Mark Twain? Benjamin De Casseres? Richard Grant White? Mary Hallock Foote? Cordelia Foote? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain once joked that the key to success was a combination of ignorance and confidence. I do not know the precise phrasing. Would you please help me to find the exact quotation and a citation?
Quote Investigator: Mark Twain penned this amusing remark in a letter dated December 2, 1887 which he sent to “Mrs. Foote”. The letter was reprinted in the “Los Angeles Times” on March 16, 1930. 1 Also, in 1934 a facsimile of the missive appeared in the book “When Huck Finn Went Highbrow” by Benjamin De Casseres, a limited edition with 125 copies.
There was a long delay between the letter’s composition and its publication, but Twain scholars believe that it is authentic. The famed humorist discussed leading a study group who were exploring the poetry of Robert Browning. 2 The quotation reflected Twain’s comical reaction to holding a position of leadership: 3
Now when you come to think of it, wasn’t it a curious idea—I mean for a dozen ladies of (apparently) high intelligence to elect me their Browning reader? Of course you think I declined at first; but I didn’t. I’m not the declining sort. I would take charge of the constellations if I were asked to do it. All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1930 March 16, Los Angeles Times, Twain Letter Unearthed by Neeta Marquis, Section 3, Quote Page 22, Column 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) link ↩
- 1978, Browning Institute Studies, Volume 6, Article: “A Splendor of Stars & Suns”: Twain as a Reader of Browning’s Poems by Alan Gribben, Start Page 87, End Page 107, Published by Cambridge University Press. (JSTOR; Accessed September 5, 2021) link ↩
- 1934, When Huck Finn Went Highbrow by Benjamin De Casseres, Limited edition with 125 copies, (Book includes facsimile of letter sent from Mark Twain to Mrs. Foote dated December 2, 1887), Quote Page 7, Thomas F. Madigan, New York. (Verified with page scans; thanks to Barbara Schmidt and Kevin Mac Donnell) ↩