Ralph Waldo Emerson? G. B. Emerson? Charles Gordon Ames? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The well-known lecturer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson has been credited with a provocative remark about reading and memory:
I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.
I have not found a convincing citation for Emerson. Are these really his words?
Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found convincing evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke or wrote this statement. He died in 1882, and the earliest strong match located by QI appeared in “The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine” issue of June 1896 within an article about a Harvard Divinity graduate and prominent Unitarian clergyman named William Henry Furness who had died earlier in the year. The piece reviewed the life and accomplishments of Furness who was born in 1802 and attended Harvard in the early 1820s. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Whatever impressions were made on the student’s mind by the courses of instruction, hardly a trace of them appears in his later authorship. Yet this may only imply thorough assimilation; for he can never be classed among those who have gone forth from classic halls to afflict mankind with the bad breath of ill-digested scholarship. “I have forgotten the books I have read,” said Emerson; “and so I have the dinners I have eaten; but they both helped make me.”
The paragraph preceding the passage above mentioned that G. B. Emerson was a tutor at Harvard while Furness was a student. Hence, it was conceivable that the ambiguous term “Emerson” referred G. B. Emerson instead of the better known Ralph Waldo Emerson (R. W. E.). On the other hand, the author of the article, Charles Gordon Ames, used “Emerson” to refer to R. W. E. in a later section. In addition, a quotation from R. W. E. would fit because Furness and he maintained a lifelong friendship that extended back to their days at Boston Latin School.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The remark caught the eye of other writers and editors. In August 1896 the journal “Public Opinion” printed a nearly identical instance with the phrase “helped to make me” instead of “help make me”. Emerson was credited and a magazine called “Exchange” was acknowledged: 2
Exchange: Emerson once said: “I have forgotten the books I have read, and so I have the dinners I have eaten; but they both helped to make me.” Every good sermon helps to make some man’s character.
Also, in August 1896 “The Record-Union” of Sacramento, California published a critical response to the statement: 3
Was Emerson accurate when he said that he had forgotten the books he had read? Did he not rather mean that he may have forgotten some titles of books that had not helped him? Is it possible for any one to forget the book that helps him?
The commentator believed that each book made an impression on the mind that could not be entirely effaced:
Yet Emerson in the abundance of his self regard declared that it was true in his case. But he admitted that while he had forgotten the books they had helped to make him, as had the dinners he had eaten and forgotten, so that the philosopher hedged and saved himself from being ridiculous.
In September 1896 a shorter streamlined instance was printed in “The Millersburg Grit” of Millersburg, Indiana: 4
Emerson said: “I have forgotten the books I have read and the dinners I have eaten, but both helped to make me.” Every good sermon helps to make some man’s character.
In 1897 “The New York Times” reported on a commencement address that was delivered at a school in Troy, New York called the Emma Willard Seminary. The speech included a re-ordered instance of the saying with the phrase “cannot remember” instead of “have forgotten”: 5
. . . I recall that Emerson has said: ‘I cannot remember the dinners I have eaten, nor the books I have read, but all have helped to make me.’ And thus it is with me to-day. . .
In February 1905 a letter of thanks was published in “New-York Tribune” for a gift of books given to a travelling library. The instance in the following passage employed “meals” instead of “dinners”: 6
Some great man said: “I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; but they have all helped to make me.” So these books, thanks to Sunshine, will help to make the children in the schoolhouses where they go. All have been inscribed within as gifts of the Tribune Sunshine Society.
In May 1905 an article titled “The Spirit of the Book of Mormon” by Elder B. H. Roberts was printed in “The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star”. An instance with another phrasing was included: 7
“I can no more remember the books I have read than the meals I have eaten,” says Emerson, “but they have made me.” In this way the American philosopher recognizes the simple truth that the reading of books has something to do with the making of a man—that they affect the mind.
A half-century later in 1958 in the Latter-Day Saints community the saying continued to circulate. The “Deseret News” of Salt Lake City, Utah reported on a speech by Elder Gordon B. Hinckley: 8
I think it was Emerson who was asked what book had had the greatest influence upon his life, and he said he could no more remember the books he had read than he could remember the meals he had eaten, but they had made him. Likewise, all of us are largely the products of the lives which touch upon our lives…
In conclusion, this article represents a snapshot of what QI has discovered. The first known instances of the saying appeared in 1896, and the phrasing has evolved over the decades. Both G. B. Emerson and Ralph Waldo Emerson were candidates for attribution although the case for R. W. E. was more plausible. The fact that R. W. E. died in 1882, and the saying emerged in 1896 reduced the probability that the attribution to him was accurate. Yet, QI has seen no substantive attributions rivaling “Emerson”. Perhaps future researchers will locate an illuminating citation.
Image Notes: Stack of book from meneya at Pixabay. Portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson; engraving by S.A. Schoff based on a drawing by Sam W. Rowse; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of food from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Ben Wong whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1896 June, The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Volume 4, Number 16, William Henry Furness by Charles Gordon Ames, (Profile of Harvard graduate William Henry Furness who died January 30, 1896), Start Page 545, Quote Page 546, Published by The Harvard Graduates’ Magazine Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1896 August 6, Public Opinion: A Comprehensive Summary of the Press Throughout the World, Volume 21, Number 6, Various Topics, Quote Page 181, Column 1, The Public Opinion Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1896 August 19, The Record-Union, (Untitled article), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Sacramento, California. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1896 September 3, The Millersburg Grit, Local and General, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Millersburg, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1897 June 11, The New York Times, At Emma Willard Seminary: Mrs. Russell Sage, Fifty Years a Graduate, Makes an Address, Quote Page 3, Column 2, New York, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1905 February 9, New-York Tribune, Thanks for Cheer, (Letter from M. J. R. in Manhattan), Quote Page 7, Column 4, New York. (Chronicling America) ↩
- 1905 May 18, The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star, Volume 67, Number 20, The Spirit of the Book of Mormon by Elder B. H. Roberts, Start Page 305, Quote Page 305, Edited and Published by Heber J. Grant, Liverpool, England. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1958 April 12, Deseret News, Elder Hinckley Bear Testimony of Gospel (Continuation title: Elder Hinckley Bear Witness to Doctrines), Start Page 12, Quote Page 14, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Google News Archive) ↩