Sinclair Lewis is out of fashion among the high-lit set, but he remains one of my favorite novelists. Isn’t this a great gem from Lewis to use against liars, racists, and xenophobes like the “basket of deplorables” in Donald Trump’s White House? “When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
Ah, but there’s a catch. The Sinclair Lewis Society says: “This quote sounds like something Sinclair Lewis might have said or written, but we’ve never been able to find this exact quote.” The society goes on to mention two slightly similar snippets from It Can’t Happen Here and Gideon Planish.
With the rise of ‘post-factual’ politicians and fake news—all this on top of the iffy quotes that have blighted social media from Day One!—what could be more timely than TeleRead alum Garson O’Toole’s forthcoming book: Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotes?
You don’t need to be a detective to appreciate all the loving research that went into it. Along the way, pay attention to Garson’s bag of verification tricks. His entertaining book is a must for librarians, professors, journalists, and others who cherish accurate, properly attributed quotes. You can also enjoy his blog, The Quote Investigator—itself quoted or linked in publications ranging from the New York Times to the Chronicle of Higher Education .
Ebooks and TeleRead have played a role here. Since the early 1990s we’ve been pushing for well-stocked national digital libraries, a vision partly overlapping with Google and similar sites—all marked by a common characteristic: searchability.
Impressed by Garson’s comments a decade or so ago, I invited him to contribute TeleRead posts, and in one of his best, he showed the power of search words in ascertaining the legitimacy of quotes: Is a famous ‘ancient Chinese curse’ really an invention from 1950? An investigation using Google Book Search.
The problematic Lewis quote isn’t in the O’Toole book, but falls into at least one of his categories of specimens, ventriloquy. “An observer examines, the writings, interviews, and speeches of a prominent person and develops a novel statement encapsulating an idea expressed by that person.”
Among the other categories? Concoctions. “It is difficult to prove that a misquotation or misattribution was forged deliberately. The majority of quotation errors in this book emerged via multifarious accidents.” But just what to make of this quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway? “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Well put! A beginning, middle and end. What a nice, concise example for anyone striving to understand the art of the short story! But Garson and others have never found a verifiable source for the quote, which seems to have first appeared in a literary agent’s guide to getting published.
Garson’s book, published by the Amazon imprint of Little A, is set to appear around April and is available as an ebook ($4.99 preorder), paperback ($10.99), hardback ($14.95), or MP3 CD ($9.99). It will be free as a Kindle Unlimited loan.
Update, February 18, 2017: Garson liked the review but didn’t want all of his categories mentioned since he felt this might hurt sales of the book. For copyright reasons and also as a courtesy to him, I’ve dropped mention of most of them.