The October issue of American History reports what occurred on the occasion in March 1862 when Nathaniel Hawthorne met Abraham Lincoln in Washington. Lincoln’s reply after a delegation from a Massachusetts whip factory presented him with a ceremonial horsewhip will go forever unrecorded because Hawthorne could not remember exactly what the president said, only the gist of the sentiment.
I recall precisely the thought that occurred to me when I read that account: If one of the greatest American writers of the nineteenth century was uncertain about what he had heard spoken in his presence by the most important person in the country and proved unable to record them on paper, doesn’t that throw some doubt on the veracity of utterances passed on to us by tradition or by suspect sources?
Perhaps there are as many believers as doubters of the cherry tree incident Pastor Weems unveiled in his biography of our first president which revealed a penitent George Washington confessing “Father, I cannot tell a lie. I did it with my little hatchet.” Posterity would probably be no better or worse off if the lady who passed on the story to Weems had remembered it as a kitchen scene ending with the declaration “Mother, I cannot bake a pie. I hit it with my little ladle.”
I have done a little historical spadework, exhuming some quotations and casting some doubts along with the runes over the ruins of the past.
I do not accept the interpretation of the signal William Tecumseh Sherman sent in 1864 as “Hold the fort! I am coming!” I have concluded that the correct message was “Chill the port! I am thirsty!”
“The brains trust” may have been what Franklin Roosevelt thought John Kieran told him in 1932, but Kieran actually was advising the president to change the rusty drains in the White House.
There is an element of shaking up the status quo in “You must shock the bourgeois.” I believe Charles Baudelaire really wanted pedestrians to play it safe by advising them “You mustn’t jaywalk on the Champs-Ėlyssés.”
Alice B. Toklas may have heard the dying Gertrude Stein ask “What is the answer?” and the subsequent “In that case, what is the question?,” but she most certainly missed the final query: “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”
I have concluded that William Randolph Hearst was giving Frederic Remington decorating tips and not martial instructions in 1898 when he told the artist “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the floor and walls.”
My findings suggest John Wilkes Booth did not shout “Sic simper tyrannis! The South is avenged!” in Ford’s Theatre on that fateful night in 1865. His real cry to the audience was “Get out like us! The play is average!”
When Paul Revere awakened John Hancock and Samuel Adams on April 19, 1775 to warn them British troops were on their way, it has been reported that he told the pair “The Regulars are out.” I propose that the complete message Revere delivered in that doorway was “We’re out of regulars. Try this jacket in 44 long.”
I maintain that during the War of 1812 the crewmember on the U.S.S. Constitution did not exclaim “Huzzah! Her sides are like iron!” Instead, he was misquoted while peddling racy illustrations to his shipmates with the hearty testimonial “Hubba! Her thighs are invitin’!”
Samuel Goldwyn mangled so many names and expressions during his reign as one of Hollywood’s foremost producers that any anecdote containing Goldwynisms sounds authentic. The person on hand the day in 1952 when the mogul urged a friend to see his new film Has Christian Andersen because “it has charmth and warmth” remembered that gaffe but missed Sam’s clincher: “It’s got Danny Kaye and Fairly Stranger.”
These emendations support the contention Simeon Strunsky presented in chapter 38 of No Mean City: “Famous remarks are very seldom quoted correctly.” At another time I plan to demonstrate how Strunsky worded that sentiment in his original manuscript.