A. J. Liebling? Shirley Povich? Red Smith? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The journalist A. J. Liebling was well-known for his productivity at the typewriter. Yet, high speed in composition and high quality in prose are sometimes antithetical goals. Liebling crafted a statement about his skills that was simultaneously egotistical and self-deprecating:
I can write faster than anyone who can write better, and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.
This adroit remark used a rhetorical technique called antimetabole; the main clause was repeated with keywords transposed. Would you please explore the origin of this statement?
Quote Investigator: The earliest citation known to QI appeared in “The Washington Post” in January 1964 shortly after the death of A. J. Liebling in December 1963. Fellow journalist Waverley Root reminisced about incidents that occurred when he was accompanying his friend Liebling in New York and Paris. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
I think that Joe was simply trying to situate himself, with as much impartiality as if he were someone else standing aside and looking at Joe Liebling, and to my mind what he said summed up better than anyone else has ever done it, just what his merit was. He said:
“I can write faster than anyone who can write better, and I can write better than anyone who can write faster.”
Thanks to researcher Barry Popik who located the above citation.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1811 “The Gentleman’s Magazine” printed a comical claim by a self-admiring versifier: 2
Who than I can write faster, or better in
rhime? [singers I’m prime.
Who can dance with more grace?
In 1964 the saying under investigation was ascribed to Liebling by a friend as noted above.
In 1969 sports columnist Shirley Povich released an autobiography that included praise for the writing speed of his colleague Bob Considine who employed a “touch-typing system that makes his fingers fly and his product sing”. Povich then presented half of Liebling’s statement: 3
But the Bob Considines are very few, and most of the fast writers recall the A. J. Liebling boast of “I can write better than anybody who writes faster than I.”
In January 1969 a columnist in “The Des Moines Register” of Des Moines, Iowa printed an instance: 4
Ran across a nifty quote by the late A. J. Liebling, the New Yorker writer.
“I can write better than anyone who can write faster,” he said, “and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.”
Most journalists would settle for that as an epitaph.
In July 1969 the book by Shirley Povich was scrutinized in the “Sunday Times Advertiser” of Trenton, New Jersey, and the reviewer reprinted an excerpt that included the line ascribed to Liebling. Thus, the words were further disseminated. 5
In July 1975 the editor at “Esquire” magazine welcomed and complimented a new member of the writing team named Alexander Cockburn. The editor alluded to Liebling’s notable remark: 6
People who should have less nerve are to be found here and there dressing up as A. J. Liebling, but the truth is that if the seamless mantle fits anybody it will be Cockburn, who not only covers the territory, but who also, as his output shows, can write faster than anybody who can write better and better than anybody who can write faster.
In 1980 the biography “Wayward Reporter: The Life of A. J. Liebling” by Raymond Sokolov was published, and the saying was included: 7
His fertility, like everything else about him, came out of an earlier, heroic time. The sheer quantity of his work (even without counting the thousand or so lost, unsigned newspaper articles) recalls the graphomania of Defoe and Hazlitt and Cobbett. Liebling’s boast was that he could “write better than anyone who could write faster, and faster than anyone who could write better.”
Also, in 1980 the prominent sportswriter Red Smith published a piece titled “Joe Liebling Remembered” in “The New York Times”. Smith had recently seen the biography mentioned above, and it activated his memories of the journalist. Smith presented a reordered version of the quotation: 8
A. J. Liebling, who said, “I can write faster than anyone who can write better and better than anyone who can write faster,” gave every appearance of enjoying himself when he was at the typewriter. He seemed immune to the pain of composition and even broke into laughter sometimes when pleased by one of his lines. He must have got special delight out of the comparison quoted above.
In conclusion, QI believes that A. J. Liebling did coin the quotation under examination although it has not been found in his writings. The ordering of the two main clauses was variable in the versions printed over the years. QI suggests using the instance published in 1964.
(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Barry Popik and to the members of the Wombats discussion group especially S. M. Colowick who pointed to the 1980 biography. )
- 1964 January 19, The Washington Post, When Dadaists Played Chess: That Was the Decade That Was; A Rose Was a Rose and the Ilk Oozed by Waverley Root (The Washington Post Foreign Service), Quote Page E3, Column 5 and 6, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1811 October, The Gentleman’s Magazine: And Historical Chronicle, Volume 81, Part 2, Select Poetry: Horace, Book I, Sat. IX, Quote Page 358, Column 2, Printed by John Nichols and Son, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1969, All These Mornings by Shirley Povich, Chapter 13, Quote Page 179, Published by Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New, Jersey. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1969 January 27, Des Moines Register, Over the Coffee: Workings of An Idle Mind, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1969 July 27, Sunday Times Advertiser (Trenton Evening Times), Section: Pleasure: Sunday Times Advertiser, Shirley Povich’s Battle At The Typewriter, (Book Review of “All These Mornings” by Shirley Povich), Quote Page 7, Column 2 and 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (The original text had “vey” instead of “very”) (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1975 July, Esquire, Backstage with Esquire, Start Page 124, Quote Page 124, Column 2, Published by Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980, Wayward Reporter: The Life of A. J. Liebling by Raymond Sokolov, Section: Preliminary: “What Is a Liebling?”, Quote Page 9, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980 November 10, New York Times, Joe Liebling Remembered by Red Smith, Quote Page C9, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩