What Are You Doing Here? Why the Devil Aren’t You Home Writing?

Sinclair Lewis? Bennett Cerf? Storm Jameson? Leon Uris? Abraham Cady? Truman Capote? James Michener? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Classes which attempt to teach writing have proliferated in recent decades. Yet, an undercurrent of skepticism regarding the value of this pedagogical endeavor persists.

According to a sardonic anecdote a successful author was once badgered into conducting a guest lecture at a prestigious university. The classroom was packed, and the author was given a lengthy and glowing introduction by the beaming professor who coordinated the class.

The author began by asking the audience members whether they genuinely wanted to become writers. Every student in the room raised a hand signaling enthusiastic commitment. The intensity of emotion caused the writer to step back, pause, and lay down a set of notes. “In that case,” the exasperated speaker said, “why are you wasting your time here? Go home and write!” The author then walked away from the podium.

Would you please explore the provenance of this tale? Who was the author, and what was the name of the university?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Daily Oklahoman” of Oklahoma City in July 1945. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Shortly before Sinclair Lewis went home to his native Minnesota where he believes he can do his best work, he addressed a class of would-be novelists at the Columbia School of Journalism. He began with “I understand you all want to be writers. Well, what are you doing here? Why the devil aren’t you home writing?”

U.S. novelist and playwright Sinclair Lewis received the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1930. He is the leading candidate for deliverer of this truncated lecture although QI has not yet found any evidence that Lewis told the anecdote himself.

This tale appeared in a variety of newspapers during the ensuing months and years. In August 1945 “The Evening Republican” of Columbus, Indiana pointed to publisher Bennett Cerf as a crucial popularizer of the story: 2

Shortly before Sinclair Lewis left for his native Minnesota, he addressed a class of would-be novelists at the Columbia School of Journalism, reports Bennett Cerf of Random House___Lewis glanced over the eager assemblage with an appraising eye____and began his address, “I understand you all want to be writers___Well, what are you doing here?___Why the devil aren’t you home writing?”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What Are You Doing Here? Why the Devil Aren’t You Home Writing?

Notes:

  1. 1945 July 1, The Daily Oklahoman, If You Want to Try And Write, Go Ahead, Quote Page 11C, Column 8, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1945 August 1, The Evening Republican, No News Is Good News, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

When Audiences Come To See Authors Lecture, It Is Largely in the Hope That We’ll Be Funnier To Look at Than To Read

Sinclair Lewis? Max Herzberg? Bennett Cerf? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The American writer, social activist, and noble laureate Sinclair Lewis wondered why big audiences came to hear lectures given by authors. He humorously suggested that attendees might be hoping to see funny looking authors. Is Lewis’s self-deprecating observation genuine?

Quote Investigator: In 1938 Sinclair Lewis wrote an essay in “Newsweek” magazine titled “That Was a Good Lecture” which discussed speeches delivered by book authors. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI 1

I can understand why lecture addicts go to look at British explorers, Russian princesses, and Balinese dancers, because they have pretty lantern slides or tiaras or legs. But it is incomprehensible why in fairly large numbers they flock out to view a novelist or a poet. Is it because they hope he will be even funnier to look at than to read?

The joke was not presented in an easily quotable form. Lewis employed a prefatory comment followed by a rhetorical question.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When Audiences Come To See Authors Lecture, It Is Largely in the Hope That We’ll Be Funnier To Look at Than To Read

Notes:

  1. 1938 March 28, Newsweek, Book Week: That Was a Good Lecture by Sinclair Lewis, Start Page 30, Quote Page 30, Published by Weekly Publications Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)

The Trouble With This Country is Too Many People Saying “The Trouble With This Country is …”

Sinclair Lewis? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Whenever I hear someone attempting to diagnose the problems of the world I am reminded of the following amusingly recursive remark:

The trouble with this country is that there are too many people saying, “The trouble with this country is…”

Although I roughly remember the quotation I do not recall who said it. Can you tell me who is responsible for this quip?

Quote Investigator: The American writer and noble laureate Sinclair Lewis included a matching remark in his 1929 satirical novel “Dodsworth”. The words were spoken by a character named General Herndon. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“The trouble with this country is,” observed Herndon, “that there’re too many people going about saying: ‘The trouble with this country is—–‘ And too many of us, who should be ruling the country, are crabbed by being called ‘General’ or ‘Colonel’ or ‘Doctor’ or that sort of thing. If you have a handle to your name, you have to be so jolly and democratic that you can’t control the mob.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Trouble With This Country is Too Many People Saying “The Trouble With This Country is …”

Notes:

  1. 1929, Dodsworth by Sinclair Lewis, Chapter 10, Quote Page 74, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

When Fascism Comes To America, It Will Be Wrapped in the Flag

Sinclair Lewis? Huey Long? Eugene V. Debs? Lonnie Jackson? A. L. Sachar? James Waterman Wise? Robert H. Jackson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The impulses of nationalism and authoritarianism sometimes combine to produce devastating results. The following saying has been attributed to the prominent writer Sinclair Lewis and the populist politician Huey Long:

When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag.

The phrase “and carrying a cross” is often added to this saying. I have not found any solid citations for Lewis or Long. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence ascribing this remark to Sinclair Lewis or Huey Long. In addition, the “Sinclair Lewis Society” was unable to find this quotation in the Lewis’s oeuvre. 1 A thematically germane Lewis quotation from 1935 is presented further below. QI has also examined a different, but related, quotation ascribed to Huey Long:

Sure, we’ll have fascism in this country, and we’ll call it anti-fascism

That entry is available here.

In 1917 “The Muncie Sunday Star” of Indiana printed an announcement for a speech that prominent labor activist Eugene V. Debs was planning to deliver. The announcement presented a quotation from Debs which partially matched the saying under examination: 2

Every robber or oppressor in history has wrapped himself in a cloak of patriotism or religion, or both. I am not a patriot as defined in the lexicon of the house of Morgan. I’d not murder my fellow men of my own accord, and why should I do it at the behest of the master class?

During a speech delivered in 1918 Debs made a similar statement: 3

No wonder Jackson said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.” He had the Wall Street gentry in mind or their prototypes, at least; for in every age it has been the tyrant, who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both. (Shouts of “Good, good” from the crowd) (applause).

As a digression, QI notes that the Jackson attribution was flawed. Evidence indicates that lexicographer Samuel Johnson coined the adage “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”. A separate QI article about that saying is available here.

In 1922 a partially matching statement printed in a North Carolina newspaper was applied to the Ku Klux Klan. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 4

Governor Allen has made a fine epigram on the K. K. K.—Race prejudice wrapped in the flag and sold for $10.

In 1923 Lonnie Jackson, mayor of Central City, Kentucky and president of District No. 23 of the United Mine Workers of America described the Ku Klux Klan using a matching phrase: 5

“The Ku Klux Klan comes wrapped in the American flag, as it were, advocating the American principles openly, with a Bible in its hand, and the very next day they are passing their neighbors with a mask over their faces. My conception of the fundamental principles of Americanism is that a man should have nothing to be ashamed of.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading When Fascism Comes To America, It Will Be Wrapped in the Flag

Notes:

  1. Website: Sinclair Lewis Society, Article title: Here’s our most asked question, Date on website: 2012 Copyright, Website description: “The Sinclair Lewis Society was formed to encourage study of, critical attention to, and general interest in the work, career, and legacy of Sinclair Lewis”. (Accessed english.illinoisstate.edu on July 27, 2017) link
  2. 1917 March 25, The Muncie Sunday Star (The Star Press), Advertisement: DEBS At Wysor Grand This Afternoon, March 25, 2:30 O’Clock, Some of Mr. Deb’s Sayings, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1918, Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1918, No. 714, Eugene V. Debs, Plantiff in Error vs. The United States of America, (Testimony of Edward R. Sterling who attended a speech delivered by Eugene V. Debs on June 16, 1918 at Nimisila park, Canton and took notes in shorthand), Start Page 193, Quote Page 199, Printers Judd & Detweiler, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1922 December 21, The Goldsboro Daily Argus, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Goldsboro, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1923 August 31, The Garment Worker: Official Journal of the United Garment Workers of America, Volume 22, Number 45, Ku Klux Klan Menace to Union Labor, Says Mayor of Kentucky City, Byline: International Labor News Service, Quote Page 3, Column 1, United Garment Workers of America, New York. (HathiTrust) link

Writing Is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair

Sinclair Lewis? Mary Heaton Vorse? Felicia Gizycka? Robert Benchley? Douglas Fairbanks Jr.? Marianne Gingher? Stevie Cameron? Andrew Hudgins? Nora Roberts? Stephen King? Oliver Stone? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: An astonishingly simple stratagem has been recommended to anyone who wishes to become a famous author, playwright, screenwriter, or composer. The secret to success and productivity is to:

Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

The expression of this thought has evolved, and in modern times blunt phrasing is often employed:

Keep your butt in the chair.
Put your ass on the chair.

In other words, diligence, tenacity, and time are the required ingredients for effective composition. The admonition above has been attributed to a wide variety of well-known scribblers and artists, e.g., Sinclair Lewis, Nora Roberts, Robert Benchley, Stephen King, and Oliver Stone. Would you please put your butt in the chair and write something edifying on this topic?

Quote Investigator: The writer and activist Mary Heaton Vorse gave this advice to a young and impressionable Sinclair Lewis in 1911 according to Lewis who followed the counsel and later received a Nobel Prize in Literature. Lewis reported the words of Vorse in an article titled “Breaking into Print” which was published in “The Colophon: A Quarterly for Bookmen” in 1937. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

And as the recipe for writing, all writing, I remember no high-flown counsel but always and only Mary Heaton Vorse’s jibe, delivered to a bunch of young and mostly incompetent hopefuls back in 1911: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Lewis spent parts of 1911 and 1912 under the tutelage of Vorse, and she once hid his pants and shoes while locking him in his room to emphatically encourage the novice scribe. A detailed citation is given further below.

This piece of writing advice appeared in print before the 1937 article by Lewis, but QI thinks that the 1911 date given by him was probably accurate. Hence, based on current evidence Mary Heaton Vorse should be credited with the adage above.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Writing Is the Art of Applying the Seat of the Pants to the Seat of the Chair

Notes:

  1. 1937 Winter, The Colophon: A Quarterly for Bookmen, New Series, Volume 2, Number 2, Breaking Into Print by Sinclair Lewis, Start Page 217, Quote Page 221, Published by Pynson Printers, Inc., New York. (Internal publication note stated that the issue was released in February; the New York Times article that reprinted part of text stated that the issue was released March 22, 1937)(Verified with scans from Carnegie Mellon, Posner Center Collection)