Mark Twain? Lyman Beecher Stowe? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following eccentric dietary advice has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain:
Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.
I question whether Twain said this because no one provides a solid citation. Would you please explore this saying?
Quote Investigator: Mark Twain died in 1910, and the earliest match known to QI occurred in an anecdote told by Lyman Beecher Stowe in 1932 to members of the Mark Twain Library and Memorial Commission. Stowe knew Twain because his grandparents lived next door to the luminary in Hartford, Connecticut. “The Hartford Courant” newspaper reported the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI. 1
Of the many typical stories from the rich store of Mark Twain’s life, one of the most delightful told by Mr. Stowe was the following advice from Mark Twain, asked on his seventieth birthday to disclose a set of rules for longevity: “Never smoke more than one cigar at a time. Never, never smoke while sleeping. Eat whatever you want and let ’em fight it out among themselves inside. Sit up as late as you can get anybody to stay with you, and stay in bed as long as anybody will let you.”
There is strong evidence that Twain did employ the jokes about smoking in 1905. However, QI has not yet found any evidence linking Twain to the comical remark about eating during his lifetime. Therefore, the accuracy of the ascription to Twain depends on the reliability of Lyman Beecher Stowe’s memory.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The notion of consuming two different substances and expecting them to comically battle one another within the body appeared in print in a New Zealand newspaper in 1877. A Seidlitz powder was a laxative preparation typically packaged in two separate envelopes that were each mixed with water and then combined. In the following passage the powder was used figuratively in the description of the deliberations of a political organization: 2
In some instances the Councillors seemed to look upon the Act as a species of statutory Seidlitz powder. The could not make up their minds whether they ought to take only one of the two powders of the mixture, whether they should mix them first and swallow them after, or whether they should swallow them separately and let them fight it out inside.
In 1897 Twain presented an amusing comment about health advice in his travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”. The following appeared as a chapter epigraph: 3
He had had much experience of physicians, and said “the only way to keep your health is to eat what you don’t want, drink what you don’t like, and do what you’d druther not.”—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.
In 1905 Mark Twain celebrated his seventieth birthday at the popular New York restaurant Delmonico’s, and “The New York Times” reported on the speech he delivered which included comments about eating. He made a joke about dietary conflict, but the battle was not between different foods; it was between the food he ate and himself: 4
In the matter of diet—which is another main thing—I have been persistently strict in sticking to the things which didn’t agree with me until one or the other of us got the best of it. Until lately I got the best of it myself. But last Spring I stopped frolicking with mince pie after midnight; up to then I had always believed it wasn’t loaded.
Twain’s speech also included two jokes about smoking that matched the remarks remembered by Lyman Beecher Stowe:
I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time.
. . . it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep and never to refrain when awake.
A separate Quote Investigator article about Twain’s smoking quips is available here.
In 1932 Stowe reminisced about Twain and shared a tale that included the first evidence of the saying under examination as mentioned previously.
In 1935 Stowe repeated the anecdote during a lecture delivered in Elmira, New York as reported in the “Elmira Star-Gazette”: 5
A capacity audience listened raptly to Lyman Beecher Stowe’s lecture at The Park Church Tuesday night on “Mark Twain—Self Appointed Instructor of the Public.”
Stowe stated that he heard Twain present some guidelines for living:
Rules for longevity which he issued were: “Smoke only one cigar at a time. Never smoke while sleeping. Eat whatever you like and let them fight it out inside.”
In 1937 “The Listener”, a magazine published by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) in London, printed an article by Lyman Beecher Stowe titled “Mark Twain and his Friends”. Several notable people were members of the Beecher family including Lyman’s grandmother Harriet Beecher Stowe who achieved fame with the publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
When Lyman was looking for a job after he graduated from college Twain wrote several letters of introduction for him. “The Listener” article is filled numerous anecdotes and observations concerning Twain: 6
On his seventieth birthday in 1905 he gave out an interview on rules for the attainment of longevity. I do not remember all of them, but some of them were these:
‘Never smoke but one cigar at a time. Never smoke while sleeping. Sit up as late as you can get anybody to sit up with you. Lie in bed as long as anybody’ll let you. Eat whatever you want to and let them fight it out inside’.
In 1945 a quiz appeared in several U.S. newspapers that presented a modern instance of the quotation attributed to Twain including the phrase “secret of success”: 7
Question: Who said: “Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside”?
Answer: Mark Twain.
In 1955 an instance appeared as a filler item in an Iowan newspaper: 8
We agreed with Mark Twain; eat the foods you like and let them fight it out inside.
In conclusion, this saying was attributed to Mark Twain twenty-two years after his death by Lyman Beecher Stowe. Twain used the expression on his seventieth birthday in 1905 according to Stowe. This evidence is substantive, but uncertainty remains because of the long delay. The common modern version containing the phrase “secret of success” only appeared in 1945.
Image Notes: Picture of different foods on plates from Comfreak at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Jill Pinnella Corso whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Jeffrey Graf of Indiana University for accessing the scans of “The Listener”. Many thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who explored this topic and recorded his results here. During Popik’s initial efforts he found citations starting in 1945. During subsequent research QI located new matches in 1935 and 1937. Inspired by this work Popik found a 1932 citation.)
Update History: On October 18, 2018 the citation dated December 2, 1932 was added.
- 1932 December 2, The Hartford Courant, Mark Twain Recalled On Anniversary: Lyman Beecher Stowe Relates Anecdotes of Writer and His Friends at Memorial, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1877 February 10, The Bay of Plenty Times, (Reporting from The Lyttelton Times), Quote Page 2, Column 6, Whakatane, North Island, New Zealand. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Epigraph of Chapter XLIX), Quote Page 459, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1905 December 6, New York Times, Celebrate Mark Twain’s Seventieth Birthday: Fellow-Workers in Fiction Dine with Him at Delmonico’s, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1935 November 13, Elmira Star-Gazette, Stowe’s Lecture on Mark Twain Enjoyed By Capacity Audience at Park Church, Quote Page 16, Column 8, Elmira, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1937 October 27, The Listener, Volume 18, Number 459, Mark Twain and his Friends by Lyman Beecher Stowe, Start Page 913, Quote Page 913, Column 2, Published by British Broadcasting Corporation, London. (The Listener Archive: Gale NewsVault) ↩
- 1945 September 6, Albert City Appeal, Ask Me Another? A General Quiz, Quote Page 7, Column 6, Albert City, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1955 September 23, The Daily Gate City, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Keokuk, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩