When I Was Younger, I Could Remember Anything, Whether It Had Happened or Not

Mark Twain? Albert Bigelow Paine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain formulated a wonderful expression about the fallibility of memory as one grows older. Here is the beginning of his humorous saying:

When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not.

My own memory may be failing because I think I have seen multiple versions of the full statement. Is there more than one version? Which version is correct?

Quote Investigator: Yes, there are three important variants of this quotation that have been ascribed to Mark Twain. Intriguingly, the meaning of the quotation and the nature of the joke changed as the statement was revised. Here are the three versions with dates. Boldface has been added:

1907: When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that happened.

1912: When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter.

1924: When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.

Mark Twain worked on his autobiography for many years, and during this process he sometimes published sections. The first statement above was included in a draft chapter of his autobiography that was printed in the March 1907 issue of “The North American Review”. Before presenting the statement Twain mentioned an incident from his memory which he now believed was a “delusion”: 1

My brother Henry was six months old at that time. I used to remember his walking into a fire outdoors when he was a week old. It was remarkable in me to remember a thing like that, which occurred when I was so young. And it was still more remarkable that I should cling to the delusion, for thirty years, that I did remember it — for of course it never happened; he would not have been able to walk at that age. If I had stopped to reflect, I should not have burdened my memory with that impossible rubbish so long.

Immediately preceding the quotation Twain presented another memory that he now considered unreliable:

For many years I believed that I remembered helping my grandfather drink his whiskey toddy when I was six weeks old, but I do not tell about that any more, now; I am grown old, and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.

Twain’s joke was counterintuitive because he was comically arguing that his memory was actually improving as he aged. Impossible, and hence inaccurate, memories were being rejected. The conventional viewpoint usually asserts the opposite thesis that memory becomes less reliable as one ages. Indeed, the joke was later modified to accord with the conventional stance.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Mark Twain died in 1910, and in 1912 Albert Bigelow Paine published a multivolume biography of him. Paine was the friend, literary executor, and official biographer of Twain. Paine presented a modified version of the saying: 2

In a prefatory note to these volumes I have quoted Mark Twain’s own lovely and whimsical admission, made once when he realized his deviations:

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter.”

At another time he paraphrased one of Josh Billings’s sayings in the remark: “It isn’t so astonishing, the number of things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.”

In the original quotation Twain stated that as he grew older he was remembering “things that happened”. In the 1912 Paine version of the expression Twain stated that soon he would remember only things that did not happen.

The 1924 version of Mark Twain’s autobiography was prepared by Albert Bigelow Paine. This book contained a third version of the saying. Crucially, the word “never” was inserted into the text of the 1907 quotation: 3

For many years I believed that I remembered helping my grandfather drink his whisky toddy when I was six weeks old, but I do not tell about that any more, now; I am grown old and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.

In conclusion, the 1907 version of this quip was the earliest instance located by QI. It revealed Mark Twain’s creativity and playfulness. In the following years the joke was modified by Twain or by Paine. All three versions are humorous in QI’s opinion, but the first is the wittiest.

Notes:

  1. 1907 March 1, The North American Review, Memories of a Southern Farm: A Chapter From Mark Twain’s Autobiography – XIII by Mark Twain, Start Page 449, Quote Page 451, (University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa), Franklin Square, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1912, Mark Twain, A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine, Volume 3, Quote Page 1269, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York and London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1924, Mark Twain’s Autobiography by Mark Twain, Volume 1, (Introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine), Quote Page 96, Harper & Brothers, New York and London. (Verified on paper)