Sold His Soul for a Pot of Message

Critic: Max Beerbohm? G. K. Chesterton? Hugh Walpole? C. L. Edson? Piccolo? Maurice Francis Egan? John Cournos? Sara Henderson Hay? Theodore Sturgeon? Anonymous?

Person Being Criticized: H. G. Wells? John Galsworthy? William Lafayette Strong? Douglas Goldring? Margaret Halsey?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Bible tells the story of Esau who made a foolishly impulsive decision when he was hungry. His younger brother, Jacob, offered Esau a dish of lentils in exchange for his birthright, and Esau accepted. The phrase “mess of pottage” is used to describe the dish in the Geneva Bible of 1560 and other editions. 1 The following idiom refers to giving up something of great value or importance in return for something of little value:

Sell your birthright for a mess of pottage.

This statement inspired a spoonerism:

Sell your birthright for a pot of message.

This style of wordplay has been used in literary criticism. For example, barbs of the following type have been aimed at writers who employed crudely didactic themes and plots:

  • H. G. Wells sold his soul for a pot of message.
  • John Galsworthy sold his artistic birthright for a pot of message.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The phrase “pot of message” was circulating in the 1800s as discussed further below. The first evidence located by QI of the wordplay employed in the criticism of a significant literary figure occurred by 1919 in “The Sun” newspaper of New York. Novelist and lecturer Hugh Walpole aimed a jibe at science fiction author and social activist H. G. Wells; however, the attribution was anonymous. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

It is this passionate longing for a less muddled world that has reduced the Wells of the most recent period, the Wells who has “sold his soul for a pot of message,” as some one put it the other day. The war only increased and stimulated the propagandist energy that had always been there.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Sold His Soul for a Pot of Message

Notes:

  1. 2005 (2006 online Version), The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (Second Edition), Entry: mess of pottage, Oxford University Press. (Oxford Reference Online; accessed April 15, 2019)
  2. 1919 December 28, The Sun, Section: Books and the Book World of The Sun, On Wells–Early, Mediaeval and Modern: A London Letter from Hugh Walpole in America, Quote Page 7, Column 3 and 4, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)

People Who Like This Sort of Thing Will Find This the Sort of Thing They Like

Abraham Lincoln? Artemus Ward? George Bernard Shaw? Max Beerbohm? Muriel Spark?

ward08Dear Quote Investigator: A popular anecdote asserts that Abraham Lincoln was obliged to listen to a prolix lecture about spiritualism by an enthusiastic friend. After the discourse was complete, Lincoln’s opinion was sought, and he replied with a humorously redundant non-committal statement designed to be inoffensive. Here are three versions:

1) People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.
2) For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like
3) For those who like that sort of thing I should think it just the sort of thing they would like.

Other prominent figures have been credited with this line such as the wit Max Beerbohm and novelist Muriel Spark. I am suspicious of the attribution to Lincoln. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that the seed of this family of expressions was sown by the popular humorist Charles Farrar Browne who was known to audiences by his pseudonym Artemus Ward. In 1863 he created advertising material for a set of lectures he was performing. He included parodic testimonials from fictional people, and one ersatz supporter was named “O. Abe”. The name “Artemus” was misspelled as “Artemas” in the following passage from a Maine newspaper in October 1863. Boldface was been added: 1

Artemas Ward among other puffs of his lectures has the following from “Old Abe:”,

Dear Sir–I have never heard any of your lectures, but from what I can learn I should say that for people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like.
Yours, respectably, O. Abe.

The letter penned by Ward was printed in multiple newspapers. The words became linked to Abraham Lincoln because of the suggestive name “Abe”. Over time the phrasing evolved, and a variety of anecdotes were constructed to accompany the expression.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading People Who Like This Sort of Thing Will Find This the Sort of Thing They Like

Notes:

  1. 1863 October 23, Daily Eastern Argus, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Portland, Maine. (GenealogyBank)

History Does Not Repeat Itself. The Historians Repeat One Another

Max Beerbohm? Rupert Brooke? Philip Guedalla? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard two distinct, humorous, and antithetical sayings about the composition of history:

1) History repeats itself, and the historians repeat each other
2) History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat each other.

Statements of this type have been attributed to two famously witty individuals: Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in an article from 1868 in the Louisville Journal which was reprinted by newspapers in Atlanta, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. The phrasing was somewhat different, but the meaning matched the first expression listed above. The unnamed author was greatly impressed by the number and diversity of books that had already been published and wondered what type of book might appear in the future. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

For taking into account the vast library of standard history, philosophy, fiction, poetry, which the genius of every language, ancient and modern, has furnished us, what else remains to be written? History will, of course, go on repeating itself, and the historians repeating each other.

In 1896 the illustrator and humorist Max Beerbohm wrote an essay titled “1880”. Some confusion is inevitable when a year is used as a title, so please note that the essay was written 16 years after 1880. Beerbohm employed the second expression listed above, but he did not claim coinage. The phrase “it has been said” indicated that the saying was already in circulation: 3

“History,” it has been said, “does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.” Now, there are still some periods with which no historian has grappled, and, strangely enough, the period that most greatly fascinates me is one of them.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading History Does Not Repeat Itself. The Historians Repeat One Another

Notes:

  1. 1868 June 30, The Constitution (Atlanta Constitution), A Live Newspaper (From the Louisville Journal), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Atlanta, Georgia. (Digital newspaper image shows degraded text. Hence the text was determined by simultaneously examining the article copies in the Atlanta Constitution and The Charleston Daily News) (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1868 June 30, The Charleston Daily News, A Live Newspaper (From the Louisville Journal), Quote Page 1, Column 2 and 3, Charleston, South Carolina. (Chronicling America)
  3. 1896, The Works of Max Beerbohm by Sir Max Beerbohm, Essay: 1800, (Date and location given for the composition at the end of the essay: London, 1894), Start Page 41, Quote Page 41, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Whenever I Feel the Urge to Exercise I Lie Down Until It Goes Away

Jimmy Durante? Edna Mae Oliver? Robert M. Hutchins? Chauncey Depew? Mark Twain? Paul Terry? Robert Benchley? Max Beerbohm? J. P. McEvoy?

Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest quotation about exercise is usually credited to Mark Twain:

Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes away.

But this statement is also attributed to Robert Maynard Hutchins who was the President of the University of Chicago and to a passel of other people. The idea can be expressed in several ways but the basic quip is the same. Can you determine who was responsible for this valuable guidance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a syndicated gossip column based in New York on June 13, 1937. The statement was ascribed to Paul Terry who was the founder of the Terrytoons animation studio. The ellipsis in the following is in the original text [PTPD]:

GOTHAM GOINGS ON: Paul Terry, who does the animated cartoons, shares Chauncey M. Depew’s contempt for exercise … “When I feel like exercising,” he says, “I just lie down until the feeling goes away.”

Two weeks later on June 28, 1937 another gossip columnist based in New York credited the joke to the film and stage actress Edna Mae Oliver. In the following passage “Mori’s” referred to a popular restaurant in Greenwich Village [EOLL]:

“Being away from home gives me a great urge to exercise,” Edna Mae Oliver admits at Mori’s. But whenever I feel that way, I just lie down until the foolish notion goes away.”

A few months later in October 1937 an induction ceremony was held for the new president of Williams College in Massachusetts. The President of the Society of Alumni gave a speech, and he ascribed the saying to the luminary Mark Twain.  This the earliest connection to Twain located by QI; however, Twain died in 1910, so this is a late ascription, and it provides weak evidence [WCJJ]:

Mr. President: Mark Twain once remarked that whenever he felt an irresistible urge coming over him to take exercise, he always lay down until the feeling went away.

The number of people credited with this saying has grown over the decades to include: humorist J. P. McEvoy, University President Robert Maynard Hutchins, politician Chauncey Depew, comedian Jimmy Durante, and others.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Whenever I Feel the Urge to Exercise I Lie Down Until It Goes Away