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hemingway didn't say that

17 april 2017

I've been intermittently interested in pithy sayings in this space over the years, so I was entertained to get a free-Kindle-book offer for Garson O'Toole's Hemingway Didn't Say That, a compendium of pieces from Quote Investigator, one of the more offbeat and tenacious projects on the Internet.

Quote Investigator will take on almost any kind of adage-tracing. The cases collected in Hemingway Didn't Say That are unusually complicated, and illustrate a typology of misattribution. Garson lists as mechanisms synthesis (and streamlining), ventriloquy, proverbial wisdom, textual proximity, real-life proximity, similar names, (deliberate) concoctions, historical fiction, capture, and "host." The latter is a variant of "capture," where a famous person is inadvertently credited with the words of someone less famous. Some hosts are so magnetic that everybody assumes they said everything: Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Dorothy Parker, Yogi Berra. They really didn't say everything they said. Though in fact, Yogi seems to have said that one (338).

The title example is Hemingway's classic short story "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." (That's not the title, that's the whole story.) I had always assumed that Hemingway did say that, because every source I'd looked at ascribed it to him so confidently. It not only sounds like a Hemingway story, it sounds like the kind of smart-aleck thing Hemingway would have come up with if challenged to write a story in six words – a prompt that has since become an icebreaker in many a creative-writing gathering.

Yet come to find that several early-20th-century periodicals contained six- or seven- or eleven-word stories very much like the Hemingway classic, sometimes prefatory to an elaboration at unnecessary length of their poignance. By the 1920s the "story" was a common filler item in popular magazines, its origin long forgotten and unascribed. And not only was this item in general circulation before Hemingway's writing career started, but he never picked it up and used it in any way, if he ever knew about it. Only much later, in the 1970s and '80s, did Quote Investigator find people claiming that the bit was Hemingway's – usually prefatory to some sort of anecdote about what a pain-in-the-ass showoff Hemingway could be.

Often the source of a famous line is lost to time, even if its first appearance can be confidently pinpointed (with the help of Google Books' monstrous archive). But sometimes QI really does track down the originator of a saying, and sometimes they appear to have forgotten saying it. "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," said (not) Elvis Costello and Laurie Anderson and a host of other sages. QI finds a century-old tradition of the form "Writing about music is like [blanking] about [blank]" (273). But the specific filling-in of those blanks with "dancing" and "architecture" seems to have come from thinking-man's stand-up comic Martin Mull, who now seems fairly uninterested in having done so. Meanwhile, Mull's formula has been assigned to John Lennon and Frank Zappa and probably to Mark Twain and Yogi Berra.

My favorite phony attributions are things like Plato supposedly saying "Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle" (74). Seriously, when the hell would Plato have come out with that? Does that sound like something Socrates would have said to cool down some hothead he was wiping the floor with in a dialogue? Does it even sound like a concept the Greeks would have cultivated? ("Slaughter your Spartan prisoners, because they will live to fight a hard battle if you do not" would have been more like it.) But Plato's another one of those magnetic "hosts." Dude just said stuff, and people credit him with saying more and more.

My only quibble with the consistently interesting Hemingway Didn't Say That is its slightly excessive positivism. And I do mean "slightly." The book is no more pedantic than it needs to be (it needs to be a little bit pedantic); it often is happy to give up and acknowledge that the origin of a given aphorism is lost in the mists. But Hemingway Didn't Say That conveys a distinct sense that commonplaces have lone initiators, and that the source of utterances can be confidently traced to them. Along with this positivism comes anxiety:

You may be shocked by how fragile information is, and I fear it is only getting worse. Each transmission of a quote can sometimes seem to produce cracks in the truth. (10)
But of course, before Google constructed the mother of all databases, all information was far more "fragile," which is another way of saying it was far more robust. Nobody will ever know who wrote the vast store of the world's proverbs, scriptures, folk literature, and even individual literary masterpieces like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And until pretty recently, nobody has cared much about establishing the provenance of every clever thing anybody said. I hate to disillusion anybody, but Jesus and the Buddha and Lao-Tze probably never said all the things that they said, either. Cultures, as much as any individual generator, constantly and communally create their store of verbal wisdom.

O'Toole, Garson. Hemingway Didn't Say That: The truth behind familiar quotations. New York: Little A, 2017.