You are ever my muse, Mr. Clemens. And that is not a gross exaggeration.

I’m grateful for Ken Gruberman, my Editor-in-Chief at Lakeridge Life Magazine, for his impeccable standards and devotion. I submitted my quarterly column, STABLE NEWS, well in advance of the deadline and received immediate feedback. It was not what I expected. In fact, his response was not to my piece, but to a quote attributed to Mark Twain in my email signature line. It appeared as, “I didn’t have time to write you a shorter letter, so I wrote you a long one. Mark Twain.” I’ve learned from Ken and my subsequent due diligence, that the origin of this notion lay not with Mr. Twain, whose supposed tongue-in-cheek relay and rephrasing of this truism had me chuckling and spoke right to me as a contemporary writer.

I was smitten with the sentiment as it dovetailed another also attributed by some by Mark Twain, the one that captured my experience as a professional speaker three decades and a career ago. It usually takes me three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech. So spot-on and relateable is this adage, and so beloved is Mr. Twain as a public speaker, that I included it at the bottom of all my correspondence and invoicing – hard copy letter head of yesteryear and later emails – for my oral communication firm. I received warm references to it from my clients who got early starts on their orations and appreciated the prescription from someone other than me.

On the heels of that daily dose of Mr. Twain, this quote about shorter letters felt like something he would say, and the treat of his wit bridging two phases of my life was irresistible. As I transitioned from my career in oratory to my retirement avocation of writing, it felt like a wink from the master of both media himself. I had recently toured The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, and his contagious spirit of can-do was very much with me, like a well of mentorship from which to draw. It is challenging and time-consuming to edit and revise your writing and to crystallize your message, particularly in the electronic communciation age in which our inboxes collect dozens of emails a day and senders expect or need immediate responses. Much quicker to send off a reply with a quick, albeit perfunctory, cleaning from our spelling and grammer partners in AI. Sitting in Mr. Twain’s shadow was protection from the heat of seeking perfection with each and every email.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens began writing under his pen name Mark Twain in 1863, more than 20 years before The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published

But as Ken pointed out, there is no documentation to support that this quotation as referred to above came first or verbatim from our 19-20th century iconic American writer, Mark Twain. Instead, a sentence close in language and seminal in content came from French mathemetician Blaise Pascal, who wrote of a letter in a collection called “Lettres Provinciales” in the 17th century:  Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte. Translation: I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

Since Ken’s input, I’ve been pondering all this and trying to sort it out – the messages, the words themselves, their origins, passages and integrity – as I have some experience with such matters. In 2004, I compiled for Cue Card Communications, an anthology of quotations, aphorisms, proverbs and witticisms for orators and ranconteurs, updated a few years later with a final edition published in 2015 (https://lisabernard.wordpress.com/2015/07/02/minding-our-ps-and-qs-the-legacies-of-people-and-their-quotations/.) It was an honor of an undertaking. While use of the internet was underway, researchers like myself, with the imprinting of a rigorous liberal arts education, still consulted books – written by specialists and experts and published by reputable houses – for responsible reference and meticulous fact-checking of the words and translations of even the long-deceased like Socrates. Scholarly precision was the standard. Our principal sources were primary sources – the unaltered papers and diaries of the candidates for quoting – and later our in-person attendance at, or the electronic recordings of, speeches and interviews of contemporary titans we were inspired to quote. That made verification of quotations a time-consuming but reliable process.

Memorable words of Mark Twain receive ample coverage in The New Yale Book of Quotations (Yale University Press, 2021) with original research by Fred R. Shapiro

Today, while access to the internet can streamline verification of quotations, it often does not. It may take you longer because the landscape is more crowded and populated by pundits and amateurs with little direction on how to distinguish between them. Some of the faulty ones are now household names or enjoy well-earned reputations in other specialities. But they are off the mark when it comes to attributions. The proliferation of user-generated content means our internet sourcing requires sorting through numerous and often contradictory claims. It requires vetting with extra layers of investigation. Fortunately, there are tools to assist us. Recommended are https://quoteinvestigator.com/ and https://www.masterclass.com/articles/how-to-attribute-a-quote. These sites provide thorough and dependable documentation for practical use, enjoyment and attribution of the words of the giants whose wisdom and eloquence we treasure.

Scholarly and thematic resources for those seeking quotes are available at brick and mortar and online booksellers

For my part, as a twenty-five year veteran of crafting, delivering, listening to and evaluating presentations from Hartford to Hong Kong, I have a theory of how words that resonate – often through centuries – appear in slightly modified versions and benignly altered forms. It seems to me, that when we humans are moved by a message, we feel compelled to record it, to repeat it and to share it. No other mammals, regardless their high order or intelligence, use language to engage and connect with one another as we humans do. Language is ours alone and we work effortlessly to steward from generation to generation the intangible gifts of words from those of greater reknown that ourselves. Sometimes, in the course of centuries, we can imagine that there is some polishing and repackaging that occurs. Like the maxim from the equine world applied to this day in modern medicine, When you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. Interpretation: Seek first the most likely and common occurence, not the rare or obscure one. My hunch is that Monsieur Pascal’s observation resonated so viscerally with Mr. Twain that he, given his calling as a wordsmith, incorporated the insight and shared it in his own signature parlance and native tongue as a part of him that it had genuinely become.

And with regard to my favorite line, It usually takes me more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech, my guess is that others since Mark Twain’s speeches in 1877 and 1879, in which versions of the phrase were spoken, have followed suit. Noting the shortcomings of our listening skills and memories, it feels plausible that this plumb of a mentor-like message, with its practical specificity and rhetorical kick, is what someone sincerely believes they heard, knows they appreciated and was motivated to repeat and share with a generous spirit. And with affection for its source, they attribute it to Mr. Twain – with sincere respect – if not complete accuracy.

All in all, the disparities of these beloved quotations and their sources are the very essence of their value to us and the reason for their longevity. We want to keep them with us. Going forward, I shall endeavor to dig a little deeper and cross-reference one additional time before attributing and featuring a quote. And whatever the errors and imperfections, I will always be grateful for being so inspired that I want to share someone’s words so wide and often.

Lisa Bernard is semi-retired, leaning into life and love on horseback, with pescetarian foodie finds and her treasured family, faith and seasonal rituals in Litchfield County, Connecticut. She shares her travels, peaceful encounters with wildlife and other city-turned-country-girl activities in photos, blog posts and columns in Lakeridge Life Magazine and on Instagram @LisaBernardWriting. Share your story ideas and comments below or send them privately to LisaBernardWriting@gmail.com.

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