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a disappearing poet of always: e. e. cummings and his language Previous Post: a disappearing poet of always: e.e. cummings and his language

Taking the credit

October 16 is the anniversary of the birthday of Oscar Wilde, described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography simply as ‘writer’ but also one of the stalwarts of dictionaries of quotations. Indeed, he even appears as the subject of some quotations – as Dorothy Parker said:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Wilde is one of a dozen or so authors who is so strongly associated with quotations, that they are frequently credited with sayings that actually belong to other people. Many people believe, for instance, that it was he, rather than J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, who wrote ‘I’m not young enough to know everything’. The two most prolific sources of quotations, the Bible and Shakespeare, manage to escape this fate by being entirely restricted to known written sources. Nobody has yet seriously claimed to have found a comment by Shakespeare outside his published works – the nearest we have to this is the famous line from his will ‘Item, I give unto my wife my second best bed, with the furniture.’ But other well-known people with a turn for a snappy phrase attract attributions all the time.

Fatal attraction

It seems to be the case that if a person once establishes a reputation for witty remarks, then they will inevitably be given the credit for any likely saying. All that is necessary is to stand out in one’s field, and the apocryphal sayings keep flooding in. Any homespun philosophy is likely to be ‘as Lincoln said’, while anything remotely to do with science is ‘in the words of Einstein’. For instance, the quotation ‘He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has enjoyed the trust of pure women, the respect of intelligent men, and the love of little children;. . . whose life was an inspiration, whose memory a benediction’ has become very popular in recent years. It is often attributed to the eminent writers Ralph Waldo Emerson or Robert Louis Stevenson, but was actually written by the American housewife Bessie Anderson Stanley for a magazine competition to define Success.

Exactly wrong

The temptation to attribute a saying to a household name is often irresistible (and as Oscar himself wrote ‘I can resist everything except temptation’). Thus people would rather hear ‘It is better to be vaguely right than exactly wrong’ attributed to the economist J. M. Keynes, rather than its true author the much less well-known philosopher Carveth Read. And ‘Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it wrongly and applying unsuitable remedies’ sounds much more like Groucho Marx than the English publisher Ernest Benn, who really said it. A whole string of quotations along the lines ‘You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong’ and  ‘You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer’ are often said to be by Abraham Lincoln, but in fact derive from an early twentieth century leaflet ‘Lincoln on Private Property’ by the Presbyterian minister William J. H. Boetcker.

I wish I had said that

Many of Wilde’s best-known sayings come from his writings, and are incontrovertibly his. There is no doubt about the origin of the definition of a cynic: ‘A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing’ or Lady Bracknell’s acid remark: ‘To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness’. But as he himself once said when writing to a newspaper: ‘I don’t wish to sign my name, though I am afraid everybody will know who the writer is: one’s style is one’s signature always’, and any such remarks are very often attributed to him, regardless of their true origin.

Once, on hearing a good line from the painter James McNeill Whistler, Wilde said ‘How I wish I had said that’. Whistler’s response ‘You will, Oscar, you will’ is too often true.