Mark Twain? Charles Dudley Warner?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a classic Mark Twain quotation about the weather that I have used for years.
Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.
However, recently I visited the Bartleby website and discovered that the reference work Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations says that the attribution to Twain may be incorrect. Someone named Charles Dudley Warner may have created the saying. Who is Charles Dudley Warner and who created the quote?
QI: Your confusion is understandable and for many years the question of authorship for this quote was unresolved. But, QI has uncovered some new evidence that points to the most likely answer.
In the recent past the earliest known instance of the quotation was in an editorial in the Hartford Courant of Connecticut dated August 27, 1897 [HART]:
A well known American writer said once that, while everybody talked about the weather, nobody seemed to do anything about it.
Charles Dudley Warner was an editor at the Hartford Courant in the time period, and the reference Respectfully Quoted claims that Warner wrote the editorial. Warner was a well-known author and editor in the 1800s, and he was a neighbor, good friend, and collaborator with Mark Twain.
Did Warner refer to himself in the third person, or was he referring to Twain or someone else when he wrote the quotation? The Yale Book of Quotations says “the ‘well-known American writer’ is usually taken to be Twain, but the writer could also have been Charles Dudley Warner.” Respectfully Quoted says that the saying is: “Generally, but perhaps mistakenly, attributed to Mark Twain. It has never been verified in his writings. Many quotation dictionaries credit Charles Dudley Warner, a friend of Twain’s, with this remark.”
Now, QI has found two earlier instances of versions of the quotation and both are attributed to Charles Dudley Warner. The first is dated 1884 and appears in a New York Chamber of Commerce Proceedings [NYCH]:
… your action reminded me of the observation of my old friend and partner, DUDLEY WARNER, concerning New-England weather – it is a matter about which a great deal is said, but very little done.
The second quotation appears in a profile of Warner and a review of his writings in The Book Buyer in 1889 [BB]:
His article, after Victor Hugo, on the New England climate is another sketch which has called out much sympathy and admiration. “The weather in New England,” said Mr. Warner “is a matter about which a great deal is said and very little done.” He himself has always had a quarrel with it.
After the quotation with the ambiguous attribution in 1897 the next version of the weather quote appears in a profile of Warner in 1901. The pronoun “he” in the excerpt refers to Warner [HARW][ANN]:
When people were once tried almost beyond endurance by the most exasperating of winters he said, “Everybody is talking about the weather; why doesn’t somebody do something?” and this, with its subtle irony of human futility, is perhaps one of the most representative examples of his wit; but his humor was an aroma which interfused all his thought, and filled his page with the constant surprise of its presence.
The quote above does have a different flavor, and it provides evidence of continuity for this next version of the quotation that appears in another profile of Warner. Joseph H. Twichell discusses Warner’s style of humor and presents a clumsy example of the weather adage that Twichell says he heard directly from Warner [CENT].
Thus the force and flavor of what I once heard him reply to an outburst against a spell of bad weather – “Respecting weather, I have always noted that there is nothing besides about which so much is said, and so little done” – mostly fails to be reproduced in the verbal report of it. And this was true of a thousand pithy, shrewd, happy sayings of his.
The first evidence QI has located of a direct attribution to Mark Twain of an embryonic version of the weather adage appears in 1905 [SHEFF]:
There were letters printed in favor of the idea in the far away city papers, but as Mark Twain said of complaints about the weather, – “Nothing was done.”
In 1909 at the Commonwealth Club of California, Mark Twain is again credited with a version of the weather quote [COMC]:
Much discussion has gone up into empty air, but, as Mark Twain complained about the weather, while there is much talk nothing is ever done.
Researcher Stephen Goranson found an attribution to Twain in the New York Times in 1910 [NY10]:
It must be watched, of course, but it is well to remember that Nature has a way of her own in adjusting these matters, and the position of those dependent on her benevolence is exactly described by the late Mark Twain when he said that he heard a great deal of complaint about the weather, but no one seemed to do anything about it.
Lastly, I end this series of quotations by returning to the Hartford Courant, the home base of Charles Dudley Warner. The 1897 citation is ambiguous, but this citation in the same paper in 1912 is unequivocal [HART2]:
Mr. Warner once remarked that everybody talks about the weather but nobody seems to do anything about it.
In conclusion, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that Charles Dudley Warner crafted the weather maxim and said it to multiple individuals. Many versions of the quip have been recorded but the central idea and the outlines of the current form are both due to Warner in the opinion of QI. Thanks to the questioner for a difficult and interesting query.
[HART] 1897 August 24, Hartford Courant, This Weather, Page 8, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
[NYCH] 1884 November 18, Proceedings of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, Twenty Seventh Annual Report, Page 58, Press of the Chamber of Commerce. (Google Books full view) link
[BB] 1889 March, The Book Buyer: A Summary of American and Foreign Literature, Vol. VI, No. 2, The Author of “My Summer Garden”, Page 57, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[HARW] 1901 January, Harper’s Magazine, Vol. CII, No. DCVIII, Editor’s Easy Chair, Page 320, Harper’s Magazine Co. (Google Books full view) link
[ANN] 1904, Charles Dudley Warner by Annie Fields, Page 206, McClure, Phillips & Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link
[CENT] 1903 January, Century Magazine, Vol. LXV, No. 3, Qualities of Warner’s Humor by Joseph H. Twichell, Page 380, The Century Co. (Google Books full view) link
[SHEFF] 1905, Sketches of Some Early Shefford Pioneers by John Powell Noyes, Page 13, Gazette Print. Co. (Google Books full view. Date recorded in dedication) link
[COMC] 1909 November, Transactions of the Commonwealth Club of California, Vol. IV, No. 6, Page 354, The Hetch Hetchy Water Supply by Mr. J. D. Galloway. link
[NY10] 1910 June 27, New York Times, The Financial Situation: The Markets of Europe, Page 10, New York, New York. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)
[HART2] 1912 July 20, Hartford Courant, About the Weather, Page 8, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers)