Quotation Is a Serviceable Substitute for Wit

Oscar Wilde? Somerset Maugham? George Bernard Shaw? Voltaire? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I thought you might enjoy the following remark attributed to Oscar Wilde:

Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.

I saw this on the goodreads website, but the source of the saying was not listed. Further searching led to the following similar comment attributed to Somerset Maugham:

The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.

This situation is confusing. Is either of these quotations genuine?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde said or wrote either of these statements.

A version of the expression was included in the story “The Creative Impulse” by W. Somerset Maugham. This popular tale was reprinted several times and was even made into a television episode. Interestingly, the quote was not included in the first publication of the short story in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1926. 1

The story was revised, expanded, and published again in a 1931 collection called “Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular”. The expression was used when a character named Mrs. Albert Forrester was described. Boldface has been added: 2

She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit, and having for thirty years known more or less intimately a great many distinguished people, she had a great many interesting anecdotes to tell, which she placed with tact and which she did not repeat more than was pardonable.

Note that the phrasing of the sentence above was awkward if one desired a concise and witty stand-alone quotation. Over time multiple versions of the saying were advanced.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Quotation Is a Serviceable Substitute for Wit

Notes:

  1. 1926 August, Harper’s Bazar (Harper’s Bazaar), The Creative Impulse by W. Somerset Maugham, Start Page 41, Hearst Corp., New York. (In 1926 the magazine used the name “Harper’s Bazar”. Later it switched to the name “Harper’s Bazaar”) (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1977 (Reprint of 1931 Doubleday, Doran & Company, Garden City, New York edition), Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular by W. Somerset Maugham, (This volume is part of a series: The Works of W. Somerset Maugham), Short story: The Creative Impulse, Start Page 249, Quote Page 255, Arno Press: A New York Times Company, New York. (Quote verified in 1977 reprint)

There Are Three Rules for the Writing of a Novel

Somerset Maugham? Oscar Wilde? Mark Twain? Bret Harte? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: With the rapid growth of ebooks it seems that everyone is writing a book. Here is the funniest advice I have heard on this topic:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Several prominent authors have offered writing advice in the form of three rules. Could you explore the background of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of this comical piece of non-advice was published in a 1977 volume providing guidance to neophyte authors titled “Maybe You Should Write a Book” by Ralph Daigh. This volume was not designed to teach the reader how to write, and Daigh illustrated that point with the following anecdote: 1

Somerset Maugham is credited with summing it all up when in addressing a friend’s class on English literature he was asked by a student how to write a novel.

Maugham’s answer was:
“There are three rules for the writing of a novel.
“Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

Popular author, Maugham, died in 1965, so the documentation for this attribution is not ideal. Perhaps future discoveries will provide further substantiation.

Further below, this article will discuss writing advice that has been attributed to the prominent authors Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde. In each case the guidance utilized a three-fold structure. The article will also present several variants of the quotation credited to Maugham in domains such as: politics, moviemaking, and aviation. Immediately below, an antecedent of the jest in the realm of card games is discussed.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Three Rules for the Writing of a Novel

Notes:

  1. 1977, Maybe You Should Write a Book by Ralph Daigh, Quote Page 7, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)

It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics

George Bernard Shaw? Bertrand Russell? Oscar Wilde? John H. Gibbons? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation is used by speakers who are planning to project a series of slides that are filled with statistics. The words are credited to the famous dramatist and intellectual George Bernard Shaw. Here are two versions:

The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.

It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.

The second version was printed in the Congressional Record in 2008. I have been unable to identify the original source of this remark, and I think knowing the context is essential. Neither expression sounds like something that Bernard Shaw would say. But perhaps it was employed by a character in one of his plays, and the words were satirical. Could you examine this quote?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the origin of this saying can be traced back to a book authored by another prominent intellectual. In 1926 Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and essayist, published “Education and the Good Life” which included a chapter titled “The Aims of Education”.

Russell listed four characteristics forming the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence. Education, he believed, should develop and enhance these qualities. His discussion of sensitiveness included a phrase mentioning statistics. Boldface is used to highlight key phrases in the following: 1 2

The next stage in the development of a desirable form of sensitiveness is sympathy. There is a purely physical sympathy: a very young child will cry because a brother or sister is crying. This, I suppose, affords the basis for the further developments.

The two enlargements that are needed are: first, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.

The phrase about statistics was memorable, and in May 1926 the reviewer of Russell’s book in the New York Times selected the words and reprinted them: 3

Sensitiveness is the capacity for emotional response. Nor is there anything mawkish about it: “The emotional reaction must be in some sense appropriate; mere intensity is not what is needed.” Sympathy, yes, but a discriminating sympathy. It should not only be refined, but extended by the intellect—even so far “as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics.”

In June 1926 Glenn Frank published an editorial calling for action against the high rate of illiteracy in the United States. Frank was the President of the University of Wisconsin and the former editor of Century Magazine. His piece mentioned Russell’s remark about statistics: 4

As Bertrand Russell has suggested, the test of the quality of our sympathy comes when we are called upon to aid suffering or need when the needy one is neither an object of special affection nor sensibly present.
Are we great enough to be “moved emotionally by statistics?”
I do not know a statistical figure that is freighted with more human drama than this: 5,000,000 illiterate Americans.

The citations below trace the evolution of the quotation over the decades. For many years, different iterations of the saying were credited to Bertrand Russell, but curiously the expression was reassigned to George Bernard Shaw by 1981. Both men were noteworthy intellectuals residing in England, and they had overlapping life spans. QI believes that the similarity of names “Bernard” and “Bertrand” facilitated the mistaken transition of the attribution to Shaw.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics

Notes:

  1. 1926, Education and the Good Life by Bertrand Russell, The Aims of Education, Start Page 47, Quote Page 71, Liveright Publishing Group, New York. (Reprint created after 1954 renewal of copyright) (Verified on paper)
  2. 1961, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell: 1903-1959, Edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, The Aims of Education, Start Page 413, Quote Page 423, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1926 May 30, New York Times, Bertrand Russell Depicts the Intelligent Radical: He Offers New Lamps for Old in a Scheme for Educating the Post-War Child by Evans Clark (Review of “Education and the Good Life” by Bertrand Russell), Page BR7, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1926 June 3, Washington Post, Let’s Read and Write by 1930 by Glenn Frank, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What You Can Do The Day After Tomorrow Just As Well

Mark Twain? Oscar Wilde? Josh Billings? Spanish Proverb? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Everyone is guilty of some procrastination.  Even the industrious humorist Mark Twain was credited with a quotation sympathetic to the indolent:

Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow.

Puzzlingly, this same quip has been ascribed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Who said it first?

Quote Investigator: In July 1870 an article by Mark Twain was published in “The Galaxy” magazine. One section of the article expressed unhappiness with the aphorisms popularized by Benjamin Franklin. Twain stated the following desire: 1

… snub those pretentious maxims of his; which he worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel …

Twain constructed a comical adage that he farcically attributed to Franklin:

Never put off till to-morrow what you can do day after to-morrow just as well.—B. F.

This is the earliest evidence QI has found for this type of quip from Twain or Wilde. The word “the” was omitted before the phrase “day after to-morrow”. A similar adage was credited to Oscar Wilde in a biography published in 1946, and the details are given further below. However, this evidence was weak because Wilde died decades earlier in 1900.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What You Can Do The Day After Tomorrow Just As Well

Notes:

  1. 1870 July, The Galaxy, Memoranda by Mark Twain, Subsection: The Late Benjamin Franklin, Start Page 133, Quote Page 138, W. C. and F. P. Church, New York. (Reprint edition published in 1965 by AMS Press Inc., New York) (HathiTrust) link  link

I Have the Simplest Tastes; I Am Always Satisfied with the Best

Oscar Wilde? Edgar Saltus? Winston Churchill? Randolph Churchill? Lord Birkenhead? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have discovered two very similar quotations that are credited to two very different people. The first is ascribed to the legendary wit Oscar Wilde:

I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.

The second saying is attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill:

I am a man of simple tastes; I am easily satisfied with the best.

I have doubts that both quotes could be accurate, and I haven’t been able to find dates and solid citations for either. Can you help with this?

Quote Investigator: The author Edgar Saltus was a friend of Oscar Wilde, and in 1917 he released a short volume titled “Oscar Wilde: An Idler’s Impression” which included the following dialog between Saltus and Wilde: 1

“Come to my shop,” I said, “and have dinner with me. Though,” I added, “I don’t know what I can give you.”
“Oh, anything,” Wilde replied. “Anything, no matter what. I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best.”

Wilde died in 1900 so the recollection of Saltus was published many years after the event described. Quotation expert Ralph Keyes included Wilde’s remark in his collection “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde” and cited the 1917 book of Saltus. 2 Quotation maven Nigel Rees also included the quip in “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”. 3

Winston Churchill was associated with a similar statement, but he did not say the words himself. Instead, the comment was reportedly made by the British statesman F. E. Smith who used it when describing Churchill’s tastes. In the following newspaper account from 1948 Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston Churchill, used the name Lord Birkenhead when referring to Smith: 4

The only hotel Randolph Churchill was able to get into, during his stay in New York, was the Waldorf. Churchill shrugged: “As the late Lord Birkenhead said of my father: ‘Mr. Churchill is a man of very simple tastes. He is always prepared to put up with the best of everything.'”

Next is one additional citation followed by the conclusion.

Continue reading I Have the Simplest Tastes; I Am Always Satisfied with the Best

Notes:

  1. 1917, Oscar Wilde: An Idler’s Impression by Edgar Saltus, Quote Page 20, Brothers of the Book, Chicago. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, Page 17 and 166, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Taste, Page 421, Column 1, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1948 July 28, Greensboro Record, The Lyons Den by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 6-A, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)

The One Who Follows the Crowd Will Usually Go No Further Than the Crowd

Albert Einstein? Eda LeShan? Alan Ashley-Pitt? Francis Phillip Wernig? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quote has been credited to Albert Einstein and posted on Facebook and various websites:

The one who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. Those who walk alone are likely to find themselves in places no one has ever been before.

Here is an alternative version I have seen:

The woman who follows the crowd will usually go no further than the crowd. The woman who walks alone is likely to find herself in places no one has ever been before.

Is this a sample of Einstein’s wisdom?

Quote Investigator: Probably not. It does not appear in the comprehensive collection of quotations “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

The earliest evidence of the saying that QI has located appeared in the 1970s. The 1973 self-help book “The Wonderful Crisis of Middle Age” by Eda LeShan contained a discussion about creativity that included a version of the saying, and the author did not attribute the words to Albert Einstein. She stated that the quotation was from a poster she had seen, and in a footnote she identified Alan Ashley-Pitt as the creator: 2

The man who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd. The man who walks alone is likely to find himself in places no one has ever been before.

Creativity in living is not without its attendant difficulties, for peculiarity breeds contempt. And the unfortunate thing about being ahead of your time is that when people finally realize you were right, they’ll say it was obvious all along. You have two choices in your life; you can dissolve into the mainstream, or you can be distinct. To be distinct, you must be different. To be different, you must strive to be what no one else but you can be . . . *

* By Alan Ashley-Pitt (Aardvarque Enterprises, 116 W. Arrellaga Street, Santa Barbara, California 93104).

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The One Who Follows the Crowd Will Usually Go No Further Than the Crowd

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1973, The Wonderful Crisis of Middle Age by Eda LeShan, Quote Page 304, [Copyright 1973; First Printing November 1974], Warner Books, New York. (Verified with scans)

Absinthe: After the First Glass, You See Things As You Wish They Were

Oscar Wilde? Ada Leverson? Leslie Stokes? Violet Wyndham? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The alcoholic psychoactive drink absinthe was banned in the United States and many European countries in the previous century. But now it is legal again. Supposedly, the brilliant wit Oscar Wilde once discussed the phantasmagorical effects of the potion. His description began:

After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. …

Could you locate a full and accurate version of this quotation and tell me whether the words really should be attributed to Oscar Wilde?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this quote located by QI was printed in the book “Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde: With Reminiscences of the Author by Ada Leverson” published in 1930. Scholars consider the quotation credible even though Wilde died three decades earlier in 1900. Wilde and Leverson were good friends, and she supported him during his travails. Sphinx was the nickname that he gave to her. The book was printed in a limited edition impeding straightforward access.

The excellent Smathers Rare Book Library of the University of Florida holds number 240 of an edition containing 275 copies. On pages 39 and 40 of the volume Leverson described a conversation she had with the great wit [OWAL]:

One day he was talking of the effect of absinthe. “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean disassociated. Take a top-hat! You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t, because you associate it with other things and ideas. If you had never heard of one before, suddenly saw it alone, you’ld be frightened, or laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.”

Here are additional excerpts and selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Absinthe: After the First Glass, You See Things As You Wish They Were

America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between

Ogden Nash? George Bernard Shaw? James Agate? La Liberté? Winston Churchill? Henry James? Oscar Wilde? Georges Clemenceau?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous humorous saying about the United States that has been credited to four celebrated wits: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and Georges Clemenceau:

America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.

Could you reduce the uncertainty and determine who coined this acerbic comment?

Quote Investigator: A partial match of the quotation appeared in a French history text in 1841 which stated that the ruler of Russia pushed the country without transition from barbarism to decadence. Thanks to Dan Bye and the volunteer editors of Wikiquote for this citation: 1

… il fit passer son pays sans transition de la barbarie à la décadence, de l’enfance à la caducité.

In 1878 the prominent literary figure Henry James published a short story with a German character who remarked on the cultural evolution of the United States using a simile based on the maturation of fruit. The following passage is conceptually similar to the quotation, but the vocabulary is different. Thanks to correspondent Rand Careaga for this citation: 2

… unprecedented and unique in the history of mankind; the arrival of a nation at an ultimate stage of evolution without having passed through the mediate one; the passage of the fruit, in other words, from crudity to rottenness, without the interposition of a period of useful (and ornamental) ripeness. With the Americans, indeed, the crudity and the rottenness are identical and simultaneous;…

The earliest evidence known to QI of a close match for this expression was published in 1926 in The Sunday Times of London. Interestingly, the country being lacerated was Russia and not the United States. In addition, none of the four gentlemen mentioned by the questioner was credited with the words.

The theatre reviewer, James Agate, saw a production of the work “Katerina” by Andreyev, and he was deeply unsympathetic to the behaviors displayed by the characters. Boldface has been added below: 3 4

Everything that happens to Andreyev’s characters is repugnant to the English sense of what would, should, or could happen to people laying claim to ordinary, i.e. English sanity. This being so, the temptation is to cast about for excuses, to pity Russia for having been left out of the Roman march, and so passing from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilisation, or to talk about “retrogressive metamorphism” and the way this country has been steadily breaking Europe down ever since, in the time of Peter the Great, she first began to absorb European culture.

Special thanks to correspondent Robert Rosenberg who identified this pivotal early instance.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between

Notes:

  1. 1841, Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, Volume 6, Quote Page 72, Chez L. Hachette. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1881, Washington Square; The Pension Beaurepas; A Bundle of Letters by Henry James, Volume 2, (A Bundle of Letters; short story reprinted from The Parisian, 1878), Start Page 198, Quote Page 266, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1926 April 4, The Sunday Times (UK), The Dramatic World: Those Russians Again by James Agate, (Review of the play Katerina by Andreyev performed on March 31), Quote Page 4, London, England. (Gale’s Sunday Times Digital Archive; thanks to Fred Shapiro and Dan J. Bye for accessing this database)
  4. 1944, Red Letter Nights by James Agate, (Review by James Agate of the play Katerina by Leonid Andreyev; starring John Gielgud and Frances Carson; Review is dated April 3, 1926 in book), Start Page 112, Quote Page 113, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, UK. (Internet Archive) link

You Must Know Your Destination Port If You Wish to Catch A Favorable Wind

Oscar Wilde? Seneca the Younger? Leon Tec?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I came across a quotation in a pub in Germany that was credited to Oscar Wilde. Your help in tracing this expression would be greatly appreciated but there is a twist to this request that will probably increase the difficulty. I have not been able to find this quote in its original English language version. All I could find on the web was the German phrase as I saw it in the pub. Here is the saying together with a translation:

Günstige Winde kann nur der nutzen, der weiß, wohin er will.

Only he can make use of favourable winds who knows where he wants to go.

I know that Oscar Wilde attracts a large number of spurious attributions. Could you search for the original version of this aphorism and determine who said it?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located any substantive evidence connecting this saying to Oscar Wilde. Intriguingly, the earliest evidence points to a maxim that was written in Latin and not English. During classical antiquity Seneca the Younger wrote about ports and catching a favorable wind. Here is the Latin version of one of his adages together with an English translation [SYDC]:

Ignoranti quem portum petat, nullus suus ventus est.

If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.

Seneca. Epistolae, LXXI., 3.

The wording and the emphasis in the above maxim differs somewhat from the content of the quotation provided by the questioner. However, over the years other writers have modified Seneca’s saying. Here is a modern example attributed to Seneca in a volume aimed at public speakers titled “The Speaker’s Sourcebook” which was published in 1988 [SYSP]:

You must know for which harbor you are headed if you are to catch the right wind to take you there. Seneca

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Must Know Your Destination Port If You Wish to Catch A Favorable Wind

The Play Was a Great Success, But the Audience Was a Total Failure

Oscar Wilde? William Collier? Daniel Frohman? George Bernard Shaw? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been involved in several theatrical productions and sometimes the response of an audience to a show is mystifying. A colleague told me that Oscar Wilde watched an early performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the reception was unenthusiastic. Later when he was asked about that night’s presentation he said:

The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.

I can easily envision Wilde uttering this response. When I used Google I found another version of the line:

The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster

Do you think this anecdote is true, and do you think either of these lines is accurate?

Quote Investigator: This is an entertaining quip that appeals to people who depend on the fickle reactions of audiences. However, there is little evidence that Wilde ever spoke this quotation. Lady Windermere’s Fan was a highly-successful and lucrative comedy for Wilde.  The earliest attribution to Wilde that QI has located appeared in the 1937 book “Encore” by the theatrical impresario Daniel Frohman who does not identify a specific play [OWDF]:

Oscar Wilde arrived at his club one evening, after witnessing a first production of a play that was a complete failure.

A friend said, “Oscar, how did your play go tonight?”

“Oh,” was the lofty response, “the play was a great success but the audience was a failure.”

In fact, the core of this joke was employed by another legendary Irish wit, George Bernard Shaw, in a review he wrote in 1892. Shaw’s commentary was published in “The World”, and recorded his unhappiness with his fellow viewers who reacted negatively to a dancer whose performance was deemed too provocative and suggestive [GBSD] [BSTD]:

Take notice, oh Senorita C. de Otero, Spanish dancer and singer, that I wash my hands of the national crime of failing to appreciate you. You were a perfect success: the audience was a dismal failure. I really cannot conceive a man being such a dull dog as to hold out against that dance.

Lady Windermere’s Fan premiered in 1892 and Oscar Wilde did directly address the audience from the stage after the initial performance. However, the production was a success and not a failure, and his words were precisely the opposite of those listed above.

Continue reading The Play Was a Great Success, But the Audience Was a Total Failure