Maya Angelou? H. Jackson Brown Jr.? A 52-Year-Old Person?
Dear Quote Investigator: Each of us must occasionally experience irritating situations. Maturity and self-control help to keep a person steady. A quotation touching on this theme has been attributed to the prominent poet and memoirist Maya Angelou. Here are two versions:
I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle three things: a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights
I have been unable to determine where or when Angelou said this. Are these really her words?
Quote Investigator: Probably not.
The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a 1991 compilation by the best-selling author H. Jackson Brown, Jr. titled “Live and Learn and Pass It On: People ages 5 to 95 share what they’ve discovered about life, love, and other good stuff”. The book printed a set of comical and astute sayings from individuals who were identified only by age. Here is a sampling of four remarks from Brown’s book. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a man by the way he handles these three things: a rainy holiday, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. —Age 52
I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you miss them terribly after they die. —Age 53
I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back. —Age 64
I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be a pain. —Age 82
The phrase “rainy holiday” was used instead of “rainy day”. A holidaymaker hoping for sun would certainly be aggravated with downpours.
By 2003 all four of these statements from different people had implausibly been reassigned to Maya Angelou.
In March 2003 a columnist in a Georgia newspaper printed material from a message that was already in wide circulation. The preface to the message stated that it was written by Angelou on her 70th birthday. Since Angelou was born in 1928 the message was supposedly written in 1998. The ellipses in this excerpt were in the original newspaper article: 2
“I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage and tangled Christmas tree lights.
“I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.
“I’ve learned that making a living is not the same thing as making a life … that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands … you’ll need to throw something back.
“I’ve learned that when I make a decision with an open heart, it is usually right … that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one
Brown’s book was published seven years before the 1998 date specified for the above passage. QI believes it is very unlikely that Angelou copied material from Brown’s book. Instead, one or more people collected a group of sayings. Next, the attribution of this material was deliberately or accidentally reassigned to Angelou.
Collections of sayings of uncertain authorship have been reassigned to other well-known women such as Marilyn Monroe. Social networks allow misattributions to be rapidly and widely disseminated to an audience that is eager to share and learn. If you are reading this sentence then you are a bright and discerning individual interested in careful analysis.
In conclusion, QI believes that the remark about rainy days, luggage, and Christmas lights was crafted by an unnamed person who was 52 years old. The precise text appeared in the 1991 citation. The linkage to Maya Angelou was spurious.
Image Notes: Picture of rain and umbrella from marmax at Pixabay. Picture of Christmas lights from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Picture of luggage from Efraimstochter at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Mario DeStefano whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1991, Live and Learn and Pass It On: People ages 5 to 95 share what they’ve discovered about life, love, and other good stuff, Written and compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr.,”luggage” Quote Page 85,”parents” Quote Page 31, “mitt” Quote Page 47,”pains” Quote Page 25, Published by Rutledge Hill Press, Nashville, Tennessee. (Items have been selected and ordered to match the sequence in the March 2003 Maya Angelou citation) (Verified with scans) ↩
- 2003 March 25, Carolina Morning News, Section: Bluffton Bulletin, Column: Beautiful Bluffton By the Sea, Spring Has Sprung Around Town by Carolyn Bremer, Page 3, Newspaper Location: Georgia. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩