John Barth? Mary McCarthy? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I am trying to locate a statement made by the prominent metafictionalist author John Barth. The quotation was similar to the following:
Everyone is the hero of his own life story.
Do you know where this appeared?
Quote Investigator: John Barth did scribe a closely matching sentence in a short story titled “The Remobilization of Jacob Horner” published in Esquire magazine in 1958. The central character named Jacob Horner was a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University who suffered from bouts of paralysis caused by a malady he called “cosmopsis”. On occasion Horner experienced a disorienting cosmic viewpoint which seemed to render his actions purposeless, and he became temporarily immobile.
A physician that Horner met serendipitously had developed a variety of therapies to help individuals afflicted with psychologically induced paralysis. The doctor explained “Mythotherapy” with the following introductory words. Bold face has been added: 1
“In life,” he said, “there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, is a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.
The physician asserted that Horner’s paralysis occurred because he no longer perceived himself as a major or minor character within his own life story. To prevent this paralysis Horner must learn to assume a sharply defined mask or role and then dramatize the situation within which he was embedded.
Precursors of the quotation under examination were written in the 1800s as shown below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1812 a treatise titled “Voyages and Travels in the Years 1809, 1810 and 1811: Containing Statistical, Commercial, and Miscellaneous Observations on Gibraltar, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Serigo, and Turkey” by John Galt was published. The author presented the following observation: 2
Every traveller is necessarily the hero of his own story, especially if he happens to travel alone. When he has the felicity of a companion the unavoidable egotism is obscured by the use of the social pronoun.
In 1832 a reviewer commenting on a magazine about natural history stated the following: 3
It should be recollected, also, that the author is necessarily the hero of his own tale, which is a disadvantage to some men when writing for the public, although it may add to the charm of the narrative, in the social circle.
In 1850 the popular author Charles Dickens released the now classic novel “David Copperfield”, and the initial sentences of the bildungsroman announced its central topic interrogatively. John Barth was well-read, and he was probably familiar with the following excerpt. Perhaps Barth constructed his adage, in part, to echo and respond to the narrative-conscious reflexive question posed by Dickens: 4
I AM BORN.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
In 1920 an editorial discussed a recent criminal investigation in which a man accused of one murder confessed to seven murders. The piece speculated on the motives of the confessor, and suggested that he viewed himself as an aberrant form of hero: 5
Whatever we may say, whatever we may think we think, down at the bottom is the fundamental craving that each man must in some way satisfy—the craving to be the hero of his own story. And so, some of us die at the stake for a holy principle and others of us confess to seven murders and 1000 burglaries, and the rest of us find ways equally satisfactory, if less sensational, of making ourselves heroes in our own eyes.
In 1930 “The Journal of the National Education Association” printed an article about individualized instruction, and the author outlined a philosophical stance for this style of pedagogy: 6
Individualization is treating each pupil as the hero of his own life’s story. It means studying his environment as the setting which must have a bearing upon the development of the plot. His deficiencies appear as complicating forces to be overcome.
In 1958 John Barth’s short story “The Remobilization of Jacob Horner” was published as noted previously. That same year a novel by Barth titled “End of the Road” was released which included the tale as an episode within a larger narrative. The passage adjacent to the quotation was expanded to include a remark about the ill-fated character Polonius from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: 7
He went on to explain Mythotherapy.
“In life,” he said, “there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, are a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story. Hamlet could be told from Polonius’s point of view and called The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. He didn’t think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.
Or suppose you’re an usher in a wedding. From the groom’s viewpoint he’s the major character; the others play supporting parts, even the bride. From your viewpoint, though, the wedding is a minor episode in the very interesting history of your life, and the bride and groom both are minor figures.
In 1961 the prominent novelist and critic Mary McCarthy published a collection containing an essay titled “Characters in Fiction” with the following pertinent passage: 8
In the old novels, there was a continual fluctuating play between the hero and the “characters,” that is, between the world as we feel it to be subjectively and the world as we know it as observers. As subjects, we all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.
In 1983 an educator wrote an opinion piece in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio about his experiences working as a retail clerk in a bookstore. He felt invisible because sometimes acquaintances did not acknowledge him. To explain this behavior he invoked the words of Barth: 9
And then there’s what novelist John Barth explained with his term “mythotherapy.” “Everyone,” he said, “is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” To maintain our view of ourselves as heroes, as stars of our own movies, we must assign everyone else minor roles, especially those whose only perceivable function is to wait on us.
In conclusion, John Barth did compose a quotation about the centripetal narrative focus of life in 1958. Thematically similar quotations were in print by the 1800s.
Image Notes: Book cover from Wikimedia. Low resolution image for identification. Caped hero from OpenClips at Pixabay.
Update History: On May 30, 2014 the 1850 “David Copperfield” citation was added. On September 30, 2018 the 1961 citation was added.
(Many thanks to Professor Steve Newman of Temple University who pointed to the valuable “David Copperfield” citation and noted that Barth was almost certainly familiar with the lines of the excerpt. Newman suggested that Barth’s adage may have been influenced by these initial words from “David Copperfield”. Any errors are the responsibility of QI. Great thanks to Nathaniel Tan whose query caused QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration.)
- 1958 July, Esquire, “The Remobilization of Jacob Horner” by John Barth (Short story), Start Page 54, Quote Page 59, Publisher by Arnold Gingrich, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1812, Voyages and Travels in the Years 1809, 1810 and 1811; Containing Statistical, Commercial, and Miscellaneous Observations on Gibraltar, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Serigo, and Turkey by John Galt, Quote Page 347 and 348, Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, The Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1832 January, The New-England Magazine, Section: Monthly Record: Literary Notices, (Review of the monthly periodical “The Cabinet of Natural History and American Rural Sports” published in Philadelphia), Quote Page 88, Printed and Published by J.T. and E. Buckingham, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1850, The Personal History of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, Quote Page 1, Published by Bradbury & Evans, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1920 July 26, Evening News, Mose Gibson, Human, Quote Page 6, Column 1, San Jose, California. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1930 January, The Journal of the National Education Association, Volume 19, Number 1, “Individual Needs” by Annette Mann (Supervisor of English, Junior High Schools, Baltimore, Maryland), Start Page 11, Quote Page 11, National Education Association of the United States, Washington, D.C. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1958 Copyright, End of the Road by John Barth, Quote Page 71, Avon Books, New York. (Verified with scans of Second Avon Library Edition, Third Printing, August 1966) ↩
- 1961, On the Contrary: Articles of Belief 1946-1961, by Mary McCarthy, Essay: Characters in Fiction, Date: March 1961, Description: “This is the substance of a talk or talks given in Yugoslavia and England in the winter of 1960”, Start Page 271, Quote Page 291, Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1983 November 8, Plain Dealer, Now you see him, now you don’t by Daniel Dyer, Quote Page 13-A, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩