When I Was a Boy of Fourteen, My Father Was So Ignorant

Mark Twain? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am interested in a fantastic quotation that I always thought was from the pen of Mark Twain:

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

Recently I saw a documentary by Ken Burns about Twain, and I checked out the companion biography from the library. The quote above is listed in a section called “What Twain Didn’t Say” [WDF]. Also, I visited the Snopes website and found an article by Barbara Mikkelson that says the quote is apocryphal [SNF]. I guess Mark Twain did not say it. But can you find out who did say it and when it first appeared?

Quote Investigator: Mark Twain died in 1910. The first appearance of a version of this saying that QI has located is dated 1915, and the words are attributed to Twain. There are a series of citations from 1915 to the present day that each credit Twain, but the wording used in these quotations varies considerably. For example, the starting age of the son is sometimes given as fourteen and sometimes seventeen. The final age of the son is twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-five and twenty-seven. An intermediate age of eighteen, twenty, or twenty-three is listed in some versions.

Mark Twain’s father died when he was eleven years old. Thus, if Twain did say or write these words he did so while inhabiting a novelistic persona. The saying does not apply to his veridical life. But, it might apply to a character that he created, or one he was projecting during a speech.

QI has not yet found any direct evidence that connects Twain to the quote. Further, the first known attribution to Twain occurs five years after his death. So the evidence is weak. On the other hand, no one else is credited with the saying. At this time QI has not located any significant attributions to other figures.

Here are selected citations in chronological order. The first instance located by QI was published in December of 1915 in a story by Fred N. Rindge. The passage containing the quote criticizes the opinions of college students that the author believes are undeveloped. The saying is attributed to Twain, and it uses a starting age of seventeen and an ending age of twenty-five for the son [SQF]:

It reminds one of something Mark Twain said to the effect that when he was seventeen he couldn’t bear to have his Father around while they were discussing important questions but when he was twenty-five it was wonderful how the old man had improved. Some college students think their opinions on such subjects are final—poor chaps, they sure have another guess coming.

The second earliest cite was found by top-notch researcher Victor Steinbok in a Bulletin from the Missouri Department of Agriculture in March of 1916. This variant of the adage uses three ages for the son: seventeen, twenty-three, and twenty-seven. In the following excerpt the word “something” is spelled “somthing” [MSF]:

Somthing like Mark Twain. At the age of seventeen Mark says he thought his father the most ignorant man in all the world and just couldn’t stand him about. At the age of twenty-three he found that his father knew a few things and he could put up with him occasionally; at the age of twenty-seven he knew that his father was the smartest man in all the world and he just doted on having him about. There is a bit of psychology in this that is worthy our study.

In August of 1920 an article in The Rotarian records an anecdote in which a young child helps his father who is drunk. But the author questions whether the child will continue to be helpful as he grows older. The saying about fathers and sons is then presented [RTF]:

I doubt it, because when a fellow reaches about fourteen years of age, he gets to the place where, as Mark Twain said, he knows so much and his father knows so little, that he can’t bear to have the old man around. When he gets to be eighteen he consults his father regarding some of the minor issues; but the real worth while things he decides for himself. When he gets to be twenty-two, he marvels at how much his father has learned during the past eight years.

In 1922 a religious writer named Alexander C. Purdy invokes the saying and credits Twain [PGF]:

How our estimates of parents change with the years! Mark Twain says that at seventeen he could scarcely endure his father, the old gentleman was so ignorant; at twenty he noticed that his father said a sensible thing occasionally; at twenty-five he was astonished at the improvement his father had made in the last eight years.

In 1931 a Maine newspaper reviewer discusses a work by the President of Bates College, Clifton Daggett Gray. An excerpt from Gray’s book, Youth on the March, is printed and it includes a version of the quote [LJF]:

In order to show how callow and yet sophisticated youth of today is, he calls in Mark Twain to help him. “Nearly two generations ago it was Mark Twain who told how, when he was seventeen, he could hardly stand it to be with his father because the latter was so ignorant, and at twenty he noticed that now and then his father said a sensible thing, but at twenty-five he was simply amazed to discover how his father had improved in the last eight years. The difference between the eighteen fifties and the nineteen thirties is negligible after all.”

In September of 1937 a version of the quote appears in the widely-distributed periodical The Reader’s Digest. This version of the quote is the most common modern form. Respectfully Quoted [RQF], The Yale Book of Quotation [YBQF], The Quote Verifier [QVF], and TwainQuotes [TQF] mention this citation, and each one of these important references also casts doubt on the attribution given in the Digest:

When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.

Our final example concerns the issue of Twain’s father. As noted above Twain’s father died when he was eleven, so the quotation is not consistent with his biography. Thus, if Twain presented the quotation he did so from the point of view of a constructed character. Here is an example of a dinner speech by Twain given at the St. James Hotel in New York in 1872 that clearly implies both his parents were alive when he was fourteen [MTSJ]:

When I was fourteen, as I remarked before, I was living with my parents, who were very poor and correspondingly honest. We had a youth living with us by the name of Jim Wolfe.

This example suggests that Twain sometimes presented stories in a biographical literary mode that were fictionalized. So the attribution of the quote is not ruled out on biographical grounds.

In conclusion, the earliest known attribution to Twain occurs in 1915 and this is rather late because Twain died in 1910. To date, the saying has not been found in Twain’s writings, notebooks, or letters. Quotation experts and Twain scholars are skeptical of the attribution to Twain. QI thanks you for your question and hopes that your relationship with your father is strong and positive.

[WDF] 2001, Mark Twain by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C. Ward, Based on a Documentary by Ken Burns, What Twain Didn’t Say, Page 189, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books snippet view; Verified on paper) link

[SNF] Snopes website, “Questionable Quotes: And Never the Twain Shall Tweet” by Barbara Mikkelson, [Last updated: 26 September 2007] (Accessed online at snopes.com on October 9, 2010) link

[SQF] 1915 December, The Square Deal edited by Joseph W. Bryce, Found in the Black Chest by Fred N. Rindge, Vol. 17, Page 160, Column 2, Square Deal Press. (Hathi Trust full view) link  link

[MSF] 1916 March, Missouri State Board of Agriculture: Monthly Bulletin, Country Life Questions and Answers, Page 56, Vol. XIV, No. 3, State Dept. of Agriculture, Missouri. (Google Books full view) link

[RTF] 1920 August, The Rotarian, The Challenge of the Boy by Taylor Stratten, Loyalty to Dad, Page 78, Volume 17, Number 2, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books full view) link

[PGF] 1922, Pathways to God by Alexander C. Purdy, Page 103, The Womans Press, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[LJF] 1931 October 10, Lewiston Evening Journal, Among the Books: Youth on the March: Review by George Loring White, Magazine Section Page A4 (GN Page 9), Lewiston, Maine. (Google News archive)

[RQF] 1989, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations edited by Suzy Platt, Online at Bartleby.com, Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14″, Congressional Research Service. (Accessed 2010 October 10) link

[YBQF] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 782, Yale University Press, New Haven.

[QVF] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 17, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.

[TQF] TwainQuotes website, Directory of Mark Twain’s maxims, quotations, and various opinions: Father, Edited by Barbara Schmidt. (Accessed 2010 October 9) link

[MTSJ] 2006, Mark Twain Speaking edited by Paul Fatout, Page 67, University of Iowa Press. [Dinner Speech - The Aldine Dinner, St. James Hotel, New York, Early February 1872.] (Google Books preview) link