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Editor's Choice: 'Hemingway Didn't Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations'

“Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations”

by Garson O’Toole

Little A

383 pages, $24.95

“May you live in interesting times,” quoted Robert F. Kennedy, who identified this saying as “an ancient Chinese curse.” Just how ancient? Hard to say. Which is precisely why Garson O’Toole – whose book jacket calls him “The Internet’s foremost Quote Investigator” – could only track it back to Denis William Brogan’s 1944 book “The American Character,” where it appeared on page 169 of a book whose numbered pages actually only went up to 168. It got worse. Fred Shapiro, the distinguished and venerable compiler of “The Yale Book of Quotations” chimed in with the news that he had found an earlier quote from 1939 identifying “interesting times” as a curse.

It became such an obsessive life’s pursuit for O’Toole that the appearance of this glorious book a couple months ago is bound to be a combination of  deliverance and bedevilment for anyone in the business of quoting others. Take for instance “bad artists copy, great artists steal,” which Steve Jobs attributed to Pablo Picasso but which O’Toole correctly located in T. S. Eliot’s “The Sacred Wood” in 1920, where it took the form of “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” After that, it was off to the races for Eliot’s line and the quote was attributed to everyone but your deaf Uncle Charlie from Ashtabula – Picasso, Igor Stravinsky, Lionel Trilling, William Faulkner.

How about “behind every great fortune is a crime?” Honore de Balzac? The epigraph of Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” thought so. Not when O’Toole got finished with giving it a thorough investigation. His verdict? “Balzac did write a statement linking large fortunes to crime, but it was nuanced remark about a subset of great fortunes. Over the years his expression has been dramatically simplified and no single person can be credited with the construction of the modern concise and forceful version.” What is it that Hemingway never said? Well, to win a bet that he could write a story in six words, he wasn’t the one who first wrote “for sale: baby shoes, never worn.” In 1910, it was in a newspaper account of a want ad.

Seldom is academia in the raw this much fun.

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