Tag Archives: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Easy Reading Is Hard Writing

Maya Angelou? Nathaniel Hawthorne? Thomas Hood? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Charles Allston Collins? Anthony Trollope? Lord Byron? William Makepeace Thackeray? Anonymous?

library11Dear Quote Investigator: Writers should strive to create texts that are informative, interesting, stimulating, and readable. But one of my favorite sayings reveals that this can be a remarkably difficult task:

Easy reading is damned hard writing.

I thought this adage was coined by the prominent author Maya Angelou, but recently I learned that she credited Nathaniel Hawthorne. Would you please explore this statement?

Quote Investigator: This topic is complicated by the existence of two complementary statements that are often confused. Many different versions of these statements have circulated over the years. Here are two expository instances:

1) Easy writing results in hard reading.
2) Easy reading requires hard writing.

An extended discussion of the first maxim is available under the title “Easy Writing’s Vile Hard Reading” located here. This entry will focus on the second maxim.

The earliest evidence of a strong match located by QI appeared in the London periodical “The Athenaeum” in 1837. The humorist, poet, and essayist Thomas Hood wrote a letter to the editor which was printed under the title “Copyright and Copywrong”. Hood commented on the process of writing. In the original text the word “damned” was partially censored to yield “d__d”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

And firstly, as to how he writes, upon which head there is a wonderful diversity of opinions; one thinks that writing is “as easy as lying,” and pictures the author sitting carefully at his desk “with his glove on,” like Sir Roger de Coverley’s poetical ancestor. A second holds that “the easiest reading is d__d hard writing,” and imagines Time himself beating his brains over an extempore.

Hood placed the adage between quotation marks suggesting that it was already in use. In fact, variant statements containing the phrases “hard reading” and “easy writing” were already being disseminated, and the expression probably evolved from those antecedents. Hence, apportioning credit for the formulation of this maxim is a difficult task.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1837 April 22, The Athenaeum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, Copyright and Copywrong, (Letter to the Editor of the Athenaeum from Thomas Hood), Start Page 285, Quote Page 286 and 287, Printed by James Holmes, London, Published at the Office of The Athenaeum, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Happiness Is A Butterfly, Which When Pursued, Seems Always Just Beyond Your Grasp

Nathaniel Hawthorne? Henry David Thoreau? L.? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

monarch06Dear Quote Investigator: An ingenious and lovely simile about happiness is confusingly attributed to two prominent literary figures: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau. Here are two versions:

Happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

Who do you think really originated this analogy?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that neither of these gentlemen was responsible for this figurative language. The earliest evidence known to QI was published in several periodicals beginning in 1848.

In June 1848 a newspaper called “The Daily Crescent” in New Orleans, Louisiana printed a set of sixteen definitions for terms such as “Love”, “Faith”, “Truth”, “Wealth”, and “Experience”. The article was labelled “For the Crescent”, so this article may have been the original publication. The author was only identified by the single initial “L”.

The butterfly metaphor was presented within the definition for “Happiness”. Here’s a sampling of three definitions. Emphasis by QI: 1

LOVE.—The electric spark communicating between two human galvanic batteries.

WEALTH.—The sum which gives content, whether one dollar or a million.

HAPPINESS.—A butterfly, which when pursued, seems always just beyond your grasp; but if you sit down quietly, may alight upon you.

The mistaken ascription to Nathaniel Hawthorne appeared many years later and was probably based on the misreading of an ambiguous entry in a book of quotations published in 1891. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1848 June 23, The Daily Crescent, A Chapter of Definitions, (The line above the title stated “For the Crescent”; author was specified with the single letter “L.”), Quote Page 2, Column 4, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Chronicling America)