“Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead!”
“History is bunk.”
“We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Almost every American knows these famous quotations and who said them. Or do we? That’s the big question Ralph Keyes addresses in his new book, The Quote Verifier.
“Discovering who actually said what, where, and when is a challenge for anyone who wishes to quote others,” Keyes writes in the introduction to his book. Just how much of a challenge is made clear through Keyes’ impressive research that turns up evidence not only of widespread misquotation, but also of misappropriation of even some of our most beloved lines.
Like it or not, Keyes has discovered that many of the familiar lines we sling around so cavalierly are often merely simulacra or condensed versions of what actually was said. Consider the heroic utterance, “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.” Rear Admiral David Farragut said, or more likely shouted, this or something like it as he led the Union fleet through Mobile Bay during the Civil War. The situation was, a ship in the lead had hit a mine, and a ship coming behind had balked at going ahead. If Farragut had been thinking more about posterity instead of about just getting through alive, he might actually have said what is quoted. According to those present, his real words were, “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells! Captain Drayton, go ahead.” Time and history book editors have put more snap into his statement, ensuring its immortality.
Quote tampering can be less flattering as well. Consider the best remembered statement from the lips of automobile pioneer Henry Ford History is bunk.
According to Keyes, it comes from a 1916 interview with Chicago Tribune reporter Charles N. Wheeler, in which Ford was asked about the historical context of his pro-disarmament views. “What do we care what they did five hundred or one thousand years ago? . . . History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.” The three word version, “History is bunk,” Keyes notes, is “just one more unflattering abridgement of a prominent man’s words. ”
Sigmund Freud received similar treatment with his famous quoted statement, “What does a woman want?” This has given posterity the impression that the great founder of psychotherapy really didn’t understand women. Actually, Keyes explains, those words cannot be found in any of Freud’s writings. Rather, they come from scribbled notes of his patient, Marie Bonaparte, during a session with Freud in which Freud was probably remarking about his difficult relationship with his daughter, Anna, and not about women in general. “Freud may not have been so clueless about women, as so many take for granted,” Keyes concludes.
And then there are quotes that are completely misrepresented, such as Ben Franklin’s immortal remark at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” This statement was not made by Franklin, Keyes states. Not only is there no contemporary account of Franklin having said it, but well into the 19th century, the famous pun was attributed to the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, Richard Penn, grandson of William Penn. According to family history, when his revolutionary colleagues told him “we must all hang together,” Penn responded, “If you do not, gentlemen, I can tell you that you will be very apt to hang separately.” This version, according to Keyes, appeared in 1830s accounts. It was an 1840 biography that transferred the quote to Franklin’s mouth. “And there it has stayed,” he writes. Franklin got the last word on the Penns, a family he was often at odds with.
In his book, Keyes ferrets out some 460 famous sayings, each one a mini detective story. He also includes popular sayings such as the George W. Bush’s favorite: “He can run, but he can’t hide” (actually said by a famous black prize fighter) and “make my day” (which dates back at least to 1825). With his fascinating work, Keyes joins a growing army of quote verifiers whom he has dubbed “quotographers,” those determined to clean up the sloppy world of quotation and get to the bottom of just who really did say what.