I Know of a Cure for Everything: Salt Water . . . Sweat, or Tears, or the Salt Sea

Isak Dinesen? Tania Blixen? Karen Blixen? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The three best ways to overcome a difficulty are: (1) performing hard physical labor, (2) crying to achieve emotional release, or (3) visiting the ocean. The prominent author Isak Dinesen apparently crafted a lovely formulation for this advice:

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Isak Dinesen and Tania Blixen were pen names of Karen Blixen who wrote the books “Out of Africa” and “Babette’s Feast” which were made into award-winning movies. This article will use the name Isak Dinesen.

In 1934 Dinesen published the short story collection “Seven Gothic Tales” which included “The Deluge at Norderney”. One of the characters named Jonathan Maersk, became unhappy when he learned that his father, ship captain Clement Maersk, was not his genetic father. He visited the ocean and contemplated ending his life, but a woman in black lace unnerved him when she appeared and asked to die with him. Jonathan later spoke to his father Clement and asked whether he knew of a cure for his melancholy. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

“‘Why, yes,’ he said, ‘I know of a cure for everything: salt water.’

“‘Salt water?’ I asked him.

“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.’

“I said: ‘I have tried sweat and tears. The salt sea I meant to try, but a woman in black lace prevented me.’

QI believes that the statement presented by the questioner was derived from the passage above. See the August 1934 citation for further details.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1934 “The Indianapolis Star” of Indiana printed a book review of “Seven Gothic Tales”. The reviewer incorrectly thought Isak Dinesen was male. The passage above received praise and was reprinted: 2

His style is so tremendously quotable that it is a constant temptation to wrest some delicious turn of phrase from its beautiful context and present it in its shorn condition, which even then retains its exquisite bouquet.

An old seaman says to his unhappy foster-son, “I know of a cure for everything: Salt water.”

“Salt water?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said, “in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.”

A compressed version of the passage from the short story was sent to “The Reader’s Digest” magazine, and it appeared in the August 1934 issue. This version used “anything” instead of “everything”, and it has become more popular than the original text: 3

ISAK DINESEN: author of “Seven Gothic Tales”
The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.

“The Reader’s Digest” was very popular, and newspapers often reprinted quotations from its pages; hence, the statements achieved even wider circulation. For example, on August 7, 1934 the “Appleton Post-Crescent” of Appleton, Wisconsin published a miscellaneous collection of sayings; three are shown below. The remark from “The Reader’s Digest” appeared without an ascription: 4

The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.
We sometimes get the truth, even in an affidavit.
You can not put things across by getting cross.

In December 1934 the London monthly “Life and Letters” printed the following in a section called “Overheard”: 5

The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea. — Isak Dinesen.

In 1935 “The Belleville Telescope” of Kansas added a comical remark to the saying: 6

Says Isak Dinesen, “The cure for anything is salt water, sweat, tears, or the sea.” All the same we don’t think it did the ice cream any good.

In 1968 Evan Esar’s large compendium “20,000 Quips and Quotes” included an instance: 7

The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.
– Isak Dinesen

In 1999 “Celebrating Women: A Collection of Insightful Thoughts” included an entry with the same saying and ascription. 8

In conclusion, Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) should receive credit for the passage she wrote in “The Deluge at Norderney” in 1934. A more concise and easily transmissible statement appeared in “The Reader’s Digest” in August 1934, and that version has achieved wider distribution although it is not quite accurate.

(Great thanks to Sara O’Leary @saraoleary whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1934, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, Introduction by Dorothy Canfield, Short Story: The Deluge at Norderney, Quote Page 39, Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1934 April 28, The Indianapolis Star, What Have We Here? by The Stroller, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1934 August, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 25, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 76, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1934 August 7, Appleton Post-Crescent, Observations (Addressed to Jonah from The Shadow), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Appleton, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1934 December, Life and Letters, Volume 11, Number 60, Overheard, Quote Page 347, Constable & Company, London. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1935 November 14, The Belleville Telescope, A Bit o’ This and o’ That by MAZE, Quote Page B1, Column 2, Belleville, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Cure, Quote Page 199, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  8. 1999, Celebrating Women: A Collection of Insightful Thoughts by Diane Voreis and Cheryl Henderson, Quote Page 77, Great Quotations Publishing, Company, Glendale Heights, Illinois. (Verified with scans)