People Who Like This Sort of Thing Will Find This the Sort of Thing They Like

Abraham Lincoln? Artemus Ward? George Bernard Shaw? Max Beerbohm? Muriel Spark?

ward08Dear Quote Investigator: A popular anecdote asserts that Abraham Lincoln was obliged to listen to a prolix lecture about spiritualism by an enthusiastic friend. After the discourse was complete, Lincoln’s opinion was sought, and he replied with a humorously redundant non-committal statement designed to be inoffensive. Here are three versions:

1) People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.
2) For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like
3) For those who like that sort of thing I should think it just the sort of thing they would like.

Other prominent figures have been credited with this line such as the wit Max Beerbohm and novelist Muriel Spark. I am suspicious of the attribution to Lincoln. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that the seed of this family of expressions was sown by the popular humorist Charles Farrar Browne who was known to audiences by his pseudonym Artemus Ward. In 1863 he created advertising material for a set of lectures he was performing. He included parodic testimonials from fictional people, and one ersatz supporter was named “O. Abe”. The name “Artemus” was misspelled as “Artemas” in the following passage from a Maine newspaper in October 1863. Boldface was been added: 1

Artemas Ward among other puffs of his lectures has the following from “Old Abe:”,

Dear Sir–I have never heard any of your lectures, but from what I can learn I should say that for people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like.
Yours, respectably, O. Abe.

The letter penned by Ward was printed in multiple newspapers. The words became linked to Abraham Lincoln because of the suggestive name “Abe”. Over time the phrasing evolved, and a variety of anecdotes were constructed to accompany the expression.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Artemus Ward created multiple fake testimonial letters which were called “certificates”. When the letter from “O. Abe” appeared in the “American Traveller” of Boston, Massachusetts in October 1863 it was printed together with a letter from “Amos Pilkins”. This note satirized the pseudo-endorsements presented by charlatans selling ineffectual patent medicines: 2

Artemus Ward: Respected Sir—My wife was afflicted with the pipsywipsy in the head for nearly eight years. The doctors all gave her up. But in a fortunate moment she went to one of your lectures, and commenced recovering very rapidly. She is now in perfect health. We like your lectures very much. Please send me a box of them. They are purely vegetable. Send me another five dollar bill and I’ll write you another certificate twice as long as this.
Yours, &c., Amos Pilkins

About a decade later, in 1874, the “O. Abe” letter concocted by Artemus Ward was not forgotten; however, it was not remembered accurately. The “New York Tribune” printed an article from a regular correspondent based in Boston, Massachusetts: 3

I suppose everyone remembers Artemus Ward’s story about reading one of his lectures to President Lincoln, and asking the President’s opinion of it. According to the showman’s version of the interview, the Chief Magistrate answered, with grave deliberation: “For those that like that kind of a lecture I suppose it is just the kind of lecture that such people would like.”

The 1863 letter actually stated that “O. Abe” never heard any of Ward’s lectures which does not comport with the anecdote above. Thus, the quotation and accompanying tale were evolving. Certainly, it was possible that Ward presented more than one version of the testimonial. The above item was reprinted in other newspapers such as the “Cincinnati Daily Gazette” of Cincinnati, Ohio. 4

In 1879 another instance of the story appeared in the “New York Tribune” with further changes. Ward’s name was no longer mentioned. Hence, the reader was left unaware that the tale originated with a comedian. Lincoln’s friend was reading a “long manuscript” instead of a “lecture”: 5

President Lincoln once listened patiently while a friend read a long manuscript to him, and then asked: “What do you think of it? How will it take?” The President reflected a little while, and then answered: “Well, for people who like that kind of thing, I think that is just about the kind of thing they’d like.”

In 1880 “The Educational Weekly” of Chicago, Illinois printed the tale with a somewhat clumsy version of the saying: 6

Mr. Lincoln once listened to an article, the author of which at the end of the reading asked his opinion of it. “Well,” said he, “some people like that kind of thing very much; and for that kind of people, I shouldn’t wonder if that article was about the kind of think they’d like.”

In 1888 a book reviewer in the “New York Herald” employed an instance credited to Lincoln and tailored to books: 7

We should say of his book what Mr. Lincoln once said of a work on metaphysics—“For those who like that kind of a book, it is just about the kind of a book they would like.”

In 1903 the well-known playwright George Bernard Shaw constructed a variant expression and placed it in “Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy”: 8

TANNER. . . .You despise Oxford, Enry, don’t you?

STRAKER. No, I don’t. Very nice sort of place, Oxford, I should think, for people that like that sort of place. They teach you to be a gentleman there. In the Polytechnic they teach you to be an engineer or such like. See?

In 1911 Max Beerbohm published “Zuleika Dobson” which included a distinctive version of Clio, the ancient Greek muse of mythology. Beerbohm assigned an instance of the saying to this incarnation of Clio. His intent was humorous, but the Greek rendition and the linkage to Clio caused some temporal confusion: 9

Beerbohmq
Beerbohm’s Clio said: For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like.

The acclaimed poet Carl Sandburg wrote a Pulitzer-Prize-winning multi-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. He examined the quotation and its attribution in volume 2 of “Abraham Lincoln: The War Years” released in 1939. Sandburg presented a version of the anecdote featuring Robert Dale Owen who was an influential proponent of spiritualism. Yet, Sandburg also recognized that Ward was the likely source of the saying: 10

He had told Robert Dale Owen, it was said, when Owen had read to him a long paper on an abstruse subject akin to spiritualism, “Well, for those who like that sort of thing, I should think it is just about the sort of thing they would like.” He may have said this to Owen or it may have been attributed to him with slight changes out of a certificate of endorsement which Artemus Ward fabricated and published as follows:

Dear Sir–
I have never heard any of your lectures, but from what I can learn I should say that for people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like.
Yours respectfully,
O. Abe

In 1961 “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark was published in “The New Yorker”. The popular and critically praised work was also released as a book in 1961 and made into a film in 1969. The story described a charismatic teacher named Jean Brodie who strongly influenced the lives of a small group of impressionable young female students. Spark used the saying in the conversation of her character Brodie: 11

Behind them, Miss Brodie was being questioned on the subject of the Brownies and the Girl Guides, for quite a lot of the other girls in the Junior School were Brownies.

“For those who like that sort of thing,” said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, “that is the sort of thing they like.”

So Brownies and Guides were ruled out.

In conclusion, Artemus Ward should be credited with the comical letter of “O. Abe” from 1863. QI believes that later instances in this family of sayings were derived directly or indirectly from the words of Ward. QI also believes that Lincoln probably did not employ the expression.

George Bernard Shaw, Max Beerbohm, and Muriel Spark did write versions of the quip. But the saying was already in circulation, and their expressions were not completely original.

Image Notes: Picture of Charles Farrar Brown (Artemus Ward) from the Harvard Theatre Collection. Book cover of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” shown in reduced size with low resolution in conjunction with educational and critical commentary. Portrait of Abraham Lincoln by photographer Alexander Gardner circa 1863. These images from Wikimedia commons have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to top researcher Bill Mullins whose comment on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Ralph Keyes who discussed this quotation in the “The Quote Verifier” and presented citations for George Bernard Shaw and Max Beerbohm.)

Notes:

  1. 1863 October 23, Daily Eastern Argus, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Portland, Maine. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1863 October 31, American Traveller, Artemus Ward Advertises, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1874 July 15, New York Tribune, Boston: Literary Notes by L. C. M., Quote Page 6, Column 1, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1874 July 17, Cincinnati Daily Gazette, An Old Story Retold, (Acknowledgement to Boston Correspondence in New York Tribune), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1879 March 27, New York Tribune, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 3, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1880 April 22, The Educational Weekly, Volume 7, The Library, (Review of Four Lectures on Early Child Culture), Start Page 285, Quote Page 285, S. R. Winchell & Co., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1888 October 28, New York Herald, A New York Club Man’s Ideas, Quote Page 14, Column 4, New York, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1903, Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy by Bernard Shaw, Act II, Quote Page 50, Published by Archibald Constable & Co., Westminster. (Internet Archive) link
  9. 1911 Copyright, Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm, Quote Page 187, Published by Boni and Liveright, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1939, Abraham Lincoln: The War Years by Carl Sandburg, Volume 2 of 4, Quote Page 306, Published by Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1961 October 14, The New Yorker, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark, Start Page 52, Quote Page 64, F.R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (New Yorker page scan database)