Mark Twain? Lord Byron? G. K. Chesterton? Humphrey Bogart? Leo Rosten? Tom Clancy?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful quotation by Mark Twain about the implausibility of truth versus fiction. Here are four versions:
1) Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.
2) It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction must be credible.
3) Truth is stranger than fiction. It has to be! Fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t!
4) The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.
Would you please explore this topic and determine what Twain actually said? Some versions have been credited to humorist Leo Rosten and top-selling author Tom Clancy.
Quote Investigator: In 1897 Mark Twain released a travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, and the fifteenth chapter presented the following epigraph. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.
Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book. Thus, Twain was the actual crafter of the remark given above. Over the years many variant phrasings have evolved.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Chapter 15 Epigraph), Quote Page 156, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link↩
Ralph Waldo Emerson? Leo Rosten? Thomas Carlyle? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: On Facebook and the web the following quotation has been circulating widely:
The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
The words are attributed to the famous philosophical essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have not been able to find a proper citation to an essay by the transcendentalist. Would you please explore this statement?
Quote Investigator:QI has found no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. Instead, QI believes that the passage was derived from a series of similar statements written and spoken by Leo Rosten who was a teacher and humorist.
In 1962 “The Sunday Star” newspaper of Washington D.C. published the text of an address recently delivered by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards held in New York. The following excerpt strongly matched the target quotation though it was not identical: 1
The purpose of life is not to be happy—but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.
Rosten restated this anti-hedonic proposition multiple times, and he used similar language to communicate his ideas. Detailed references are provided further below.
1962 April 8, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: E-Editorial, On Finding Truth: Abandon the Strait Jacket of Conformity (Text of an address by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards in New York), Quote Page E-2, Column 7, Washington (DC), District of Columbia. (GenealogyBank) ↩