Sometime last semester I was complaining to my wife, Laura, about a squabble in my department. I can't remember the specifics—that's how small and silly the argument was—but it was eating at me. And eating at me that it was eating at me (tiffs are as much a part of academe as footnotes and should be handled with comparable fuss). After listening to me and voicing the requisite empathy, Laura said, "Any idiot can survive a crisis; it's the day-to-day living that wears you out." I looked at her, puzzled. "Chekhov," she said. Puzzled gave way to impressed. "Chekhov," I said, with a tip of the head. Impressed gave way to skeptical. "Chekhov?"
So we did what any couple does on the verge of an argument: We Googled it. And sure enough, there it was: lots and lots of hits, many of them attributing this bit of wisdom to Chekhov. But where had he said it? Not a single hit—at least not that we could find—identified a play, short story, letter, diary entry, note, or testimonial in which Chekhov or any of his characters says this.
I decided to do some more sleuthing. And then I stopped myself. I'd been here before, I realized. I was in the realm of the WAS.
The Wrongly Attributed Statement is a phenomenon I've experienced all too often. I first encountered it in 2000, when I was writing an article for the magazine Lingua Franca and trying to find the source for Churchill's quip, "Whoever is not a socialist when he is 20 has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is 30 has no brain." But every citation I found led me only to another citation. A would cite B. I'd follow up with B only to discover that B cited C, which cited D, which cited A. Books of quotations referred to other books of quotations. I posted queries online, but scholars either didn't know or claimed that someone else had said it. (Briand and Clemenceau were favorite candidates, but when I pursued them, I found myself tumbling down the same rabbit hole of citations.) Finally, in frustration, I called the editor of Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; I think it was Justin Kaplan. He said it couldn't have been Churchill. And that was enough for me. What choice did I have?
The WAS is not just a thing, you see, it's an experience. A quote floats in your head for years, resting in cloistered obscurity. One day you decide to use it in a book or an article. You look it up to get the exact wording and to cite the original source. But you find multiple wordings and no credible source. You keep looking, only to find that no one ever said it (at least not that anyone knows of). You keep looking, if for no other reason than to redeem the time you've already wasted. If you're lucky, you'll finally find someone—often someone you've never heard of—saying it. More often you find that no one said it at all.
Natalya Balnova for The Chronicle Review
What makes the WAS doubly frustrating is that you never know you're in it until it's too late. That's because the WAS is so variable and adaptable, like the common cold. Just as it's difficult to know at the onset of a cold whether or not you have one, and what form it's going to take—a day's discomfort or a week in bed—so does that first moment of the WAS leave you wondering: Is this a minute's research or a monthlong audit, an hour's labor or work without end?
There are basically three kinds of Wrongly Attributed Statements. WAS I is an adaptation or composite of a statement or statements from someone or several people, who may or may not be famous. WAS II is a statement that was uttered, as is, by someone, often not famous, that has come to be widely attributed to someone else, invariably more famous. WAS III was never uttered by anyone, at least not that we know of. WAS III is not to be confused with those anonymous sayings you find in Bartlett's. WAS III is an aperçu of metaphysically uncertain status—the witticism that wasn't—hanging somewhere between ether and air, quoted but never attributed (at least not credibly) to anyone, not even to Anonymous.
For all the aggravation they cause, WAS I and WAS II at least hold out the promise of satisfaction. You won't know in advance, but at some point you'll be able to establish that X never said any such thing, and, maybe, that Y did. Or that X and Y said something similar, which will help explain how the WAS came to be in the first place.
Take this WAS: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Every hour on Twitter—it doesn't matter what time of day it is—someone tweets that statement and attributes it to Edmund Burke. Should you wish to quote it, you'll find, after some sleuthing, Burke in his "Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents" saying, "When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle." You'll also find John Stuart Mill in his address at the University of St. Andrew's saying, "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." What you won't find is Burke saying, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." After hours of hunting, that'll be a cause of some satisfaction.
Or consider this: "Only the dead have seen the end of war." So said Plato, according to General MacArthur, the Imperial War Museum, and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. After some searching, you'll find that Plato never said it, but that Santayana did. In his Soliloquies in England. (Seems like the culture industry could use a fact checker or two.)
But that's not the only satisfaction you'll derive from WAS I and WAS II. There's also the schadenfreude you get watching someone else go down the rabbit hole you've just crawled out of. After I told readers at Crooked Timber, where I sometimes blog, about my experience with the Churchill quote, several commenters swore up and down that the statement could in fact be attributed to François Guizot, a French historian and statesman. Smiling and sighing, I asked for the original source. They came up with all sorts of Web links, but not a one from a text by Guizot.
Not long ago, I told the readers of my own blog that Burke never made that statement about good men doing nothing. The next day, a commenter exploded: "Any reader of Reflections on the Revolution in France can tell you that he, Burke, *did* say it." When someone shot back that Bartlett's demonstrated otherwise, the commenter doubled down: "Please read it, that is, _Reflections_, not _Bartlett's_, and get back to me." Several commenters challenged him again, and since we never heard back from him, I can only presume he took his own advice and slunk away in shame.
Far less satisfying is WAS III: the statement never uttered by anyone we know of. This WAS leaves you in a state of doubt and agitation. To this day, I don't know how that liberal at 20, conservative at 30 business came about or who, if anyone, ever made that comment about daily living. For all I know, there's some obscure text moldering away in some forgotten archive that has Churchill tossing off that quip or Chekhov muttering that insight. When it comes to WAS III, nothing's ever settled.
But WAS III just points to the larger uncertainty hanging over WAS I and WAS II. Sure, I can report with a high degree of confidence that Burke never wrote, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing" in his Reflections. But I haven't read all of Burke. How do I know for certain that he didn't write or say that elsewhere? Nor have I read all of Plato or Chekhov, or all of the testimonials about Burke, Churchill, and Chekhov. Maybe I can rely on digital archives, but can we be sure they are complete? More often I have to rely on the authority of experts. And even with their help, it's tough to prove a negative.
The Wrongly Attributed Statement makes you realize what a battleground a quotation can be. On the one hand, men and women invoke the authority of the great and the good to lend a little heft to their favored sayings. On the other hand, pedants like me rely on the authority of a different great and good in order to take that heft away. They have their Web sites, I have mine (Quote Investigator, which is run by Garson O'Toole, the nom de plume of a Yale Ph.D., is the best; Fred Shapiro's Yale Book of Quotations is the most comprehensive and reliable source in print, and it makes the most use of online resources.) The quotation is a struggle over expertise, pitting the seemingly tutored against the seemingly untutored but revealing how dependent we all are on the authority of people whom we think—or hope—know better.
It's not surprising that quotations should prove such a battleground of authority. Ever since the Devil quoted Scripture, citation from authority has been a terrain of struggle. (Just ask any Marxist.) But in an interesting twist, it's often been the careless misquotation rather than the faithful recitation that is taken as the sign of a superior sensibility.
Long before Lee Siegel made it a synonym for pathetic, self-serving trolling, sprezzatura was known as the art of effortless speech or action. During the Renaissance, says my friend Jeff Shoulson, a Jewish-studies scholar at the University of Connecticut, men of standing would pepper their remarks with small misquotations from famous writers just to make it seem as if they hadn't looked up the quotes the night before. An aristocratic version of the rumpled look you see in clothing ads, sprezzatura was meant to convey grace without care, the opposite of the high-school grind. (I've long wondered if Lionel Trilling wasn't angling for a version of sprezzatura when he wrote in the opening pages of The Liberal Imagination, "Goethe says somewhere that there is no such thing as a liberal idea, that there are only liberal sentiments." For Goethe's original, see #216 and 217 of his Maxims and Reflections. And, yes, I had to look that up.)
It's precisely these sorts of affectations—and appeals to authority—that have led me over the years to a greater appreciation of the WAS. I no longer think of it as a simple pain in the neck or desperate appeal to authority. I now see it as a kind of democratic poetry, an emanation of genius from the masses. We recognize the utility of crowdsourcing. Why not the beauty of crowdwriting? Someone famous says something fine—"When bad men combine, the good must associate"—and some forgotten wordsmith, or wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it into something finer: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
It's good that we remember the knockoff rather than the original. The knockoff is better—and we made it.