Recipe To Create a Publisher: Take an Idiot Man from a Lunatic Asylum . . .

Mark Twain? Frank Nelson Doubleday? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain apparently held a very low opinion of book publishers. He suggested that publishers could be created via a multigenerational combination of individuals from lunatic asylums. Could you please help me find a citation for this sentiment?

Quote Investigator: In 1897 Frank Nelson Doubleday and Samuel McClure cofounded the publishing company Doubleday & McClure. The new firm required a stable of successful authors; hence, Doubleday traveled to Europe to attempt to recruit luminaries such as Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain. He visited Twain in a hotel in Vienna, Austria, and the conversation contained comical barbs such as the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

He told me, among other things, that he had a perfect recipe for making a modern American publisher. “Take an idiot man from a lunatic asylum and marry him to an idiot woman, and the fourth generation of this connection should be a good publisher from the American point of view. I had a perfect publisher myself, as you know,” he said. “His name was Frank Bliss, and thank God, he is dead and gone to hell.”

In 1928 Frank Doubleday privately printed “A Few Indiscreet Recollections” and the text above was included. The slim volume was limited to fifty-seven copies, and the recipients were described with the phrase “Indulgent Relatives”.

Doubleday died in 1934. Many years later, in 1972 the privately printed material was released under the title “The Memoirs of a Publisher”. The 1972 edition included a footnote slyly pointing out that Twain’s lacerating description would ultimately apply to himself: 2

* Clemens himself later became a publisher.

Doubleday died in 1934, and the passage above is from his posthumous work “The Memoirs of a Publisher” released in 1972. Doubleday also privately printed two pamphlets in 1928 and 1929 titled “A Few Indiscreet Recollections” and “More Indiscreet Recollections”. Some material from the 1972 book appeared in these earlier pamphlets, but QI does not know whether the Twain episode was included.

The footnote in the 1972 edition slyly pointed out that Twain’s lacerating description would ultimately apply to himself.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1981 “The Literary Life and Other Curiosities” by Robert Hendrickson printed a short item containing the quotation: 3

Mark Twain on Publishers

In his Memoirs of a Publisher, F. N. Doubleday, dubbed “Effendi” by Kipling, relates Mark Twain’s “perfect recipe” for making a modern publisher: “Take an idiot man from a lunatic asylum and marry him to an idiot woman, and the fourth generation of this connection should be a good publisher from the American point of view.” Mark Twain, of course, later became a publisher himself.

In 1987 “Between Covers: The Rise and Transformation of Book Publishing in America” by John Tebbel reprinted the quotation with this appended comment: 4

Presumably, Twain did not intend that this formula should apply to himself as a publisher.

Robert Hendrickson found the remark entertaining, and he also included it in his 1990 reference: “American Literary Anecdotes”. 5

The quotation continued to circulate in 2001 when it appeared in “The Palm Beach Post” of Florida. The final prepositional phrase was omitted: 6

Quote Unquote …
“Take an idiot man from a lunatic asylum and marry him to an idiot woman, and the fourth generation from this connection should be a good publisher.”
—Mark Twain

In conclusion, there is substantive evidence that Mark Twain delivered this line. Frank Nelson Doubleday stated that he heard it from Twain circa 1897; hence, the support was indirect. Doubleday recorded the episode in a privately printed volume in 1928. The episode was reprinted in his posthumous 1972 memoir.

Image Notes: Portrait of Mark Twain taken by A.F. Bradley circa 1907; accessed via Wikipedia. Symbol for American Publishing Company from the 1901 edition of “A Tramp Abroad” by Mark Twain. Symbol for Doubleday & McClure Company from the 1899 edition of “The Black Douglas” by Samuel Rutherford Crockett.

(Many thanks to Peter E. Blau who acquired scans from the limited edition 1928 volume and to Kevin Mac Donnell (of Mac Donnell Rare Books) who also verified the citation. In addition, thanks to Barbara Schmidt who successfully relayed the request.)

Update History: On November 15, 2017 the 1928 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1928 December, A Few Indiscreet Recollections by Frank Nelson Doubleday (Author not listed in pamphlet), Privately Printed, Not Published, For Indulgent Relatives, Written in 1926, Edition Limited to Fifty-Seven Copies, Quote Page 16, No publisher. (Verified with scans from Peter E. Blau)
  2. 1972, The Memoirs of a Publisher by F. N. Doubleday (Frank Nelson Doubleday), Chapter 10: Mark Twain and His Ways, Start Page 83, Quote Page 84, Doubleday & Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1982 (Copyright 1981), The Literary Life and Other Curiosities by Robert Hendrickson, Chapter 6: Of Books & Blurbs, Quote Page 263, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1987, Between Covers: The Rise and Transformation of Book Publishing in America by John Tebbel, Section 3: The Age of Expansion, Chapter 6: New Faces, Quote Page 138, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Section: Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens), Quote Page 227 and 228, Facts on File, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 2001 October 21, The Palm Beach Post, Section: Books, Quote Unquote, Quote Page 4J, (Upper right), West Palm Beach, Florida. (Newspapers_com)