H. L. Mencken? Arthur Stanwood Pier? L. Curry Morton? Life Magazine? Sylvester K. Stevens? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A startling and funny depiction of a politician has been constructed by mixing two vivid metaphors:
A politician is an animal who can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.
This remark has been credited to the influential Baltimore curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: When faced with a significant decision some people refuse to make a commitment. These indecisive people inspired three eloquent figurative phrases: “sitting on the fence”, “standing on the fence”, and “straddling the fence”. Widespread use of these phrases occurred in the nineteenth century.
People who carefully monitor trends and listen to rumors inspired the descriptive phrase “keeping an ear to the ground” which also achieved widespread use in the nineteenth century. Eventually, a physically impossible version emerged: “keeping both ears to the ground”.
The comical remark under examination evolved over time as the metaphors were combined, enhanced, and applied to politicians.
In 1901 teacher and novelist Arthur Stanwood Pier published “The Sentimentalists”. During one scene the character Virginia criticized her brother Vernon. She comically combined five different figurative phrases. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
“You’re always straddling a fence, with one ear to the ground to see which way the wind blows,” said Virginia. “It’s a picturesque attitude, but you don’t get much leverage. You’d do better if you came out into the open and showed your hand.”
“My sister talks like a monologue artist in a vaudeville show,” complained Vernon.
The above instance cleverly combined metaphors, but it referred to one ear and not two. Also, the remark was not applied to politicians in general.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1912 L. Curry Morton’s novel “The Hero and the Man” employed mixed metaphors to describe a politician, but once again the remark referred to one ear and not two: 2
. . . he was an old-line politician somewhat noted for agility in reversing tactics and in getting out of harm’s way, the type of political acrobat that has been described as “always sitting on the fence with one ear to the ground.”
In 1921 the “Jewell County Monitor” newspaper of Mankato, Kansas printed a description of politicians using “both ears”, but the “fence” was absent: 3
All politicians agree that one improvement could be made in the human body. It ought to be possible to get both ears to the ground at once.
In March 1927 a columnist in the “Baltimore Sun” of Maryland printed an instance while acknowledging another newspaper: 4
Think Of The Anatomy Of A Virginia Politician!
Pity a politician who continually sits on a fence, with one ear on the ground.—Editor Clevenger In The Claremont Herald.
In May 1927 “The School of Education Record of The University of North Dakota” printed an instance with “standing” instead of “straddling” or “sitting”: 5
If you think politics easy, try standing on a fence while keeping one ear on the ground.
In 1928 a newspaper in Medford, Oregon employed three mixed metaphors to describe a politician: 6
Don’t cuss congressmen. A man can’t sit on a fence with his ear to the ground and keep his nose on a grindstone.
On May 20, 1935 “The Toronto Daily Star” of Canada published a remark ascribed to historian Sylvester K. Stevens. This was the earliest full instance of the joke referring to “both ears” and a “fence” located by QI. The newspaper appended a further quip: 7
“To understand how difficult it is to hold a high political office,” says Professor Stevens of Pennsylvania State College, “try straddling a fence with both ears to the ground.”
And what about the eye to the future?
On June 1, 1935 humor magazine “Life” printed the same statement from Sylvester K. Stevens. “Life” was a monthly magazine; hence, it was available before its official publication date. Therefore, it was possible that “The Toronto Daily Star” actually reprinted the joke from “Life”: 8
“To understand how difficult it is to hold a high political office, try straddling a fence with both ears to the ground.”—Prof. S. K. Stevens, History, Penn. State College.
In 1937 the “St. Louis Star-Times” of Missouri printed the following comment about Kansas politician Arthur Capper: 9
Artist Curry could depict Arthur Capper as the world’s greatest contortionist and not stray beyond what Washington correspondents swear is the Gospel truth. They assert that the Senator can keep both ears on the ground while straddling a fence. It may be outlandish, but it is unburlesqued Capper.
In 1938 “The Globe and Mail” of Canada printed an elaborate definition for a “good editor” while acknowledging another periodical: 10
North Hastings Review: A good editor is one who has never made a mistake; who is always right; who can ride two horses at the same time he is straddling a fence with both ears to the ground; who always says the right thing at the right time; who always picks the right horse as well as the right politician to win . . .
There has never been a good editor.
In 1939 a newspaper in Allentown, New Jersey printed an instance referring to “one ear”: 11
Many of us think politicians are funny. Any one of us would be funny too, if we were constantly straddling a fence and at the same time keeping one ear on the ground.
In 1942 H. L. Mencken’s massive reference “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” included an instance with an anonymous attribution: 12
A politician is an animal who can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.
In 1990 “The Fourth and By Far the Most Recent 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” compiled by Robert Byrne included this anonymous item: 13
A politician can appear to have his nose to the grindstone while straddling a fence and keeping both ears to the ground.
In conclusion, this saying evolved over time. In 1901 Arthur Stanwood Pier published a barb aimed at one character with the phrases “straddling a fence” and “one ear to the ground”. In 1912 L. Curry Morton targeted politicians with a statement containing “sitting on the fence” and “one ear to the ground”. In 1935 Sylvester K. Stevens received credit for a remark aimed at politicians with the phrases “straddling a fence ” and “both ears to the ground”.
Image Notes: Public domain image of the painting titled “Split Rail Fence” by Alexander Helwig Wyant circa 1862. The image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Nigel Rees who mentioned this saying in the October 2020 issue of ‘The “Quote…Unquote” Newsletter’. Rees also discussed the remark in “Brewer’s Famous Quotations” while helpfully pointing to the instance in Mencken’s reference 1942 reference. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to researcher Barry Popik who explored this topic previously and found a 1935 citation referring to a politician and using the phrases “sit on the fence” and “both ears”.)
- 1901, The Sentimentalists: A Novel by Arthur Stanwood Pier, Chapter 11: The Hero Gains in Knowledge and Loses in Wisdom Quote Page 125 and 126, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1912, The Hero and the Man by L. Curry Morton, Chapter 24: As Seen From the Hotel Kenney, Quote Page 346, A. C. McClurg and Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full view) link ↩
- 1921 August 26, Jewell County Monitor, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 7, Column 5, Mankato, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1927 March 10, The Baltimore Sun, Good Morning! by The Bentztown Bard (Folger McKinsey), Quote Page 10, Column 5, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1927 May, The School of Education Record of The University of North Dakota, Volume 12, Number 8, Flashes, Quote Page 64, Column 2, Published by The University of North Dakota, Grand Forks, North Dakota. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1928 January 26, Medford Mail Tribune, Quill Points, Section 2, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Medford, Oregon. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 May 20, The Toronto Daily Star, The Jay-Walker by T. W. J., Quote Page 4, Column 7, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1935 June 1, Life, Faculty Minds, Quote Page 45, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1937 July 23, St. Louis Star-Times, The Chance of a Lifetime, Quote Page 18, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1938 August 20, The Globe and Mail, Spirit of the Press, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1939 May 18, Allentown Messenger, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 3, Allentown, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Topic: Politician, Quote Page 939, Column 1, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1990, The Fourth and By Far the Most Recent 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 367, Atheneum: Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩