H. L. Mencken? Raymond Chandler? Woodrow Wilson? Richard Le Gallienne? George Horace Lorimer?
Dear Quote Investigator: Successful scribblers believe that all writing should be engaging. A popular adage places the onus squarely on the shoulders of the author:
There are no dull subjects, just dull writers.
This expression has been attributed to the curmudgeon essayist H. L. Mencken, the detective novelist Raymond Chandler, and others. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The New York Times” in April 1921. The English poet and author Richard Le Gallienne employed the saying within a book review. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
The first duty of a book, however serious its theme, is to be entertaining. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is entertaining—otherwise it would long since have been forgotten. There are really no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.
Currently, Le Gallienne is the leading candidate for creator of this saying. The main rival candidate was George Horace Lorimer who was the editor of “The Saturday Evening Post”, a very popular long-lived periodical. Lorimer used an instance in December 1922, and he often receives credit. He did help popularize the expression, but evidence indicates Le Gallienne’s use occurred earlier.
Raymond Chandler did use the expression in 1944, but it was already in circulation. Also, the statement was attributed to H. L. Mencken by 1970, but he died in 1956. Thus, this linkage was probably spurious.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The remark by Le Gallienne was eye-catching, and in September 1921 the passage given above was reprinted as a filler item in “The Writer’s Monthly: A Journal for All Who Write”. 2
In June 1922 an editorial in the “News and Observer” of Raleigh, North Carolina ascribed a variant using the phrase “dull mind” to the former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson: 3
I never think of dull teacher or a dull pupil without recalling the effective reply that Professor Wilson, than president of Princeton, later President Wilson, made to one of his students, who complained that he could not do well in a certain study taught by a certain professor.
“It is a dull subject,” said the pupil, seeking to excuse his low marks.
“There is no dull subject,” was the reply, “except when there is a dull mind.”
In December 1922 Lorimer addressed a group of editors in Philadelphia, and he spoke a version of the saying while complaining about the state of contemporary literature: 4
George Horace Lorimer, editor of the Saturday Evening Post, in an address before the annual convention of the editors of industrial publications in six eastern states, Friday, declared that modern fiction had reached the lowest level of merit in its entire existence.
“There are no dull subjects in this world to write about, but the world is full of mighty dull writers,” he said. He ascribed the low ebb in present day fiction to the movies and to the contract system.
In January 1926 a concise version of the comment from Lorimer was incorporated into an advertisement published in the “Chicago Daily Tribune” of Chicago, Illinois: 7
When George Horace Lorimer was asked if he thought 52 consecutive advertisements about a single product could be made interesting to readers of The Saturday Evening Post, he answered: “There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.”
In November 1926 “Collier’s: The National Weekly” printed a lengthy interview with Lorimer under the title “Nothing Succeeds Like Common Sense”. He restated the adage in compact form: 8
“Scoffers at popular literature usually cannot write it, because it is the hardest kind of writing, demanding, as it does, the clearest style. Huxley and Schopenhauer would have made ideal writers of special articles for The Saturday Evening Post. They wrote as clearly as they thought. Anybody who has those twin talents can make any subject popular—even the Fourth Dimension. There are no dull subjects—only dull writers.”
In 1935 Richard Le Gallienne published a book review in “The New York Times” and reformulated the saying to refer to “life” instead of “subjects”: 9
As Rossetti said of translating poetry, there is only one law: “Thou shall not make a bad poem out of a good one.” So it is with literature generally. Life in itself is never dull. It is only dull writers that can make it so.
In 1944 Raymond Chandler published a celebrated essay about detective fiction titled “The Simple Art of Murder” in “The Atlantic Monthly”. He included an instance of the saying: 10
As for “literature of expression” and “literature of escape” — this is critics’ jargon, a use of abstract words as if they had absolute meanings. Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull writers. All men who read escape from something else. Some escape into Greek or astronomy or mathematics; some into weeding the yard or playing with the children’s toys or getting tight in little bars. But all men must escape at times from the deadly rhythm of their private thoughts.
Interestingly, Chandler later modified the essay and replaced the phrase “dull writers” with “dull minds”. This shifted the blame for dullness from writers to readers or perhaps to both roles. See the 1972 citation further below.
In 1960 “The New York Times” reviewed a book that discussed “The Saturday Evening Post” and remarked that “Scoffers sneered at the Post as a soporific to thought”. The “Times” printed the maxim and credited Lorimer: 11
Then he added the greatest challenge to anyone who dreams of appearing in print: “There are no dull subjects, only dull writers.”
A variant statement about “dull teachers” has also circulated. For example, “The Age” newspaper pf Melbourne, Australia printed the following in 1964: 12
Some few seem able to pay attention naturally, but they are indeed the few. Educational doctrine insists that a good teacher is an interesting teacher, one who creates or stimulates interest in his subject. A useful, if exacting, working rule is that there are no dull subjects; only dull teachers.
In 1970 Arnold Gingrich who was the publisher of “Esquire” magazine credited H. L. Mencken with the saying, but QI has not yet located substantive support for this attribution: 13
Maybe it’s just another exhibit of the living truth of Henry Mencken’s old dictum, to the effect that “There are no dull subjects—there are only dull writers.”
In 1972 a paperback collection of stories by Raymond Chandler included his essay “The Simple Art of Murder”. The maxim he wrote in 1944 was changed with the replacement of “dull writers” by “dull minds”: 14
Everything written with vitality expresses that vitality: there are no dull subjects, only dull minds.
In 2012 the important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” included an entry for this saying. The connection to Lorimer was noted with a citation in December 1922. 15
In conclusion, QI suggests that Richard Le Gallienne should receive credit for this saying, and the reader may use the version in the April 1921 citation. George Horace Lorimer helped to popularize the expression shortly afterward. Raymond Chandler used an instance in 1944, but it was already in use.
Image Notes: Bored person reading from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Portrait of Richard Le Gallienne from the 1800s by Alfred Ellis via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Richard Dooling whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1921 April 24, New York Times, Section: Book Review & Magazine, A Transcendental Laborite: A Review by Richard Le Gallienne, (Book Review of “The Passion of Labour” by Robert Lynd, Scribner’s Sons), Start Page BRM4, Quote Page BRM4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1921 September, The Writer’s Monthly: A Journal for All Who Write, Volume 18, Number 3, (Filler item), Quote Page 215, The Home Correspondence School, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1922 June 5, News and Observer, Section: Editorial, Hold Robeson and Save the State, (Editorial Correspondence), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Front page of section says June 5 and the banner on the page says June 4)(Newspaper_com) ↩
- 1922 December 9, Watertown Daily Times, Fiction at Its Lowest Level, Says Lorimer: World Full of Mighty Dull Writers, Saturday Evening Post Editor Says, Quote Page 7, Column 5, Watertown, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1922 December 9, The Boston Post, Fiction at Lowest Level, Declares Editor Lorimer, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1923 January 9, Santa Ana Register, Some Odds and Ends: Fiction, Quote Page 16, Column 6, Santa Ana, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1926 January 11, Chicago Daily Tribune, About the “Spark” in MERCHANDISE!, (Advertisement for Mitchell-Faust Advertising Company), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1926 November 27, Collier’s: The National Weekly, Nothing Succeeds Like Common Sense By John B. Kennedy, (An interview with George Horace Lorimer), Start Page 8, Quote Page 48, Column 2 and 3, P. F. Collier & Son, Springfield, Ohio. (Unz) ↩
- 1935 May 12, New York Times, Section: Book Review, Those Eternal Companions We Have in Books by Richard Le Gallienne, (Book review of “The Enjoyment of Literature” by Elizabeth Drew), Start Page BR2, Quote Page BR13, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1944 December, The Atlantic Monthly, The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler, Start Page 53, Quote Page 57, Column 1, The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1960 October 9, New York Times, Section: Book Review, It Took All Kinds to Make a Magazine by Samuel T. Williamson, (Book Review of “Ladies, Gentlemen and Editors” by Walter Davenport and James C. Derieux), Quote Page BR10, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1964 February 15, The Age, Concentration, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1970 June, Esquire, Volume 73, Publisher’s Page: The Proclamation of a Small Masterpiece by Arnold Gingrich, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Esquire Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1972, The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler, An Essay: The Simple Art of Murder, Start Page 1, Quote Page 13, Ballantine Books, New York. (Examined fourth printing April 1980) ↩
- 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 243, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩