If You Don’t Know Where You Are, You Probably Don’t Know Who You Are

Wendell Berry? Wallace Stegner? Ralph Ellison? Dorothy Noyes?

Dear Quote Investigator: The nature writer and activist Wendell Berry has been credited with a statement about knowing one’s place in the world:

If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.

Yet, this saying has also been ascribed to the novelist and critic Ralph Ellison. Would you please help clarify this situation?

Quote Investigator: In 1952 Ralph Ellison published the landmark novel “Invisible Man”. During one key episode in the book an old gentleman approaches the narrator to ask directions. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Perhaps to lose a sense of where you are implies the danger of losing a sense of who you are. That must be it, I thought—to lose your direction is to lose your face. So here he comes to ask his direction from the lost, the invisible. Very well, I’ve learned to live without direction. Let him ask.

As the forgetful gentleman approaches, the narrator recognizes him as Mr. Norton who has asked for directions in the past, and the two converse:

“Because, Mr. Norton, if you don’t know where you are, you probably don’t know who you are. So you came to me out of shame. You are ashamed, now aren’t you?”

“Young man, I’ve lived too long in this world to be ashamed of anything. Are you light-headed from hunger? How do you know my name?”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1974 Ralph Ellison was interviewed by a student working on a master’s thesis who asked about “Invisible Man”: 2

Ellison: . . . I think most of us Americans are challenged, to be very, very conscious of where we are and that’s not an easy thing to do, and I do believe that knowing where we are, has a lot to do with our knowing who we are and this gets back to the theme, I hope, of identity with which he was sometimes involved.

Crewdson: I think you make the point very well at the end where he meets Mr. Norton, and he tells him you don’t know where you are and if you don’t know where you are, how do you know who you are.

Ellison: Yes.

In 1986 the teacher and environmental writer Wallace Stegner published a short essay titled “The Sense of Place” in pamphlet form. 3 The piece was reprinted in the 1992 collection “Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs”. Stegner began with a quotation and ascription: 4

If you don’t know where you are, says Wendell Berry, you don’t know who you are. Berry is a writer, one of our best, who after some circling has settled on the bank of the Kentucky River, where he grew up and where his family has lived for many generations

QI believes that Stegner was mistaken and Berry should not receive credit for the expression.

In 1998 an article by Dorothy Noyes in the “New England Review” included the saying placed between quotation marks without attribution: 5

Placelessness is another wrapping that intensified my ingrained timidity, especially during my prepubescent period. More and more of a loner I became, and more and more I appreciated that “if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.”

In 2002 an article by William L. Lang in the journal “Oregon Historical Quarterly” ascribed the quotation to Wendell Berry. The accompanying footnote pointed to the essay by Stegner to support the linkage to Berry: 6

Put a little differently, people define where they are by where they think they are. The result for understanding bioregion is, as Wendell Berry put it, “If you don’t know where you are you don’t know who you are.”

In conclusion, Ralph Ellison should be credited with the words he wrote in the 1952 novel “Invisible Man”. The attribution to Wendell Berry is unsupported.

Image Notes: Picture of a map displayed on a tablet from FirmBee at Pixabay. Portrait of Ralph Ellison circa 1961 from a United States Information Agency staff photographer; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Tim McCormick and Tom Murphy whose discussion led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The two recognized that Ralph Ellison deserved credit and Wallace Stegner made an error. They pointed to the crucial 1952 and 1986 citations.)

Notes:

  1. 1982 (Copyright 1952), Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, Quote Page 564, Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1995, Conversations with Ralph Ellison, Edited by Maryemma Graham and Amritjit Singh, Interview with Ralph Ellison by Arlene Crewdson and Rita Thomson 1974, (This interview was conducted on WTTW, Channel 11 and appears in “Invisibility: A Study of the Works of Toomer, Wright, and Ellison” by Arlene Crewdson, Master’s Thesis Loyola University 1974), Start Page 259, Quote Page 262, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1986, The Sense of Place by Wallace Stegner, Note: The text is a nine page pamphlet, Quote Page 1, Wisconsin Humanities Committee, Madison, Wisconsin (Verified visually; thanks to a librarian at Mount Holyoke College)
  4. 1995 (Copyright 1992), Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West by Wallace Stegner, Chapter: The Sense of Place, Start Page 199, Quote Page 199, Wings Books, New York; distributed by Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1998 Summer, New England Review (1990-),Volume 19, Number 3, Article: Out of the Cocoon: Scenes from a Twentieth-Century Life by Dorothy Noyes, Start Page 174, Quote Page 176, Published by Middlebury College Publications. (JSTOR) link
  6. 2002 Winter, Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume 103, Number 4, Bioregionalism and the History of Place by William L. Lang, Start Page 414, Quote Page 418, Published by Oregon Historical Society. (JSTOR) link