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Jewish World Review Jan. 23, 2002 / 10 Shevat, 5762

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Consumer Reports

A good quote spoiled, or what Mark Twain didn't say -- I AM a sucker for a Ken Burns documentary. There's something about a camera moving slowly, slowly up a yellowed photograph that lulls me into a receptive frame of mind. Add a fiddle and homey-voiced narrator and you've got me for hours.

I was a history major. I am easily amused.

And the new documentary on Mark Twain did not disappoint me. It seems to me, you could get a pretty fair two hours of documentary television if you did no more than film people shamelessly stealing this man's one liners. And the one liners that posterity has generously bestowed on him.

Mark Twain's output while alive was something. His output since his death has been remarkable. His output since the invention of the Internet has been phenomenal. There is no higher honor given an apt insight, a bon mot or double-edged humorous insight than to attribute it to Mark Twain. And it's a rare line that doesn't improve when imagining Hal Holbrook delivering it with a wry pause and a wave of a cigar.

It's as though we've made this unspoken, collective decision that if Twain is to remain America's foremost humorist, we must keep him supplied with new material.

In the second installment, Burns' documentary throws doubt on the Twainian origin of the well-known description of golf as "a good walk spoiled."

Too bad. This is a great line. Except that most courses don't even qualify as a good walk. My experience with the game, however, is limited to smaller courses. I'd describe it as a good concrete dinosaur spoiled, but that doesn't seem to have the same zing.

Nonetheless, the documentary did perpetuate a few pseudo-Twainisms.

"I am not an American. I am the American" was apt and true, but he was quoting his buddy, Frank Fuller.

"Wagner's music is better than it sounds," was our man appreciatively quoting Bill Nye, a popular humorist of the time. (Nye is now so forgotten nobody tells lies about him.)

"Giving up smoking is easy, I've done it hundreds of times" originated with someone else, no doubt long dead.

If you tracked spurious quotations posted on the Internet, Twain would probably rank third behind the Bible and Abraham Lincoln with Thomas Jefferson closing fast. I write this advisedly, for I'm sure this ranking soon will be quoted as a fact confirmed by a yearlong major study.

"A lie can make it halfway round the world before the truth can get its boots on," as Twain didn't say. We now have the technology to send a lie three times around the world before truth can find matching socks.

Misattribution is not done with bad intentions, except when somebody is channeling his political beliefs through the founding fathers, Lincoln and Jesus. ("If there's ever a tax on capital gains, then Katy bar the door!" -- George Washington.)

More often, it's the result of faulty memory combined with a phrase that has a certain Twainian, Lincolnesque or Churchillian ring to it. And once you can look it up on the Google search engine, it belongs to the world.

The tendency to do this suggests a certain insecurity. A nagging suspicion that we live in lesser times. That only the dead speak with authority. That except for the people who work on "The Simpsons," nobody writes great lines anymore.

This makes each misattribution a tribute to the supposed originator. Who but Twain would have put it so well?

"Praise for the dead is criticism of the living," as Twain said.

Or Churchill or Tacitus or Soren Kierkegaard or Lester Flatt. I forget which.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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© 2001, M. R. Lane