Leo Tolstoy? Edwin H. Stuart? Elinor Glyn? Henry Traphagen? Art Buchwald? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: While I am working hard on a complex project my desk usually becomes messy, but I take comfort in the following sayings:
- A cluttered desk is the mark of a genius.
- A messy desk is the sign of a creative mind.
- An untidy desk is a sign of brilliance.
Would you please explore the history of this modern adage?
Quote Investigator: A strong match appeared in the journal “Typo Graphic” in 1947. The editor Edwin H. Stuart sent a questionnaire to his readers, and he was disappointed with the low response rate. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
When you did not reply we assumed that you may have: Moved to another city. …
Or, that you’re one of those geniuses who have a piled-up desk and you threw the card in the pile and it got lost.
Tolstoi said that a disordered desk was a sign of genius and we see lots of littered desks in our rambles around Pittsburgh.
Stuart used the alternative spelling “Tolstoi” while crediting Leo Tolstoy. QI has not yet found support for this ascription; however, QI has not attempted the difficult task of searching for a Russian instance.
This website also has articles about two related expressions: “A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain” and “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates”.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1947 December, Typo Graphic, Page Title: Well Thanks, Brother, Article: Don’t Blame Us, Quote Page 36, Column 2, Publisher Edwin H. Stuart, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Library of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) ↩