Dorothy Parker? Carl L. Becker? Thomas Reed Powell? Charles A. Beard? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker wrote book reviews containing memorable zingers. When she examined a scientific volume she reportedly wrote the following:
This work was written without fear and without research.
I have not been able to determine when she wrote this. Nor have I figured out the title of the excoriated book. Would you be willing to help?
Quote Investigator: In 1944 the quotation and anecdote collector Bennett Cerf published “Try and Stop Me” which included a section dedicated to the sayings of Dorothy Parker. Cerf presented the following instance of the quip: 1
She polished off one scientific volume with the dictum, “It was written without fear and without research.”
QI has been unable to locate evidence of a linkage to Parker before this date. Also, QI has not found the joke directly in a review written by Parker. Interestingly, the expression was in circulation for decades before Cerf’s ascription.
The “Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1912” included an article by Carl L. Becker who was at that time a Professor of History at the University of Kansas. Becker reviewed several history texts and singled out one work for harshly comical analysis. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
The great books, however, are not the only ones that enlist the attention of the critical reviewer. It sometimes happens that a slight book is significant for what it points to. I have in mind, for example, the little volume of Mr. A. M. Simons entitled “Social Forces in American History;” not perhaps a very wise performance; written, it must be confessed, without fear and without research; written nevertheless with profound conviction, and significant because it is representative of what probably passes for history among militant socialists, but significant above all because in the next 50 years many histories of the United States, and better ones than this, will doubtless be written from the same point of view.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1923 Thomas Reed Powell, a Professor of Constitutional Law at Columbia University, published an article in “The New Republic” that reviewed three books about the U.S. Constitution. He employed the quip, but he used quotation marks to signal that the phrase was already in circulation. No attribution was given: 3
It is not to be assumed that this mythology is always the product of perversity. Men without their Sinai and Olympus must have their Runnymede and Philadelphia. It is often the worthiest of motives that stirs them to indulge in their rhapsodies “without fear and without research.” What we must question is not their character but their intelligence. What we must deny them is not the joy of sincere devotions but the satisfaction of good works.
In 1928 a history book by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard was reviewed in “The New England Quarterly”. The reviewer used the humorous phrase and enclosed it within quotation marks: 4
For the Beards distinctly do not belong to the class of historians “without fear and without research.” There is half a lifetime of solid work behind their book.
In 1932 a set of four lectures by Carl L. Becker were published under the title “The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers”. This slim volume was influential and controversial. Becker once again used the expression under investigation: 5
If we could discover the little backstairs door that for any age serves as the secret entranceway to knowledge, we will do well to look for certain unobtrusive words with uncertain meanings that are permitted to slip off the tongue or the pen without fear and without research; words which having from constant repetition lost their metaphorical significance, are unconsciously mistaken for objective realities.
In the thirteenth century the key words would no doubt be God, sin, grace, salvation, heaven and the like; in the nineteenth century, matter, fact, matter-of-fact, evolution, progress; in the twentieth century, relativity, process, adjustment, function, complex.
In 1934 a text for engineering students commented on the lack of knowledge of many voters and used an instance of the quip within quotes: 6
Briefly interpreted, the chances are that those voters whose expert knowledge really entitles them to express a valid opinion upon the merits of any great technical question in government will always be swamped at the polls by a body of laymen, casting ballots “without fear and without research.” The determination of public policy respecting technical issues by the head-counting process is thus likely to run counter to the findings of technology itself.
The prominent historian Charles A. Beard used the expression more than once. For example, in the Winter 1940 issue of “The Virginia Quarterly Review” Beard commented on a book by Carl Sandburg: 7
But this is not to say that Mr. Sandburg writes “without fear and without research.” On the contrary, few if any historians have ever labored harder in preparation for composition. He has traveled widely and searched widely.
In 1941 the media personality Clifton Fadiman noted in the pages of “The New Yorker” that by Carl L. Becker had employed the jape: 8
Speaking of Carnegie, as we were a paragraph or two ago, Dr. Becker refers neatly to that eminent library-lover’s naive volume, “Triumphant Democracy,” as “written without fear and without research.”
In 1944 Bennett Cerf ascribed the humorous phrase to Dorothy Parker as noted previously.
In 1946 an article in “The New England Quarterly” credited an instance of the expression to Becker: 9
After twenty-five years of thought this work was written, in the words of the late Carl Becker whose admirable writings the author has discreetly ignored, “without fear and without research.”
In 1950 an article in the “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut attributed an instance of the phrase to Beard who was attacking historian John Fiske: 10
Not only did Beard pronounce him a man who wrote “without fear and without research,” but others have implied that Fiske’s book was “altogether without scientific standing…”
In 1968 “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan attributed an instance of the remark to Dorothy Parker: 11
Reviewing a book on science, Mrs. Parker wrote, “It was written without fear and without research.”
In conclusion, historian Carl L. Becker used this expression by 1912, and currently he is the strongest candidate for originator known to QI. The phrase was used by other historians such as Charles A. Beard, but he placed the phrase in quotation marks indicating that he was using an existing quip.
Dorothy Parker may have used the expression, but the evidence is indirect, and the linkage appeared many years after the phrase was already being disseminated.
Image Notes: Dorothy Parker image from Wikimedia Commons; public domain. Researcher image from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.
- 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 111, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1914, Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1912, The Reviewing of Historical Books by Carl Becker (Professor at University of Kansas), Start Page 127, Quote Page 133, Submitted to the Congress of the United States by Smithsonian Institution for the American Historical Association, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1923 February 7, The New Republic, Constitutional Interpretation and Misinterpretation by Thomas Reed Powell, (Book reviews of: The Constitution of the United States by Thomas James Norton; The Constitution of the United States by James M. Beck; The Law of the American Constitution by Charles K, Burdick), Start Page 297, Quote Page 297, Column 1, The Republic Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1928 January, The New England Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 1, Book Review by S. E. Morison of The Rise of American Civilization by Charles A. Beard and Mary R. Beard, Start Page 94, Quote Page 94, Published by The New England Quarterly, Inc. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1932, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth Century Philosophers by Carl L. Becker (Carl Lotus Becker), (Preface states: Based on four lectures delivered at the School of Law of Yale University in April, 1931), Lecture II: The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, Start Page 33, Quote Page 47, Yale University Press. New Haven. (Verified with scans of 1974 reprint) ↩
- 1934, Government and Technology: An Outline for Engineering Students by William Beard, Quote Page 84, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1940, The Lincoln of Carl Sandburg: Some Reviews of ‘Abraham Lincoln: the war years’, “The Sandburg Lincoln” by Charles A. Beard, (Reprinted from The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1940), Start Page 5, Quote Page 6, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩
- 1941 April 5, The New Yorker, Books: Mixed Bag by Clifton Fadiman, Start Page 88, Quote Page 90, New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (New Yorker online archive of scans) ↩
- 1946 March, The New England Quarterly, Volume 19, Number 1, Book Review by Carl Bridenbaugh of “The Philosophy of American History” by Morris Zucker, Start Page 115, Quote Page 117, Published by The New England Quarterly, Inc. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1950 October 10, The Hartford Courant, Courant Books, (Book review of “The New Nation” by Merrill Jensen), Quote Page 10, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Quote Page 114, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩