Oscar Wilde? Alfred Hitchcock? Joseph Wood Krutch? Margo Coleman? Bennett Cerf? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Anyone who has grown tired of reading idealized and overly sentimental visions of nature will enjoy the following skewed definition:
Nature is where the birds fly around uncooked.
These words are credited to Oscar Wilde, but I haven’t found any convincing citations. Would you please help uncover the true author?
Quote Investigator: In 1949 the theater critic and biographer Joseph Wood Krutch published a book about nature titled “The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Children can be taken occasionally to the country to see what the sun looks like as they are taken now to see a hill or a mountain. Probably many of them will not want to go anyway, for the country will be to them only what it was to the London club man: “A damp sort of place where all sorts of birds fly about uncooked.”
QI believes that the anonymous “London club man” may be viewed as an archetype, and it is reasonable to directly credit Krutch with the joke. Alternatively, one may state that Krutch popularized the remark.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The quotation and attribution were widely disseminated via the August 1949 issue of the mass-circulation periodical “Reader’s Digest”: 2
London clubman’s definition of the country: A damp sort of place where all sorts of birds fly about uncooked.
— Joseph Wood Krutch, The Twelve Seasons (Sloane)
In 1950 a syndicated gossip column by Whitney Bolton printed an anecdote about the well-known Hollywood suspense director Alfred Hitchcock: 3
Alfred Hitchcock, film director who can read a menu faster than most people react to a “STOP” sign, whirled through New York recently and was stopped on Madison Avenue by a friend.
“Off to the country, Hitch?’ he asked.
“The country?” sneered Hitchcock. “The country is a damp place where all kinds of birds fly around uncooked!”
Apparently, Hitchcock decided to repeat an existing joke or this tale was invented by someone such as a studio publicist, press agent, or journalist tipster.
In 1956 publisher and columnist Bennett Cerf writing in “The Saturday Review” relayed some remarks from television broadcasts: 4
On other programs Cedric Adams referred to Alcatraz as “the pen with the lifetime guarantee.” And Colonel Duffy characterized the countryside as “a damp sort of place where all sorts of birds fly about uncooked.”
In 1970 columnist Margo Coleman writing in the “Chicago Tribune” employed the quip without attribution: 5
The country is a place where birds fly around uncooked, a couple of neighborhood bullfrogs sound like the Anvil Chorus, and the sight of a fox doesn’t suggest some zookeeper forgot to lock a cage.
In 2012 quotation expert Nigel Rees asked about the jest in his newsletter while noting that the linkage to Oscar Wilde was likely spurious: 6
‘Nature is where the birds fly around uncooked’ – Anon. The common attribution to Oscar Wilde seems to be without foundation.
In 2013 Rees reported on information supplied by Garson O’Toole who ascribed the joke to Krutch based on the citation which is given at the beginning of this article. 7
In conclusion, QI suggests that Joseph Wood Krutch should receive credit for popularizing the joke although he did ascribe it to an unnamed “London club man”. The ascription to Oscar Wilde is unsupported. Alfred Hitchcock may have used the quip after it was already in circulation.
(Great thanks to Nigel Rees whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to discussant Joel S. Berson.)
- 1970 (Copyright 1949), The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country by Joseph Wood Krutch, Chapter: June: Spring Rain, Quote Page 33 and 34,(Reprint of 1949 edition by arrangement with William Morrow & Co.), Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1949 August, Reader’s Digest, Definitions with a Difference, Quote Page 108, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1950 May 20, Daily Press, Looking Sideways by Whitney Bolton (Syndicated), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Newport News, Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1956 May 26, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by Bennett Cerf, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6, Column 1 and 2, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1970 August 11, Chicago Tribune, A Gidget in Mars by Margo (Margo Coleman), Section 2, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2012 October, The Quote Unquote Newsletter, Volume 21, Number 4, Edited by Nigel Rees, Article: Quoter’s Digest, Quote Page 1, Published and Distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk link ↩
- 2013 January, The Quote Unquote Newsletter, Volume 22, Number 1, Edited by Nigel Rees, Article: More Reactions to the Last Issue, Start Page 2, Quote Page 3, Published and Distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk link ↩