Consistency Is the Last Refuge of the Unimaginative

Oscar Wilde? James McNeill Whistler? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: Being consistent is important in life. Yet, additional knowledge and experience motivates new thoughts and behaviors. The following adage criticizes the straitjacket of excessive consistency:

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

The famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde has received credit for this saying. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1885 Oscar Wilde published an essay about the prominent painter James McNeill Whistler in “The Pall Mall Gazette” of London. Wilde contended that the philosophy of painting propounded by Whistler was inconsistent with the artworks he was creating. But Wilde was eager to forgive this lapse. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1885 February 28, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Relation of Dress To Art: A Note in Black and White on Mr. Whistler’s Lecture by Mr. Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 4, Column 2, London, England. (British … Continue reading

Nor do I feel quite sure that Mr. Whistler has been himself always true to the dogma he seems to lay down, that a painter should only paint the dress of his age, and of his actual surroundings: far be it from me to burden a butterfly with the heavy responsibility of its past: I have always been of opinion that consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative: but have we not all seen, and most of us admired, a picture from his hand of exquisite English girls strolling by an opal sea in the fantastic dresses of Japan? Has not Tite-street been thrilled with the tidings that the models of Chelsea were posing to the master, in peplums, for pastels?

Whatever comes from Mr. Whistler’s brush is far too perfect in its loveliness, to stand, or fall, by any intellectual dogmas on art, even by his own: for Beauty is justified of all her children, and cares nothing for explanations.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Consistency Is the Last Refuge of the Unimaginative

References

References
1 1885 February 28, The Pall Mall Gazette, The Relation of Dress To Art: A Note in Black and White on Mr. Whistler’s Lecture by Mr. Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 4, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

During My Life I Have Often Had To Eat My Own Words, and I Have Found Them a Wholesome Diet

Winston Churchill? Isabel Vernon? Walter Monckton? John W. Wheeler-Bennett? Katherine Ramsay? Earl of Swinton? Lord Normanbrook? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: According to legend a prominent political figure was planning to reverse a long-held policy, and a colleague disapproved while warning, “You would be required to eat your own words.” The figure replied, “I have often been required to eat my own words, and I find it a very wholesome diet!”

This wordplay has been attributed to Winston Churchill. I am unsure of the precise phrasing, and I haven’t been able to locate a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest ascription to Churchill found by QI appeared in the “Bristol Evening Post” of England in 1956. Sir Walter Monckton delivered a speech to the students at Colston School (now called Collegiate School). Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 1956 June 25, Bristol Evening Post, ‘Form own views,’ Sir Walter urges boys, Quote Page 13, Column 4, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

Sir Walter urged the boys not just to take other people’s opinions for granted, but to form their own and think straight for themselves—even if they occasionally had to admit they were wrong.

This was not a shameful thing, he said, and cited the instance on which, after Sir Winston Churchill had been taken to task for saying something quite inconsistent with something he had said years before, he commented: “For 40 years, I have found myself eating my own words, and on the whole I find it a very wholesome diet!”

QI has not yet found a direct citation to a speech by Winston Churchill or to a text written by him. Nevertheless, the citation above and other attributions shown below are substantive; hence, QI believes Churchill deserves credit for using this type of quip although he was not the first.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading During My Life I Have Often Had To Eat My Own Words, and I Have Found Them a Wholesome Diet

References

References
1 1956 June 25, Bristol Evening Post, ‘Form own views,’ Sir Walter urges boys, Quote Page 13, Column 4, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

If They Don’t Give You a Seat at the Table, Bring in a Folding Chair

Shirley Chisholm? Donna Brazile? Barbara Lee? Giovanni Piccolino? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: A politician who advocated for inclusive decision-making used the following metaphorical expression to encourage activists to demand representation:

If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.

This saying has been attributed to U.S. Congress member Shirley Chisholm and U.S. political strategist Donna Brazile. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Shirley Chisholm died in January 2005, and shortly afterward “People” magazine published a tribute to her which included a remark from Donna Brazile who credited Chisholm with the expression. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]2005 January 17, People, Tribute: Shirley Chisholm 1924-2005, A political trailblazer, she made history as the first black woman in Congress, Quote Page 108, Time Inc., New York. (EBSCO Academic … Continue reading

Democratic party activist and longtime friend Donna Brazile still recalls the advice Chisholm once gave her: “She said, ‘If you wait for a man to give you a seat, you’ll never have one! If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.’”

The excerpt above contains the earliest match located by QI. This citation provides substantive support for the ascription Shirley Chisholm.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If They Don’t Give You a Seat at the Table, Bring in a Folding Chair

References

References
1 2005 January 17, People, Tribute: Shirley Chisholm 1924-2005, A political trailblazer, she made history as the first black woman in Congress, Quote Page 108, Time Inc., New York. (EBSCO Academic Search Elite)

You Did What You Knew How To Do, and When You Knew Better, You Did Better

Maya Angelou? Oprah Winfrey? Phil McGraw? Gary Zukav? Ernest Rogers? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: Life requires a complicated incremental process of learning. Agonizing mistakes are inevitable. Here are two versions of a heartfelt response to setbacks:

(1) You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.
(2) Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.

This saying has been attributed to prominent memoirist and poet Maya Angelou and to famous television producer and entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1995 Oprah Winfrey’s television program featured a guest who discussed her drug abuse problems. The frank confession from the guest inspired Winfrey to make her own revelation. Oprah stated that she had smoked crack cocaine when she was in her twenties. An article in “The Washington Post” about the television episode described Oprah’s remarks. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 1995 January 13, The Washington Post, How Oprah’s Confession Tumbled Out by Patrice Gaines (Washington Post Staff Writer), Quote Page B1, Column 4, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)

Winfrey spoke to the audience of the shame she felt about her “dark secret” and how her friend, poet Maya Angelou, had once said to her, “You did what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better.”

Thus, Oprah Winfrey ascribed the memorably empathetic guidance to her friend and mentor Maya Angelou. There is a long history before 1995 for the general saying: if you know better, do better.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Did What You Knew How To Do, and When You Knew Better, You Did Better

References

References
1 1995 January 13, The Washington Post, How Oprah’s Confession Tumbled Out by Patrice Gaines (Washington Post Staff Writer), Quote Page B1, Column 4, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)

It Is Better To Take What Does Not Belong To You Than To Let It Lie Around Neglected

Mark Twain? Merle Johnson? Apocryphal?

Question for Quote Investigator: Mark Twain has received credit for the following slyly comical remark justifying thievery:

It is better to take what does not belong to you than to let it lie around neglected.

I have not found this statement in any of the stories or essays authored by Twain. Is this quotation genuine?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match for this saying located by QI appeared in the book “More Maxims of Mark”. This slim volume was compiled by Merle Johnson and privately printed in November 1927. Only fifty first edition copies were created, and a friend of QI’s accessed copy number 14 in the The Rubenstein Rare Book Library at Duke University. Below is the saying under investigation together with the preceding and succeeding entries. Adages in the work were presented in uppercase. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1927, More Maxims of Mark by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Compiled by Merle Johnson, Quote Page 9, First edition privately printed November 1927; Number 14 of 50 copies. (Verified with page images … Continue reading

IT IS NOT BEST TO USE OUR MORALS WEEKDAYS, IT GETS THEM OUT OF REPAIR FOR SUNDAY.

IT IS BETTER TO TAKE WHAT DOES NOT BELONG TO YOU THAN TO LET IT LIE AROUND NEGLECTED.

IS A PERSON’S PUBLIC AND PRIVATE OPINION THE SAME? IT IS THOUGHT THERE HAVE BEEN INSTANCES.

Merle Johnson was a rare book collector, and he published the first careful bibliography of Twain’s works in 1910 shortly after the writer’s death. Twain scholars believe that the sayings compiled by Johnson in “More Maxims of Mark” are properly ascribed to Twain.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is Better To Take What Does Not Belong To You Than To Let It Lie Around Neglected

References

References
1 1927, More Maxims of Mark by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), Compiled by Merle Johnson, Quote Page 9, First edition privately printed November 1927; Number 14 of 50 copies. (Verified with page images from the Rubenstein Library at Duke University; special thanks to Mike)

If You Walk Far Enough You’ll Meet Yourself

Terry Pratchett? Marion Woodman? Joseph Campbell? David Mitchell? Vina Howland? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: There is a family of sayings with a surrealistic twist. Here are three instances:

(1) If you walk far enough you’ll meet yourself.

(2) Walk far enough and you will meet yourself, coming the other way.

(3) If you travel far enough, one day you will recognize yourself coming down the road to meet yourself.

This notion has been attributed to English fantasy author Terry Pratchett who created the Discworld, Canadian Jungian psychoanalyst Marion Woodman who was a mythopoetic author, U.S. literature professor Joseph Campbell who wrote “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, and English novelist David Mitchell who wrote “Cloud Atlas”. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in “The Boston Post” newspaper of Massachusetts in 1895. The statement was employed by Vina Howland of Oakland, Massachusetts who presented an anonymous attribution. She was figuratively referring to the complicated layout of streets and walkways in Boston. Boldface added to excepts by QI:[1] 1895 July 11, The Boston Post, Among the Women: Other Expressions, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)

Miss Vina Howland of Oakland is a very pretty girl. She said: “How disappointed we were not to have this convention, but just think! I’ve seen Boston and convention, too; it’s like a dream. But ain’t it an awful place to get lost? I believe now the story they tell that is, ‘If you walk far enough you’ll meet yourself.’”

Based on current evidence the originator of the saying remains anonymous. The meaning of this notion is highly variable as shown below. QI has not yet found any substantive support for the ascription to Joseph Campbell.

Marion Woodman employed an instance in 1982. Terry Pratchett and a co-author used an instance in 1994, and David Mitchell used the expression in 2004.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Walk Far Enough You’ll Meet Yourself

References

References
1 1895 July 11, The Boston Post, Among the Women: Other Expressions, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)

“Are You With the Show?” “Well, Let’s Just Say I’m Not Against It”

George S. Kaufman? Dick Cavett? Howard Dietz? Leonard Lyons? Howard Teichmann? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent theater producer was unhappy with the tryout performance of a show that he was funding. A stagehand did not recognize the producer which led to the following dialog:

“Are you with the show?”
“No, I’m against it!”

A variant joke employed similar wordplay. A well-regarded writer was called upon to improve a script. He attempted to enter the theater to see a rehearsal, but the doorman did not recognize him:

“Excuse me, sir; are you with the show?”
“Well, let’s just say I’m not against it.”

Would you please explore the provenance of this word play?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a short item published in the “The Kansas City Star” newspaper of Missouri in 1906. The dialog participants were both anonymous. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 1906 May 13, The Kansas City Star, Some People of the Stage, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Kansas City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)

It was at the stage door at Wallack’s, New York, one night recently during the brief “run” of the since defunct “District Leader.” Among those awaiting the exit of members of the company were several theatrical friends. Two of them met for the first time in months. Said one:
“Are you with the show?”
Growled the other, who doubtless had sat it out on a pass:
“No; I’m against it!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “Are You With the Show?” “Well, Let’s Just Say I’m Not Against It”

References

References
1 1906 May 13, The Kansas City Star, Some People of the Stage, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Kansas City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)

What Sort of Philosophers Are We Who Know Absolutely Nothing of the Origin and Destiny of Cats?

Henry David Thoreau? Grace Goodman Mauran? Apocryphal?

Picture of a kitten playing with a flowerQuestion for Quote Investigator: The essayist and transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau found cats intriguing. He was disappointed that humanity knew “absolutely nothing of the origin and destiny of cats.” Would you please help me to find a citation for this remark about cats?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Henry David Thoreau recorded his thoughts and observations in a multi-volume journal. The entry dated December 12, 1856 contains the following. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]Website: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, Online Journal Transcripts, Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, Manuscript Volume 22, Journal Date: December 12, 1856, The Thoreau project is located in … Continue reading

Wonderful—wonderful is our life and that of our companions! That there should be such a thing as a brute animal—not human! & that it should attain to a sort of society with our race!! Think of cats, for instance; they are neither Chinese nor Tartars; they do not go to school, nor read the Testament. Yet how near they come to doing so–how much they are like us! What sort of philosophers are we who know absolutely nothing of the origin & destiny of cats?

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What Sort of Philosophers Are We Who Know Absolutely Nothing of the Origin and Destiny of Cats?

References

References
1 Website: The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, Online Journal Transcripts, Henry David Thoreau’s Journal, Manuscript Volume 22, Journal Date: December 12, 1856, The Thoreau project is located in Davidson Library at the University of California, Santa Barbara. (Accessed via thoreau.library.ucsb.edu on November 15, 2022)

A Novel Can Be Cleaned Up. Life Is One Big Messy Rough Draft

Harlan Coben? Apocryphal?

Fantasy book with waterfallsQuestion for Quote Investigator: A best-selling author once stated something like the following: The world of fiction is superior to the real world because a writer is capable of altering and improving a fictional realm, but the real world is always a big messy rough draft. Would you please help me to identify this author and find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Harlan Coben has written several top-selling mystery novels and thrillers. In 2010 he wrote a piece in “Parade Magazine” that discussed his writing process. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 2010 May 16, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: Parade Magazine, Don’t Run Afoul of Bobby Knight by Harlan Coben, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

Let me back up a little and tell you why I prefer writing to real life: You can rewrite. A novel, for example, can be cleaned up, altered, trimmed, improved. Life, on the other hand, is one big messy rough draft. You forget your line in your third-grade play, you screw up spelling “occurred” in the fifth-grade spelling bee … you can’t take any of that back.

Coben further stated that sometimes he wished he had a delete key for real life. In conclusion, Harlan Coben deserves credit for the quotation above.

Image Notes: Illustration of a fantasy book from thommas68 at Pixabay. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to writer extraordinaire Vic DiGenti who included this quotation in a newsletter of the Florida Writers Association. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

References

References
1 2010 May 16, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: Parade Magazine, Don’t Run Afoul of Bobby Knight by Harlan Coben, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

Seek Happiness in Tranquility and Avoid Ambition

Mary Shelley? Victor Frankenstein? Scott Galloway? Apocryphal?

Portrait of Mary ShelleyQuestion for Quote Investigator: English author Mary Shelley penned the famous science fiction novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”. The overweening ambition of the main character, scientist Victor Frankenstein, caused him to create a monster. He learned bitterly that his passion for success and fame was destructive. Apparently, his dying words were a powerful injunction to avoid ambition. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Mary Shelley published “Frankenstein” in 1818. Victor Frankenstein’s final conversation occurs with Robert Walton, the captain of a ship which is on a dangerous journey toward the North Pole. Crewmembers of the ship discover an exhausted and gaunt Victor floating on a block of ice. After Victor partially recovers his health he proceeds to tell the captain his tragic saga. Below are Victor’s last words before expiring. This passage uses the British spelling: “tranquillity”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1]1818, Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Volume 3 of 3, Chapter 7, Quote Page 177, Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, London. (Google … Continue reading

“The forms of the beloved dead flit before me, and I hasten to their arms. Farewell, Walton! Seek happiness in tranquillity, and avoid ambition, even if it be only the apparently innocent one of distinguishing yourself in science and discoveries. Yet why do I say this? I have myself been blasted in these hopes, yet another may succeed.”

Oddly, Victor’s final two sentences seem to undercut the admonition to avoid ambition. Victor’s ambivalence reflects the complexity of his character. Mary Shelley did not wish to enforce a single meaning for her sophisticated fable. The framing tale of Captain Robert Walton’s perilous voyage illustrates a counterpoint to Victor’s story. Walton decides to halt his expedition. Thus, Walton selects safety over ambition.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Seek Happiness in Tranquility and Avoid Ambition

References

References
1 1818, Frankenstein, Or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Volume 3 of 3, Chapter 7, Quote Page 177, Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, London. (Google Books Full View) link