“I didn’t really say everything I said”

The relationship between history and memory is a funny thing and it’s something I think about a lot. Why is that what we remember is often more important than what actually happened? Is something less significant when we learn that it’s been embellished a little? In this week’s New Yorker is a review by Louis Menand. (“Notable Quotables“) Menand looks at those immortal quotations and turns of a phrase that nobody ever said…even if we all remember it otherwise:

Sherlock Holmes never said ‘Elementary, my dear Watson.’ Neither Ingrid Bergman nor anyone else in “Casablanca” says ‘Play it again, Sam’; Leo Durocher did not say ‘Nice guys finish last’; Vince Lombardi did say ‘Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing’ quite often, but he got the line from someone else. Patrick Henry almost certainly did not say ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’; William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words ‘War is hell’; and there is no evidence that Horace Greeley said ‘Go west, young man.’ Marie Antoinette did not say ‘Let them eat cake’; Hermann Goring did not say ‘When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun’; and Muhammad Ali did not say ‘No Vietcong ever called me n—-r.’ Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street, does not say ‘Greed is good’; James Cagney never says ‘You dirty rat’ in any of his films; and no movie actor, including Charles Boyer, ever said ‘Come with me to the Casbah.’ Many of the phrases for which Winston Churchill is famous he adapted from the phrases of other people, and when Yogi Berra said ‘I didn’t really say everything I said’ he was correct.

Menand’s argues that sometimes a little creative editing (or outright fabrication) is all it takes to turn an ordinary sentence–or life–into something or someone of lasting historical significance. A fascinating and fun piece.

UPDATE: It always pays to look up a quote:

During floor debate on the Iraq war yesterday, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) quoted Abraham Lincoln as advocating the hanging of lawmakers who undermine military morale during wartime.

“Congressmen who willfully take action during wartime that damage morale and undermine the military are saboteurs, and should be arrested, exiled or hanged,” Young declared.

One problem: Lincoln never said such a thing.

The quote actually came from conservative scholar Michael J. Waller, who blamed the error on a copy editor. The misquote has been used nearly 18,000 times by those who typically support the Iraq War.

After he left the House floor yesterday, Young found out that — whoops — he had mistakenly put words in Abe’s mouth. His spokeswoman, Meredith Kenny, says the congressman took the quote from an article he read in the Washington Times on Tuesday.

“Now that he’s been informed these are not the actual words of Lincoln, he will discontinue attributing the words to Lincoln. However, he continues to totally agree with the message of the statement,” Kenny said. “Americans, especially America’s elected leaders, should not take actions during a time of war that damage the morale of our soldiers and military — and that is exactly what this nonbinding resolution does.”

And no, Kenny said, Young was “not advocating the hanging of Democrats.”

It reminds me of a an episode of The Office where Steve Carell intones: “As Abraham Lincoln once said: If you are a racist, I will invade you with the north.” I don’t think Abe said that either…
Via Arts & Letters Daily

The Discussion: 3 Comments

Most significantly, Captain Kirk, in Star Trek, The Original Series, never said “Beam me up, Scotty.” 🙂

February 20, 2007 @ 3:32 am | Comment

that’s ever so true. making sense of history seems to be dependent on how well a story is being told. and it can always — and will — be rewritten, too. we just have to keep on asking ourselves whether what’s being sold to us as historical fact appears real to us and why. thus, there’s also just no escape from doubt. which is a good thing in the end, i find.

a valuable piece on the history or the origin of “capitalism” you might not yet have come across is marcel mauss’ “essai sur le don,” which i’m sure must be available in the english language as well. it tries to capture the motivations behind the exchange of goods in archaic societies and in doing so reveals a lot about our own economies, regardless of whether we are members of western or eastern societies.

February 20, 2007 @ 7:30 am | Comment

Actually Goering did say the bit about reaching for his gun (his Browning, actually); but he was quoting from a playwright he liked.

Odd to give such a list and not mention the really famous thing Burke didn’t say about the triumph of evil.

February 20, 2007 @ 4:29 pm | Comment

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