May 18, 2015

Nelson Algren's three famous rules about cards, restaurants and sex…


The copyright record for the novel A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren says it was copyrighted on May 18, 1956.

Traditionally, back then, the copyright date was also a book’s official publication date.

In addition to popularizing the phrase “walk on the wild side” (made even more famous by musician Lou Reed’s 1972 song), Algren’s novel includes what became a very famous quotation about certain things you should never do:

       “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”

These memorable rules are imparted to the novel’s central character, Dove Linkhorn, by a career criminal named “Cross-Country” Kline, while the two are spending time in jail together.

Kline also shared other life lessons he’d learned with Dove. Here’s a longer excerpt from A Walk on the Wild Side in which he tells Dove about several others:

      “But blow wise to this, buddy, blow wise to this: Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. Never let nobody talk you into shaking another man’s jolt. And never you cop another man’s plea. I’ve tried ‘em all and I know. They don’t work.
       “Life is hard by the yard, son. But you don’t have to do it by the yard. By the inch it’s a cinch. And money can’t buy everything. For example: poverty.”

Not long after A Walk on the Wild Side was published, the first three rules mentioned by Cross-Country Kline in that excerpt began to be cited as a famous quote by Algren.

With slight wording changes, Algren often cited them himself in speaking engagements and interviews. He also used them in an essay titled “What Every Young man Should Know.”

They are included in many books of quotations.

Quote mavens like Ralph Keyes and Barry Popik have pointed out that Algren probably didn’t coin the three famous rules himself.

They have both noted that an actor friend of Algren named Dave Peltz claimed to have created the rules. He said he wrote them down in a letter he sent to Algren.

Algren told biographer H. E. F. Donohue he got them from “a nice old Negro lady.”

In the foreword to the 1964 book Conversations with Nelson Algren, Donohue wrote:

“He [Algren] shunts aside all rules regulations and dicta except for three laws he says a nice old Negro lady once taught him: Never play cards with any man named ‘Doc’. Never eat at any place called ‘Mom’s’. And never ever, no matter what else you do in your whole life, never sleep with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.”

A couple of years ago, in a post on his “Black Cracker” blog, writer and musician Josh Alan Friedman recorded an additional rule of life Algren once mentioned to him.

Josh is the son of the novelist and playwright Bruce Jay Friedman and brother of cartoonist Drew Friedman. (He’s also one of my co-editors on an anthology of vintage men’s adventure stories, titled Weasels Ripped My Flesh!)

In July of 1964, Nelson Algren spent a week with the Friedman family at their rented summer house on Fire Island.

Josh recalled:

“Algren went apeshit over our elderly nanny, Mrs. Sullivan (the ‘Mrs. O’Leary’ character in my book, Black Cracker). She would break into a put-on Irish brogue to his delight. For years afterward, whenever Algren called my father and Mrs. Sullivan answered the phone, he’d chat with Mrs. Sullivan for an hour...Another other thing I recall from that week with Nelson in the house: He advised us that the pot handles be turned inward on the stove, rather than sticking out where they could be knocked over.”

So, there you have it: one more simple Nelson Algren rule of life to remember — while you avoid playing cards with anyone named Doc, eating at a place called Mom’s and sleeping with anyone whose troubles are worse than your own.

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Related reading…

May 15, 2015

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.” (A little knowledge, too, but that’s a misquote.)


Most people have heard the old line of poetry: “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”

It became a proverbial saying that has been — and is still is — used and repurposed in many ways.

The common variation is “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” However, that’s an misquote of the original line written by British poet Alexander Pope in his work An Essay on Criticism.

This famous “essay” is actually a book-length poem.

Pope first published it anonymously exactly three hundred years ago today on May 15, 1711.

It’s composed in iambic pentameter. That’s the poetic style with words that have an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one, thus sounding like “da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM”.

There are two other famous lines in Pope’s An Essay on Criticism almost everyone knows, even they’ve never read the poem.

One is the “To err is human, to forgive divine.” The other is “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

If you have read Pope’s An Essay on Criticism, you know it’s not an easy task.

It’s composed in a flowery, antique style and full of obscure references that make it hard for modern readers to grasp.

For example, here’s a longer passage that includes the famed “little learning” quote:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take nor see the lengths behind
But more advanced behold with strange surprise,
New distant scenes of endless science rise!”

This type of poesy is a bit reminiscent of Shakespeare. And, Shakespeare wrote some of his famous sonnets and verses of his plays in iambic pentameter.

But, personally, I find Shakespeare’s work much more enjoyable to read or hear than Pope’s and generally easier to comprehend.

With apologies to my high school and college English teachers, Pope’s poem An Essay on Criticism sounds to me like:

“Blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...A little learning is a dangerous thing...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...To err is human...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH...fools rush in...blah-BLAH, blah-BLAH.”

Of course, I only absorbed a little learning back in those days. (Hey, it was the Sixties.)

I encourage you to read the entire poem for yourself and draw your own conclusions about its Pierian spring of poetic wisdom.

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Related reading…

April 30, 2015

“Preserve, protect and defend…"


The oath an American president recites upon taking office includes the famous promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Interestingly, one of the first decisions a new president makes is which version of the presidential oath to take.

That’s because the paragraph in the Constitution that includes the presidential oath gives the president a simple, but potentially significant, choice of words.

That paragraph, in Article II, Section 1, says:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: — “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The option to either “swear” or “affirm” partly reflects the fact that some Founding Fathers were devout Christians and some weren’t. Thus, if the religious term “swear” didn’t fit a president's philosophy, he could say “affirm.”

On April 30, 1789, at his inauguration ceremony in New York City, George Washington became the first person to take the presidential oath.

Washington was a Christian. He chose to use the word “swear,” as every president except one has since then.

The exception was Franklin Pierce, who decided to say “affirm.”

Most presidents have also taken their oath while placing their hand on a Bible. However, nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires that.

It’s a tradition started by George Washington, who recited the oath with his hand on a Masonic Bible at his inauguration.

Although Masonic Bibles have since gone out of style, most presidents have sworn their oath with their hand on a Bible. I suspect this is partly to honor tradition and partly to avoid any controversy.

However, there have been some notable non-traditionalists.

John Quincy Adams took the oath with his hand on a book of law.

Theodore Roosevelt decided not to use a Bible or any other book when he recited the oath at his inauguration.

There has long been a debate about whether George Washington also started the tradition of saying “So help me God” after reciting the presidential oath.

Prof. Peter R. Henriques, author of the book Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, wrote an interesting article about this debate that’s posted on the History News Network.

He concluded there’s no proof Washington actually said “So help me God.” 

Apparently, the first American president to do so was Chester A. Arthur, at his inauguration in 1881.

That’s essentially the only thing Arthur ever said that might be considered a famous quotation. Unfortunately for him, Washington is the one who usually (and probably wrongly) gets credit for it.

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Related reading…

April 22, 2015

“We have met the enemy and he is us.”


The animal characters Walt Kelly created for his classic newspaper comic strip Pogo were known for their seemingly simplistic, but slyly perceptive comments about the state of the world and politics.

None is more remembered than Pogo the ‘possum’s quote in the poster Kelly designed to help promote environmental awareness and publicize the first annual observance of Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970:

       “WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND HE IS US.”

In the poster, under the quote, Pogo is seen holding a litter pick-up stick and a burlap bag.

He appears to be getting ready to start cleaning up the garbage humans have strewn over Okefenokee Swamp, the part of the planet where he lives.

Kelly used the line again in the Pogo strip published on the second Earth Day in 1971.

The words poignantly highlight a key concept of environmental stewardship: we all share part of the responsibility for the trashing of planet Earth, so we should all do our share to help clean it up.

Pogo’s quip was a pun based on the famous quotation “We have met the enemy and they are ours” — one of two famous quotes made by American Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry on September 10, 1813, after defeating a British naval squadron on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. (Perry’s other famous quote that day was “Don’t give up the ship.” )

Kelly had used a version of the quote in the foreword to his 1953 book The Pogo Papers, but it was not as pithy or memorable as the line he coined for Earth Day.

Today, the environmental issues we face today are clearly daunting.

However, since the first Earth Day in 1970 many environmental battles have been won and there has been notable progress in addressing problems that seemed quite daunting in the past.

Back then, for example, it was perfectly legal to dump untreated sewage and industrial waste into local waterways or turn irreplaceable natural areas like Okefenokee Swamp into toxic waste dumps.

Indeed, the types and levels of pollutants and environmental damage allowed in 1970 now seem shocking in retrospect.

Current environmental laws are much stronger. And, with some notable exceptions (like worldwide carbon dioxide emissions), most types of water and air pollution have been significantly reduced during the past four decades.

That is due in part to the grassroots environmental movement which was symbolically launched and celebrated by the first Earth Day.

Walt Kelly died in 1973, just three years after his Earth Day poster was published.

The quote used as the poster’s headline is still famous today — and the concept embodied in the poster still holds true.

We can’t just blame the big bad corporations for the environmental problems we face. Most of the time, they are just giving us what we “demand” as consumers at a cost we are willing to pay, and abiding by laws created by politicians we elect.

We all need to our own small part, as consumers and voters. If we do, we can collectively have a significant impact on addressing the environmental problems that threaten our local communities, our country and “Spaceship Earth.”

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Further reading and viewing…

April 15, 2015

“Now he belongs to the ages” – or maybe to the angels…


Three famous quotations are linked to the assassination and death of President Abraham Lincoln.

Many history and quotation books say that after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln on April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!”

That Latin phrase — which means “Thus always to tyrants!” — was and still is the official state motto of Virginia, one of the Confederate states during the Civil War.

According to many accounts, Booth also shouted “The South is avenged!” after he shot Lincoln.

Many history and quotation books also say that when Lincoln died the next morning, on April 15, 1865, his friend and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said to the small gathering of people at Lincoln’s bedside: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

However, it’s not actually clear whether these traditionally-cited quotes by Booth and Stanton are accurate. There are different “earwitness” accounts of what they said.

In his painstakingly-researched book We Saw Lincoln Shot, author Timothy Good determined that most witnesses recalled hearing Booth shout “Sic semper tyrannis!” But others — including Booth himself — claimed that he only yelled “Sic semper!” Some didn’t recall hearing Booth shout anything in Latin.

What Booth shouted in English is also muddied by varying recollections. Some witnesses said he shouted “The South is avenged!” Others thought they heard him say “Revenge for the South!” or “The South shall be free!” Two said Booth yelled “I have done it!”


Similarly, there are differing accounts of the words Edwin Stanton spoke when Lincoln died.

The traditional version of Edwin M. Stanton’s quote —  “Now he belongs to the ages.” — were the words remembered by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay, who was near Lincoln’s deathbed on April 15, 1865.

That quote was included in a book Hay wrote about Lincoln with John G. Nicolay in 1890 and popularized by Ida M. Tarbell’s widely-read biography of Lincoln, published in 1900. 

Dr. Charles Sabin Taft, one of Lincoln’s attending physicians, wrote his own account of the President’s death for Century Magazine in 1883. According to Taft, Stanton said “He now belongs to the Ages.”

The Hay and Taft versions vary only in the order of Stanton’s words.

However, as explained in a fascinating article by Adam Gopnik in the May 28, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, there’s another account that uses the word “angels” instead of “ages,” giving the quote a significantly different meaning.

On the night Lincoln was shot, he was taken to a room in Peterson’s boarding house (sometimes spelled Petersen’s). That evening, Edwin Stanton had witnesses to the shooting brought there to report what they had seen.

A Civil War veteran named James Tanner, who lived nearby and could write shorthand, was brought in to record what the witnesses said.

Tanner was also present on the morning of April 15, 1865, when Lincoln died. He didn’t write down Stanton’s words that morning. But he did later. And, according to Tanner, what Stanton said was: “Now he belongs to the angels.”

This has created a debate among historians. Most believe the traditional “ages” version is probably correct. But some, such as James L. Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, side with “the angels.” 

In his New Yorker article, Adam Gopnik concluded:
“The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.”
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Further reading about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln…

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