I am obsessed with Mark Twain quotations on the internet. I know I am not alone in that obsession; Cindy Lovell, Executive Director of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, has written of hers. In 2010, for the centennial of Twain's death and the 125th anniversary of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I posted a Mark Twain quotation on my Facebook page every day. Even after 365 of them, there were many more good ones I could have used. He said so much, so memorably.
But he did not say everything, even though you might think so from the internet and social media. Facebook friends post Twain "quotations" all the time, and more often than not, they are things that Twain did not say. I have the bad habit of pointing that out. "Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits." Perhaps the most misattributed Twain "quotation" is "Everybody always talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it." As we all know, that one originated with his friend, neighbor, and collaborator Charles Dudley Warner. I think how sad it is that Warner, who had such a successful career as a writer and editor, said one thing that he should be remembered for--but Mark Twain steals his one potential moment of immortality.
The list of things Twain did not say, but everyone thinks he did, is a long one. "Golf is a good walk spoiled." Nope--even if the PGA has used it as a slogan. That one was from Charles Haddon Spurgeon (according to Barbara Schmidt and her reliable site www.twainquotes.com). Speaking of lies-"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." Twain did say it, but he attributed it to Disraeli. (And ironically, Twain was in error about that.)
I must sheepishly confess that I have perpetuated these misattributions. I cannot count the number of times I have repeated this one: "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer day in San Francisco." Nope. He didn't say it--even though the experience is quite true. But these widely misattributed quotations are only the tip of the iceberg. My Google search led me to several other Twain quotation sites. Let's see what they yield.
Number one on Google is "The Official Web Site of Mark Twain." Surely that one must be accurate, right? Click on their quotations and you get this one right off: "Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." Oh please ! (But to their credit, the ones that follow are mostly the genuine article.) A site named "Mark Twain Quotes" (not to be confused with the authoritative "Twain Quotes" site) contains 129 Twain quotations. My rough count is that at least one third of these are spurious. The mixture of genuine quotations and spurious ones would surely be puzzling to the general public. Like this one: "Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first." A Google search on that saying yields an astonishing 14,800,000 results. The vast majority of them are "quoting" Mark Twain, an endless echo chamber reverberating a lie. The first hit is to Real Clear Politics, which tries to tell the truth and hack away at the misattribution, but I fear that is futile, given those nearly 15 million other hits. How many conservative commentators have based a column on this "Mark Twain quote"?
A few months ago, a Facebook friend posted this one: "If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first." That one doesn't require research to track it down--there's just no way Twain said that. These spurious quotations often strike me that way: how could anyone even think he said something like that? But a Google search on "eat a frog" yields an astonishing 22,100,000 hits--many of them linking to this quotation, and most of those linking back to our garrulous writer. There's even a book titled Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, by Brian Tracy, which has sold more than 450,000 copies. The title is attributed to, you guessed it, the man in white.
Just as Thoreau was a self-appointed inspector of snowstorms, I am a self-appointed inspector of Mark Twain quotations. I have given myself a job with no end, and with little or no chance of success. But I am well suited; as Mark Twain really did say, "All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure." I suppose it is a compliment to Mark Twain that people attribute to him any saying they find witty or memorable. But still ...
(I want to put in a personal plug for the 2015 Mark Twain Conference in Hannibal, MO, July 12-15. I went to the first Hannibal conference in 2011--and that was my first visit to Hannibal. The conference papers and presentations were excellent, and the fellowship was stimulating and fun, as usual when Twainians gather. In addition to the academic portion of the conference, Henry Sweets and the staff of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum put together a remarkable set of activities: visits to the Boyhood Home, the Museum, the Birthplace Museum near Florida, the archeological reconstruction of the Quarles Family Farm site, the Mark Twain Cave, and a dinner riverboat cruise on the Mississippi. The highlight for me was the cave, which changed the way I read and understand both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I urge you to consider sending Henry a proposal, or just to attend. With the Elmira and Hannibal conferences alternating every two year, we are now blessed with two enriching experiences.)