February 22, 2015

“Workers of the World, Unite!”

You can find many different lists of “books that changed the world” on the Internet.

Those lists vary considerably. But there are some books that show up on almost all of them.

One is The Manifesto of the Communist Party, more commonly known as The Communist Manifesto.

The Manifesto was co-written by Karl Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels.

It was first published in London on February 21, 1848 and it did indeed change the world by serving as a key philosophical foundation for socialism and communism.

The original edition of this seminal work by Marx and Engels was published in German, their native language.

Over the next few years it was translated into many other languages, including English.

Several famous quotations from The Communist Manifesto are included in many books of quotations and still frequently cited today.

One is the opening sentence of the Preamble:

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism.”

Another is the first line of Chapter I:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The other famous words in The Communist Manifesto are its closing lines, at the end of Chapter IV.

The official English translation of the last four sentences, as approved by Engels, are:

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!.”

The shortened, more familiar — and often parodied — mistranslation of the last few sentences is:

“Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

As it turned out, other people’s visions of “Communistic revolution” and Marxism weren’t exactly what Marx and Engels had in mind.

In a letter he wrote on August 5, 1890, Engels remarked: “Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French ‘Marxists’ of the late [18]70s: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist.’”

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Related reading…

February 16, 2015

“Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”

To paraphrase Firesign Theatre, everything most people know about certain famous quotations is wrong.

A notable example is the famous line “Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.”

Most people think that’s a quote by W.C. Fields.

However, Fields didn’t say it. (Nor did he say any of the common variations of the line, such as those using “kids” or “children” in place of the word babies.)

It’s actually a famous misquote based on something that was said about Fields in 1939 by Leo Rosten, a witty professor who later became a successful scriptwriter and author.

On February 16, 1939, a dinner was held in honor of W.C. Fields at the Masquers Club in Hollywood, the night before the premiere of his latest movie You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.

Rosten was in Hollywood at the time doing some research on the movie industry and was invited to attend.

After dinner, Rosten was asked to say something about Fields. He ad-libbed:

“The only thing I can say about Mr. W. C. Fields, whom I have admired since the day he advanced upon Baby LeRoy with an icepick, is this: Any man who hates babies and dogs can’t be all bad.”

Rosten’s quip brought down the house and was mentioned in an article in the February 27, 1939 issue of Time magazine.

Although the line was credited to Rosten by Time, he was little-known in 1939. His career and eventual fame as a screenwriter and author began in the 1940s.

Thus, like many other famous misquotes, Rosten’s quip was soon attributed to a more famous person — in this case, to Fields himself. Eventually even Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations attributed it to Fields.

That annoyed Rosten and he worked to correct the misattribution. Today, although the attribution to Fields persists, many books and online sources give Rosten credit for his quip.

However, quotation mavens William Safire and Ralph Keyes have also pointed out that the essence of Rosten’s line was not original.

As Keyes explained in his excellent book Nice Guys Finish Seventh:

In November, 1937 — nearly two years before the Masquers banquet — Harper’s Monthly ran a column by Cedric Worth about a New York cocktail party which took place in 1930. This party was dominated by a man who had a case against dogs. After leaving, Worth found himself in an elevator with a New York Times reporter. As the elevator made its way to the ground the reporter observed, “No man who hates dogs and children can be all bad.”

To be accurate, therefore, reference books should attribute “No man who hates dogs and children can be all bad,” to the Times reporter. His name was Byron Darnton. Byron who? That’s just the point. Who’s heard of Byron Darnton? Yet most of us know the name W.C. Fields. This is why Fields routinely gets credit for someone else’s words. He probably always will.

I searched several online databases of newspapers and books and couldn’t find any uses of Darnton’s line (or anything similar) prior to 1937. My guess is that Darnton probably does deserve credit for the first version of the saying about a man who hates dogs and children.

And, although most people have not heard of him, there is now an entry about Byron Darnton on Wikipedia.

He’s also mentioned in a book and website by Doral Chenoweth about war correspondents who were killed in action during World War II.

So, Byron Darnton is not forgotten. But I suspect that most people will continue to “know” that W.C. Fields said “Any man who hates dogs and babies can’t be all bad.” 

RELATED POST: “It ain’t a fit night out for man or beast!”

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Further reading: books by Leo Rosten…


February 11, 2015

“Dying / Is an art, like everything else.”

“Lady Lazarus” is one of the best-known poems by the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.

It includes the oft-quoted lines:

        Is an art, like everything else.
        I do it exceptionally well.

        I do it so it feels like hell.
        I do it so it feels real.
        I guess you could say I've a call.”

This famous passage has a link to February 11th, but not because Plath wrote it on that date. She wrote the poem in October 1962.

The link is that on February 11, 1963 Plath turned art into reality by dying — at her own hand.

She stuck her head in the gas oven in her London flat and killed herself.

Plath had tried to commit suicide before but survived, a fact reflected in the dark humor of “Lady Lazarus.”

If you are a fan of Plath and her her poetry, you may know the story of why she was feeling suicidal again on that February day.

In 1956, after winning a Fulbright scholarship, Plath attended Newnham College in England. There she met the British poet Ted Hughes and married him the following year.

It was, as they say, a troubled marriage. And, Plath and Hughes could both be described as troubled people.

Hughes was a philanderer and (allegedly) abusive.

Plath suffered from periods of severe depression. Today, she would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression and possibly bipolar disorder.

In September of 1962, Hughes abandoned Plath and their two young children, Nicholas and Frieda, to live with a beautiful German expatriate named Assia Wevill.

The anguish Plath felt inspired some of her best poems, including “Lady Lazarus.”

And, in January 1963, Plath’s highly-acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was published (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), putting her on the verge of worldwide fame.

A month later, on February 11th, Plath killed herself.

Ted Hughes has been vilified ever since by feminists and many other people, though he also has his defenders.

Given her depression problems, Sylvia Plath might have committed suicide regardless of how Hughes treated her.

But it’s hard to overlook the fact that in 1969, following six turbulent years with Hughes, Assia Wevill also committed suicide — after killing the daughter she and Hughes had together.

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Related reading, listening and viewing…

February 07, 2015

“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

On February 7, 1968, American bombs, rockets and napalm obliterated much of the South Vietnamese town of Ben Tre — killing hundreds of civilians who lived there.

Later that day, an unidentified American officer gave Associated Press reporter Peter Arnett a memorable explanation for the destruction.

Arnett used it in the opening of the story he wrote:

   “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” a U.S. major said Wednesday.
   He was talking about the grim decision that allied commanders made when Viet Cong attackers overran most of this Mekong Delta city 45 miles southwest of Saigon. They decided that regardless of civilian casualties they must bomb and shell the once placid river city of 35,000 to rout the Viet Cong forces.

After Arnett’s story was published in newspapers the next morning, February 8, 1968, the unnamed major’s remark became one of the most infamous war-related quotes in modern history.

To this day, it is still used as a quotation that epitomizes the brutal absurdities of war in general and of the Vietnam War in particular.

The veracity of the quote has also been a subject of controversy. Since Arnett did not identify the officer who supposedly used the line, some people have questioned whether anyone actually said it.

In 2006, a Vietnam veteran named Michael D. Miller created a website titled “Saving Ben Tre.” On that site, Miller claims to have been present when a “Major Booris” said something very close to what Arnett reported.

Miller gives the quote as: “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.”

However, like Arnett’s report, Miller’s version has been disputed.

More significant to the people of Vietnam is the issue of whether Ben Tre actually had to be destroyed.

The U.S. military’s official explanation of why “it became necessary to destroy the town” is that it had been infiltrated by thousands of Viet Cong.

Thus, their rationale went, trying to oust the VC in ground-level fighting, from street to street, would have caused a high number of American casualties and even more civilian casualties.

Perhaps they were right. But the outcome described in Arnett’s news story doesn’t quite smell like victory:

U.S. advisers said the heavy allied firepower hurled on the city to drive out the Viet Cong probably contributed largely to the deaths of at least 500 civilians and possibly 1,000. South Vietnamese officials say the enemy dead totaled 451. About 50 Vietnamese soldiers died, along with more than 20 Americans...Lt. Col James Dare of Chicago, commander of U.S. Advisory Team 93, said “we will never know for sure” the number of civilians who died…Maj. Chester L. Brown of Erie, Pa., spent hours over the city as an Air Force forward air controller directing helicopter and fighter-bomber attacks. “It is always a pity about the civilians,” he said.

The story went on to say:

U.S. officials reported it was impossible to determine the attitude of the city’s residents to the bombing and artillery fire. “Most of those we see around appear mighty relieved that they survived,” one official said, “But I know that there are lots of refugees, maybe 10,000 to 15,000, outside of town in a camp and they may not be so happy.”

I suspect that last quote was a bit of an understatement.

Related post: Variations on “It became necessary to destroy the town…” – from Vietnam to Afghanistan

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February 02, 2015

An update on the origin of the term “a self-made man”…

If you start looking into claims about the origins of common phrases, you find that many of those claims are myths that have simply been repeated so long that they came to be cited as true.

Some of these bogus phrase “origins” are based on the earliest example recorded in the venerable Oxford English Dictionary or some other authoritative source.

Now, by searching resources like Google Books it is much easier to verify — or disprove — claims about the “first use” of phrases.

And, it’s not uncommon for modern researchers to find out that what has long been called the origin or earliest recorded use of a phrase is neither.

For example, many books and websites say the term “a self-made man” was coined by the American politician Henry Clay (1777-1852).

While serving as the U.S. Senator for Kentucky, Clay made a speech on the floor of the Senate on February 2, 1832 in which he said:

“In Kentucky, almost every manufactory known to me, is in the hands of enterprising and self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists this as the first recorded use of the term “self-made men.”

Thus, writers of a number of books and Internet posts have assumed that this was the origin of both “self-made men” and the singular version “self-made man.” 

But, in fact, it wasn’t.

I discovered this by using another great online research tool, Newspaper Archive.com, has searchable PDF copies of American newspapers going back to the early 1700s.

I did a search in NewspaperArchive.com and quickly found an earlier use of “self-made man.”

It’s in a letter signed by a “Prof. Newman” that was published in the October 9, 1828 issue of the Delaware Advertiser and Farmer's Journal.

The heading above the letter is “A SELF MADE MAN” (with no hyphen).

Newman’s letter is about Roger Sherman (1721–1793), the Connecticut statesman and politician who served on the “Committee of Five” that drafted the Declaration of Independence and later served as Connecticut’s Senator in the new U.S. Congress.

Professor Newman’s letter notes that Sherman rose from humble beginnings to “the Halls of our Congress” and “was a self made man.”

So, while the term “a self-made man” is associated with the date February 2nd, the reason for the association is that it has long been believed that Henry Clay’s speech on February 2, 1932 was the origin of the term.

I have now disproved that belief.

Stop the presses on the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary! I have an edit…

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