What Is a Highbrow? He Is a Man Who Has Found Something More Interesting Than Women

Edgar Wallace? Aldous Huxley? Paul Larmer? Russell Lynes? Katharine Whitehorn? Wayne C. Booth? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Human thoughts are often focused on relationships and intimacy. Yet, other cerebral pursuits may predominate when the mind shifts focus. Here are three closely related versions of a humorous definition:

  • A highbrow is a person who has found something more interesting than women.
  • Egghead: a guy who’s found something more interesting than women.
  • An intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex.

The first two versions are presented from a stance of gynephilia. The third is more general. This quip has been attributed to the popular and prolific English thriller writer Edgar Wallace. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The first match known to QI appeared in “The New York Times” in January 1932. A journalist interviewed Edgar Wallace and asked him about his prodigious output of stories. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mr. Wallace insists there is no mystery about his quick writing. “I’m a newspaper man, and in the hard training of a newspaper office I have learned to marshal my thoughts and give them terse expression.

“The highbrows tell me that my writing is not literature, and I retort that literature is too often unintelligible. What is a highbrow? He is a man who has found something more interesting than women. When I get that way I’ll stop writing and take to art.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1932 a newspaper in Decatur, Illinois printed a collection of miscellaneous statements under the title “Unexpected Remarks”. The first was a concisely rephrased version of Wallace’s comment. The second was a perennial observation about the banking system: 2

A highbrow is a person who has found something more interesting than women. When I get that way I’ll stop writing and take to art.—Edgar Wallace.

We have got a bankers’ government, carrying out a bankers’ policy, to meet a bankers’ crisis, caused by bankers’ mismanagement.—Lord Morley.

The succinct version of Wallace’s utterance achieved further circulation by appearing in newspapers such as “The Evening Sun” of Hanover, Pennsylvania where it was included in a set of “Current Epigrams by Prominent Persons”. 3

Edgar Wallace died unexpectedly on February 10, 1932 at the age of 56, and “The New York Times” reprinted an excerpt from the interview which included the saying under examination. 4

In 1943 “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” by Evan Esar included an entry for “highbrow” which contained an instance of the quip without attribution: 5

highbrow. 1. A man who has found something more interesting than women. 2. A person you can’t have a high time with. 3. One whose education exceeds his intelligence . . .

In 1946 the long-running “Chicago Tribune” column called “In the WAKE of the NEWS” printed two items gathered from a regular correspondent named Paul Larmer: 6

Larmer’s Ledger

A highbrow is a man who has found something more interesting than women.

One thing about the housing shortage, it used to be two could live as cheaply as one. Now one can live as expensively as two.

In 1949 “Harper’s Magazine” published an influential essay titled “Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow” by Russell Lynes. Five years later the piece appeared in Lynes’s 1954 book “The Tastemakers”. Wallace received credit when Lynes shared his remark: 7

Edgar Wallace, who was certainly not a highbrow himself, was asked by a newspaper reporter in Hollywood some years ago to define one. “What is a highbrow?” he said. “A highbrow is a man who has found something more interesting than women.”

In 1958 “Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor” printed the saying with a citation pointing to “Harper’s Magazine”: 8

Highbrow
A MAN who has found something more interesting than women.

—Edgar Wallace, quoted by Russell Lynes in Harper’s Magazine

In 1961 “The Shreveport Times” of Louisiana printed an unattributed variant using the word “entertaining”: 9

“A highbrow,” someone said, “is someone who thinks he has found something more entertaining than women.” Query: Is this possible?

Also, in 1961 “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Humor” compiled by Jacob M. Braude printed a variant using the word “egghead” instead of “highbrow”: 10

Egghead: 1. a fellow who thinks about thinking. 2. a guy who’s found something more interesting than women.

In 1963 “The Left Handed Dictionary” ascribed a version of the joke using the word “discovered” to Russell Lynes: 11

HIGHBROW. A fellow who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of “The Lone Ranger.” Jack Perlis

— A person educated beyond his intelligence.
Brander Matthews

A man who has discovered something more interesting than women. Russell Lynes

In 1968 “The Observer” of London published a column by Katharine Whitehorn who ascribed a comment about intellectuals to the prominent writer Aldous Huxley: 12

You can attack synthetic sex or premature sex or mass-media sex; but if anyone made a remark like Huxley’s ‘An intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex’ it would nowadays be taken automatically as a defence.

Huxley had died five years previously in 1963, and no evidence has yet emerged that Huxley made this remark. QI hypothesizes that the statement about intellectuals evolved from Wallace’ s comment. It is possible that Whitehorn simply garbled and misattributed the remark by Wallace. Alternatively, she was repeating a version that was already circulating.

In 1988 literary critic Wayne C. Booth employed the version with the word “intellectual”, but he was uncertain about the attribution: 13

It is sometimes said that an intellectual is someone who has found something in life more interesting than sex. I am actually—perhaps shamefully—more interested these days in how people face aging and death, and the likely death of us all, than I am in how they couple.

In 2003 the “Ottawa Citizen” of Ontario, Canada credited Wallace with crafting the version of the saying using “intellectual”: 14

An intellectual is someone who has found something more interesting than sex.
— Edgar Wallace

In conclusion, Edgar Wallace should receive credit for the statement he made in “The New York Times” interview published in 1932. Variant phrasings have evolved over time, and sometimes the remark is misattributed to Russell Lynes.

(Great thanks to Ilia Blinderman and Ilan Peer whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Both asked about the saying containing the word “intellectual”. Additional thanks to top researcher Nigel Rees who listed the 1932 citation in his reference “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”. Rees also cross-indexed the “intellectual” version of the saying attributed to Huxley and gave a 1996 citation for it.)

Notes:

  1. 1932 January 24, The New York Times, Edgar Wallace Enjoys Hollywood, Quote Page X6, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1932 February 6, Decatur Herald, Unexpected Remarks, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1932 February 8, The Evening Sun, Current Epigrams by Prominent Persons, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Hanover, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1932 February 11, The New York Times, Edgar Wallace, Noted Writer, Dies: Wallace’s Life A Legend, Quote Page 21, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Entry; Highbrow, Quote Page 134 and 135, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1946 February 25, Chicago Daily Tribune, In the WAKE of the NEWS by Arch Ward, Quote Page 23, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  7. 1954, The Tastemakers by Russell Lynes, Chapter 17: Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow, (Based on article in “Harper’s Magazine” in February 1949), Quote Page 311, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1958, Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor, Selected by the Editors of the Reader’s Digest, Topic: Variations on a Theme: Highbrow, Quote Page 368, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1961 November 5, The Shreveport Times, Around Our Town by Viva Begbie, Quote Page 2E, Column 2, Shreveport, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1961, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Humor, Edited by Jacob M. Braude, Chapter: Definitions, Quote Page 274, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with hardcopy)
  11. 1966 (Copyright 1963), The Left Handed Dictionary by Leonard Louis Levinson, Entry: Highbrow, Quote Page 102, Collier Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1968 March 3, The Observer, Yer silly old moos by Katharine Whitehorn, Quote Page 27, Column 7, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1988 Copyright, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth, Part III: Doctrinal Criticism and the Redemptions of Coduction, Section: Confessions of a Lukewarm Lawrentian, Start Page 436, Quote Page 441, University of California Press, Berkeley California. (Verified with scans)
  14. 2003 January 11, Ottawa Citizen, Section: Style Weekly, Sex and the thinking person: A walk through Manhattan’s Museum of Sex by Chris Cobb, Quote Page E3, Column 3, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Newspapers_com)