Tag Archives: William Makepeace Thackeray

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

Whatever You Are, Try To Be a Good One

Abraham Lincoln? William Makepeace Thackeray? Laurence Hutton? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

thackeray09Dear Quote Investigator: Selecting a profession can be quite difficult, and changing your initial choice may be necessary. Yet, you should always strive for excellence. The following inspirational words are heartening:

Whatever you are, be a good one.

The phrase is usually attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but it sounds modern to my ear. Books about happiness, coaching, and career choice have all included the saying. Sadly, misattributions to Lincoln are commonplace. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln made this remark. Lincoln died in 1865, and the earliest attribution to Lincoln was printed in a compendium of quotations in 1946, a very late date.

Interestingly, at the turn of the previous century the saying was firmly attached to another famous individual, the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray who died in 1863. The earliest instance of the saying located by QI was published in a memoir in 1897 by Laurence Hutton who was a prominent magazine editor, critic, and essayist. The memoir was serialized in “St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks”.

Hutton described a crucial incident from his childhood in the 1850s when he met William Makepeace Thackeray who asked him about his aspirations. Hutton was uncertain about his goals in life, but he replied that he wanted to be a farmer. Thackeray responded to Hutton with a version of the saying which has now become popular. Hutton’s memoir was written in the third person, and he referred to himself as “The Boy”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Mr. Thackeray took The Boy between his knees, and asked his name, and what he intended to be when he grew up. He replied, “A farmer, sir.” Why, he cannot imagine, for he never had the slightest inclination toward a farmer’s life. And then Mr. Thackeray put his gentle hand upon The Boy’s little red head, and said: “Whatever you are, try to be a good one.”

If there is any virtue in the laying-on of hands The Boy can only hope that a little of it has descended upon him. And whatever The Boy is, he has tried, for Thackeray’s sake, “to be a good one!”

By 1904 the above version of the saying was shortened to “Whatever you are, be a good one” and assigned to Thackeray. Both versions were disseminated in the following decades.

QI believes that Laurence Hutton’s memoir was the most likely origin of the statement, and Hutton ascribed the words to William Makepeace Thackeray, but he was writing many years after the incident occurred; hence, uncertainty was inherent. On the other hand, the expression deeply impressed Hutton and influenced his life, so the phrasing he reported might have been accurate.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1897 March, St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, Conducted by Mary Mapes Dodge, Volume 24, Number 5,A Boy I Knew by Laurence Hutton, (The final installment of a series that began in December), Start Page 409, Quote Page 413, Column 2, Published by The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Thank You for the Gift Book. I Shall Lose No Time In Reading It

Benjamin Disraeli? William Gladstone? William Makepeace Thackeray? Moses Hadas? A celebrated botanist? A Scotchman? Thomas Bailey Aldrich? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.? Samuel Wilberforce? Max O’Rell?

disraeliholmes04Dear Quote Investigator: Aspiring authors sent numerous manuscripts to the statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Reportedly, he would send back a wittily ambiguous response:

Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it.

This statement might mean that Disraeli would immediately start to read the volume, or it might mean that he would never read the book. A similar response has been credited to William Makepeace Thackeray. Also, I have seen the following variant phrasing:

Your book has arrived, and I shall waste no time reading it.

Could you determine who is responsible for this type of quip?

Quote Investigator: This amusing remark has been attributed to a large and varied collection of individuals over the past 140 years including: French comedian Max O’Rell, author William Makepeace Thackeray, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, statesman Benjamin Disraeli, and his opposition William Gladstone.

First, QI notes that the phrase can be used in a straight-forward manner without a comical overlay. For example, a letter dated September 11, 1784 from the poet William Cowper used the phrase with the assumption that the text would indeed be read quickly: 1

I know that you will lose no time in reading it, but I must beg you likewise to lose none in conveying it to Johnson, that if he chuses to print it, it may go to the press immediately…

The earliest instance located by QI of an individual wielding the phrase with a humorous intent appeared in an 1871 issue of the British Quarterly Review. The quipster was identified as a botanist, but no name was given: 2

A celebrated botanist used to return thanks somewhat in the following form:—’I have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it.’ The unfortunate author might put his own construction on this rather ambiguous language.

In 1883 a travel book titled “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” printed the joke and referred to it as “the old equivoque”. The word “equivoque” meant a pun or a phrase with a double meaning: 3

…they may adopt the old equivoque—”We have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it!”

Also, in 1883 the witticism was printed in the science periodical Nature. The context was an article critical of testimonial letters which clearly indicated that the saying was being used sarcastically. The phrase was called a “well-known formula”: 4

Many testimonials are framed after that well-known formula for acknowledging the receipt of pamphlets which runs as follows:—”Dear Sir,—I beg to thank you for the valuable pamphlet which you have so kindly sent me, and which I will lose no time in reading.” And I heard the other day a testimonial praised because it showed the electors whom not to elect.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1805, The Port – Folio (1801-1827), Volume 5, Issue 45, Original Letters from Cowper to the Rev. William Unwin, Page 354, (Letter to Rev. William Unwin dated September 11, 1784), Published by H. Maxwell, Philadelphia. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  2. 1871 October 1, The British Quarterly Review, Article V, Letters and Letter Writing, Start Page 392, Quote Page 411, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1883, “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” by J. Fox Turner [John Fox Turner], Section: Preface, Quote Page vii, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., London. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation) link
  4. 1883 August 9, Nature (Weekly), A Result of our Testimonial System, Start Page 341, Quote Page 342, Column 1, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view; HathiTrust) link