Sunday, August 16, 2009

QuoteBusters: Lincoln didn't say that.

Bayla here with some actual facts. I know, you probably didn't expect to find those on the Internet. Just deal with it.

While catching up with my blogs last week, I saw The Quotations Page's "Quote of the Day" for July 19th:

"People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like."
- Abraham Lincoln

And I thought, Really? That construction seems awfully modern and snarky--more like John Scalzi than the 16th President of the United States. But it is just random enough to be true.

So off I went to do some research. How else am I supposed to kill time under the bed all day?

According to The Quotations Page, Lincoln used that sentence "in a book review." No date, no mention of the book title or the publication in which the review appeared. Typical.

A Google search revealed that many of the people who use this quotation describe it as Lincoln's "response" when asked for a review or critique of a particular book. So, not actually a book review. That helps. Maybe.

The only direct reference I could find is from George William Erskine Russell's 1903(?) book Collections and Recollections (full text at Project Gutenberg; my emphasis below):

But "The Art of Putting Things" includes also the things which one might have expressed worse, and covers the cases where a dexterous choice of words seems, at any rate to the speaker, to have extricated him from a conversational quandary. As an instance of this perilous art carried to high perfection, may be cited Abraham Lincoln's judgment on an unreadably sentimental book—"People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like"—humbly imitated by two eminent men on this side of the Atlantic, one of whom is in the habit of writing to struggling authors—"Thank you for sending me your book, which I shall lose no time in reading;" while the other prefers the less truthful but perhaps more flattering formula—"I have read your blank verse, and much like it"

You may also recognize two other literary clams in that paragraph. Those, combined with a lack of primary sources, make me doubt the overall accuracy of Russell's (wait for it) recollections. OH. SNAP.

I found one other scholarly mention of this quotation, in the Yale Book of Quotations (2006 edition), but I also consider them suspect because they list the publication date of Russell's book as 1898, when a peek at the Gutenberg text shows that the preface was written at "Christmas, 1903."

However, the Yale Book does mention one other interesting fact:

David Mearns suggests in the Lincoln Herald (1965) that the source for this remark was a mock testimonial by Artemus Ward: "For people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like."

First of all: 1965? A hundred years after Lincoln's death and that's the best you've got? And second: "mock testimonial?" What does that mean?

After several hours of web searching, my paws were tired, but I finally found a definitive debunking in Ralph Keyes' book, The Quote Verifier (my emphasis and linkage below):

[I]n late 1863 a spoofy newspaper advertisement for [Artemus] Ward included this testimonial: "I have never heard any of your lectures, but from what I can learn I should say that for people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like. Yours respectfully, O. Abe."

So, there you have it. Accuracy may die, but satire lives forever. Thanks to the blog Abraham Lincoln Observer for that pointer.

Verdict: BUSTED. Let's give credit where credit is due.
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