You Can’t Depend On Your Eyes When Your Imagination Is Out of Focus

Mark Twain? Richard Branson? Apocryphal?

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Dear Quote Investigator: The billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has argued that imagination provides hope, drive, and inspiration. He believes it should be “intertwined in daily life”; to support this thought he referred to a quotation attributed to Mark Twain:

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.

Oddly, I have seen another very similar expression ascribed to the famed humorist:

You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.

There are so many fake Twainisms that I do not know what to think. Would you please determine if either of these statements is from the pen of the master?

Quote Investigator: Both quotations were written by Mark Twain.

In 1889 Twain published the time-travel fantasy “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. In the following passage a character in the novel was attempting to determine if a large armed group was planning an attack. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

This sound thickened and approached—from toward the north. Presently I heard it at my own level—the ridge-top of the opposite embankment, a hundred feet or more away. Then I seemed to see a row of black dots appear along that ridge—human heads?

I couldn’t tell; it mightn’t be anything at all; you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. However, the question was soon settled. I heard that metallic noise descending into the great ditch. It augmented fast, it spread all along, and it unmistakably furnished me this fact: an armed host was taking up its quarters in the ditch.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Mark Twain filled a series of small private journals with miscellaneous thoughts and observations that he jotted down over a period of decades. After his death in 1910 Albert Bigelow Paine became his literary executor and gained access to these journals. Paine consulted them while composing a multi-volume biography of the luminary. Also, in 1935 Paine released a book called “Mark Twain’s Notebook” that reprinted material selected from the journals. The following three short items appeared in the book: 2

You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.

The proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right.

There is but one first thing to do when a man is wounded and suffering: relieve him. If we have a curiosity to know his nationality, that is a matter of no consequence, and can wait.

In 1948 a large compilation titled “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger was published, and the following carefully cited quotation was included: 3

IMAGINATION
You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus. P. 344—Mark Twain’s Notebook [1935 ed.]

In 1968 the collection “20,000 Quips and Quotes” by Evan Esar included an instance with “eyes” instead of “judgment” and “cannot” instead of “can’t”: 4

IMAGINATION
You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. —Mark Twain

In 1985 “A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations” printed the saying from “Mark Twain’s Notebook” and specified a precise date: 5

You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.
—Mark Twain, Notebook, July 4, 1898 (1935).

In 2014 Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, wrote an essay titled “My three favourite quotes on imagination”, and he included a remark from Mark Twain: 6

It is a natural human instinct to want to know what lies before us. By dreaming and imagining, we can effectively chart our own paths, and see what we already believe to be true.

As Mark Twain pointed out: “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” It is therefore crucial that we put our imagination in focus, so that we can realise opportunities and act on them to reach our goals, and in turn move the world forward.

Side note: The essay also included a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein that began with the words: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift”. More information about this incorrect Einstein ascription is available here.

In conclusion, Mark Twain wrote two intriguing quotations that differed by a single word. One was printed in his popular novel “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”, and the other was handwritten in one of his private journals.

Image Notes: Mark Twain circa 1871 cropped from multi-person portrait from Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons. Autumn leaves unfocused from Niky_filipova at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Joseph Brown whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1889, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, Quote Page 421 and 422, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1935, “Mark Twain’s Notebook” by Mark Twain, Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, Quote Page 344, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Quote Page 198, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Quote Page 411, Column 2, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1985, A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations, Compiled by Bernard E. Farber, Section Judgment, Quote Page 160, Column 2, McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified on paper)
  6. Website: Virgin Group, Article title: My three favourite quotes on imagination, Article author: Richard Branson, Date on website: October 13, 2014, Website description: Information about the Virgin Group and postings by the founder Richard Branson. (Accessed virgin.com on February 11, 2015) link