It’s time for another edition of Historical Misquotes, where we take a look at some of the most famous utterances of all time and see if they were really said by the people generally thought to have said them. The first two volumes focused on military leaders and heads of state. This time, I want to examine quotes that are often wrongly attributed to writers and artists. Some were said by other people, some were taken out of context and some have origins that are lost to history. And all are flying around social media being wrongly attributed.
“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.” – Sinclair Lewis
This quote is usually mentioned in connection with his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, but there’s no evidence Lewis ever said or wrote it, and it’s not in any of his published works. It’s also been attributed to former Louisiana governor Huey Long, but there’s no evidence he said it, either. Numerous variations on quotes equating religion and fascism popped up in the 30’s and 40’s, including two from Lewis books, and another from an anonymous New York Times story. But who actually put those words together in that sentence remains a mystery.
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” – George Orwell
This is a tidy summary of the themes underlying much of Orwell’s work, but it doesn’t actually appear in any of it. Instead, it seems to have originated long after Orwell’s death, in a 1993 Washington Times article by film critic Richard Grenier. There are variations on the quote in several different works by Orwell, but it was Grenier who first put these words together – and even then, he wasn’t quoting Orwell, only attempting to generalize his philosophy. The quotation marks were added later, making a quote about Orwell into a quote by Orwell.
“How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution as I have done.”– Charles Darwin
Creationists often use Charles Darwin’s deathbed conversion and recantation as proof that evolution is simply a meaningless theory. The problem is that Darwin made no such recantation, and all of the quotes that surround it, including this one, were probably made up by evangelist Lady Hope. Her tale of visiting Darwin before his death and coaxing him to renounce evolution was published in a Baptist newsletter in 1915, and became part of the Darwin legend. But Darwin’s children strongly refuted the conversion and the story surrounding it – casting doubt on whether Hope even visited Darwin.
Another false Darwin quote, about the primitive nature of African natives, and used to paint him as a racist, has nothing to do with him either. It’s from the 1905 book The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan – published two decades after Darwin’s death.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” – William Shakespeare
Often falsely attributed to the Bard, this is from the 1697 play The Mourning Bride, written by William Congreve. And the quote is almost always written incorrectly. It’s actually “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”
“Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” – Dr. Seuss
“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” – Dr. Seuss
These are two lovely quotes from the celebrated children’s author that are both inspirational, direct and simple. They’re also both incorrectly attributed to him, usually in self-help tomes or books on raising children.
The first quote never appears in any of Seuss’ books or published writings. It was affixed to him sometime in the 90’s, without a source or date, and became part of his canon. It’s also sometimes attributed to American economist Bernard Baruch, but even that’s only secondhand, from a New York gossip columnist quoting him in an article. Quote Investigator tracked it down to an article in the distinctly un-Seussian British periodical The Journal of the Institution of Municipal & County Engineers, Volume 64, Number 16, from 1938. And it’s probably a lot older than that.
The second quote also doesn’t appear in anything Dr. Seuss ever wrote or published, and again, is always quoted without a source. I found other places that attribute it to Woody Allen, French actress Sarah Bernhardt and someone named Luke Dawson. In reality, it’s simply an anonymous proverb.
“If you have an apple and I have an apple, and we exchange apples, we both still only have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange ideas, we each now have two ideas.” – George Bernard Shaw
Quote Investigator ran this one down and found numerous different sources for its component parts, from an 1813 letter from Thomas Jefferson to a 1917 Chicago Tribune advertisement to a 1949 interview with the US Secretary of Agriculture. Who said it first in the exact configuration attributed to Shaw is still unknown – but it almost certainly wasn’t Shaw. It got attached to him sometime in the 70’s and has stuck there ever since, never with any attribution or date.
“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
This is another quote where the most common attribution makes sense, but is incorrect. It’s nowhere to be found in Nietzsche’s work. Once again, Quote Investigator rides to the rescue, finding variations on the line going all the way back to the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, and as far forward as George Carlin, who is no stranger to incorrectly attributed quotes. It’s not at all clear who first said it, but it wasn’t Nietzsche.
“We’re bigger than Jesus!” – John Lennon
Lennon’s March, 1966 quote touched off a firestorm of protests, bannings, record burnings and religious controversy when it was published in an American teen magazine five months later – one that would dog the Beatle for the rest of his life, and might have even played a role in his death. But it’s worth looking at the entirely of what Lennon said, to get the context behind the actual misquote:
“Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”
Putting aside Lennon’s odd word choices (how does something shrink after it’s vanished?), he wasn’t completely wrong. Lennon’s remarks had already been published in England, and nobody batted an eye. It was only when the quote hit the evangelical parts of the US that the public turned on Lennon. But church attendance in England had been falling for years, and Christianity
Catholicism had less and less relevance to the generation of hippies and teens who were buying Beatles albums. So when Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he might have been making an arrogant boast, but he was also making incisive social commentary.
“Going to church no more makes you a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car.” – Garrison Keillor
Though this quote about religious hypocrisy is often attributed without citation or date to the Prairie Home
Companion author, it probably originated with evangelist and Prohibition advocate Billy Sunday.
“Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.” – Leonardo da Vinci.
The idea that the genius who painted the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, mastered human anatomy and developed the first flying machine would use a phrase as colloquial and crude as “do some stuff” is laughable. Needless to say, Leonardo has absolutely nothing to do with this quote. Instead, it was written by Chicago Tribune business writer Tom Peters in a 1994 article about innovation. I found a link to Leonardo in 2004’s The Book of Italian Wisdom, but nothing further back than that that would explain how the attribution got so wildly wrong.
So when you see one of these quotes on someone’s Facebook page or office cubicle, telling the person that they’re wrong might not do any good, but at least you’ll know the truth.