quotations become famous because, for many people, they have an irresistible allure. Yet their wording, their meaning and, particularly, their origins have often been fictionalized by the popular mind or careless quoters or people with an ax to grind. We may be inspired, comforted, amused or educated by quotes, and if the quote is put into the mouth of a celebrated sage like Twain, so much the better. We impress ourselves or others with the borrowed wisdom of the sage.

Thousands of quotation books have been published through the centuries. The more high-end ones, such as “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” and “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” do some research on the sources of their quotes and sometimes show that Twain or Abraham Lincoln or Yogi Berra was not the real originator. In “The Yale Book of Quotations” (2006), which I edited, I used innovative techniques, especially searching full-text databases of historical newspapers and books to disprove many of the standard stories about the authorship of famous quotations.

Garson O’Toole’s extensive and brilliant investigations follow the same path. It all began with a blog item looking into the origins of the supposed Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” which Mr. O’Toole traced back to 1944. I left a comment pointing out an earlier citation. A few years later he was inspired to create the Quote Investigator website, which has grown to include well more than a million words of authoritative, entertaining quote-sleuthing and become the go-to place on the internet for journalists and savvy people all over the world who are interested in the truth behind familiar quotations.

“The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations” is indeed the subtitle of Mr. O’Toole’s fascinating book, “Hemingway Didn’t Say That,” in which the author analyzes the causes and mechanisms of misquotation, illustrating them through dozens of examples, each of which tells a compelling story of error corrected by scholarship.

One of Mr. O’Toole’s best mini-essays treats the quip “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” This is usually attributed to singer-songwriter Elvis Costello. Mr. O’Toole, however, doggedly tracks the saying back to a 1979 rock-music magazine that credited actor-comedian-musician Martin Mull. Even more impressively, the Quote Investigator makes splendid use of online database searches to find precursor expressions as early as 1918, when the New Republic printed: “Writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics.”

Another entry typical of Mr. O’Toole’s assiduous work is “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.” This line is one of the most renowned Yogi Berra-isms, or rather pseudo-Yogi-Berra-isms. Mr. O’Toole, again employing online searching, points out that “Now I know why nobody ever comes here; it’s too crowded” appeared in the Racine (Wis.) Journal Times on Sept. 8, 1941. (Berra was only 16 years old at that time.) Even earlier, the Daily People (New York) ran an item in its Dec. 7, 1907, issue: “Oh, don’t go there on Saturday; it’s so frightfully crowded! Nobody goes there then!

Much effort has been expended by many researchers to demonstrate that the statement “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” was coined by Edmund Burke. The closest formulation anyone has found in Burke’s writings is: “When bad men combine, the good must associate.” Mr. O’Toole shows that the earliest example of the popular phraseology, and the earliest attribution to Burke, did not rear its head until 1920, when an English temperance crusader named R. Murray Hyslop used the words at a church conference. (The Hyslop citation was first brought to light by independent scholar Barry Popik.)

The quotation referred to in this book’s title is the answer Hemingway supposedly gave after he bet he could write a six-word short story. The six words were: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” The anecdote has become the embodiment of the compressed literary genre known as “flash fiction.” Mr. O’Toole, in a tour de force of detective work, shows that the footwear first turns up as a suggested title (“Little Shoes, Never Worn”) in an article about how to write short stories. No link to Hemingway can be found before 1989. On the other hand, Mr. O’Toole unearths multiple instances of similar exceptionally terse tales about unused infant footwear or carriages, beginning in 1906.

Other quotations in “Hemingway Didn’t Say That” include such well-known ones as “Behind every great fortune there is a crime” (Balzac, but not quite); “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” (truly Edison, though sometimes he said 2% inspiration); “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” (a false Gandhi quote); “You can get much further with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone” (ersatz Al Capone); “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” (John Lennon was not the first to say it); and “If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail” (as always, don’t believe anyone who says it’s Twain). Mr. O’Toole sheds light on each quote that he discusses; it seems that he does not include an entry unless he has made original discoveries about it.

The internet has propagated misinformation about quotations more quickly and widely than has ever before been possible. Social-media memes, email signatures and sloppy websites present a seemingly insurmountable assault. But the internet can also yield solutions to the challenge of finding historical truth. Online collections of texts provide extraordinarily powerful tools for research, and Mr. O’Toole is a beacon of accuracy who should inspire all readers who prefer their facts real rather than phony.

Mr. Shapiro is the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations.”

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