February 24, 2016

“Man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped.”

The publication of Charles Darwin’s book On the Origin of Species in 1859 helped launch the modern science of evolution.

It also created a firestorm of controversy, by suggesting that all species — including homo sapiens — evolved from “lower” life forms.

However, Darwin did not explicitly state that humans evolved from ape and monkey-like precursors in On the Origin of Species.

He saved that bombshell for his next major work, The Descent of Man, which was first published in London on February 24, 1871.

The final chapter of that book, Chapter XXI, contains Darwin’s famous (and infamous) statement:

       “We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.”

Of course, there are some people who are unwilling to accept the theory of evolution because it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

However, from a scientific perspective, Darwin’s basic conclusions have withstood the test of time.

That’s not to say he got everything right.

Over the past 140 years, other scientists have determined that some things Darwin postulated were wrong.

Thus, like every science, the science of evolution has evolved.

Darwin himself predicted this would happen.

In the preface to the Second Edition of The Descent of Man, published in 1874, he noted:

       “it is probable, or almost certain, that several of my conclusions will hereafter be found erroneous; this can hardly fail to be the case in the first treatment of a subject.”

One of Darwin’s conclusions that’s still accepted as a basic fact by scientists is that “man is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped.”

That’s also one of the things that is most vehemently rejected by Darwin’s religious critics.

They believe God created humans and everything else and that “Darwinism is atheism.”

As explained on the excellent AboutDarwin.com website, Darwin called himself an agnostic, not an atheist.

He felt that God’s existence was outside the realm of scientific research.

Near the end of his life, Darwin put it this way:

       “I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble to us.”

One thing is clear.

Darwin’s Descent of Man both shed lasting light on — and generated lasting heat over — the topic of human evolution.

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February 20, 2016

“I can resist everything except temptation” and other famous quotes from Oscar Wilde’s play “Lady Windermere’s Fan”...

Oscar Wilde temptation quote WM
In 1892, Oscar Wilde was near the peak of his fame.

He had already gained international renown as a poet, essayist and wit. His novel The Picture of Dorian Gray — first serialized in Lippincott’s Magazine 1890, then published in book form in 1891 — was highly popular.

Then, in 1892, he enjoyed his first major success as a playwright with the production of his Victorian-era comedy of manners Lady Windermere’s Fan. (The full original title is Lady Windermere's Fan: A Play about a Good Woman.)

The play opened at St. James’s Theatre in London on February 20, 1892, where it ran to packed houses through the end of July. Some books and websites give the date February 22, 1892 for the premiere, but the majority — and the most authoritative sources — say the play opened on February 20.

Lady Windermere’s Fan has continued to be performed on stages throughout the world ever since.

The first movie adaptation was a silent film produced in England in 1916. In 1925, a more widely-seen silent film version was released, starring Ronald Colman and May McAvoy and directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

In 1949, Otto Preminger produced and directed an updated film version, titled The Fan. It starred Jeanne Crain and George Sanders. One of the scriptwriters was Dorothy Parker.

Noel Coward created a musical version of the play in 1954, which he titled After the Ball.

The BBC produced two Masterpiece Theatre-style adaptations for television, one in 1972 and another in 1985.

The most recent film based on Wilde’s play was made in 2004. Titled A Good Woman, it stars Scarlett Johansson as Meg Windermere. (Thanks to my fellow quote aficionado Dr. Mardy Grothe for bringing that excellent adaptation to my attention.)

Even if you’ve never seen any version of Lady Windermere’s Fan, you probably know some of the oft-cited lines from it that are included in many books of quotations.

In Act I, the character Lord Darlington makes the famed quip: “I can resist everything except temptation.”

In Act III, Lord Darlington says the sardonic line: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” (My favorite reference to that line is in the 1981 song “Message of Love” by The Pretenders, in which Chrissie Hynde sings: “We are all of us in the gutter / But some of us are looking at the stars.”)

Also in Act III, the character Mr. Dumby utters the oft-quoted bit of wisdom: “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

An exchange shortly after that between the character Cecil Graham and Lord Darlington is the origin of the now proverbial definition of a cynic:      

       GRAHAM: “What is a cynic?”  
       DARLINGTON: “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

A few year’s after the success of Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde’s fortunes took a dramatic downturn.

He was imprisoned for violating England’s puritanical laws against homosexuality (which Wilde’s lover Alfred Douglas famously called “the love that dare not speak its name” in his 1894 poem “Two Loves”).

After being released from prison in 1897, Wilde published his last well-known work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” the poem that contains the famous line: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.”

Wilde was a broken, impoverished, sick man after serving his prison sentence. But according to legend, he gave us one final witticism before he died in a dingy Paris boarding room on November 30, 1900.

His dying words, as he gazed at the drab walls of the room were (purportedly): “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

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February 17, 2016

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

To paraphrase Firesign Theatre, everything most people know about some 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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February 02, 2016

“Only God can make a tree.” But Joyce Kilmer’s poem inspired many people to plant and preserve them…

On a chilly winter afternoon in 1913, at his home in New Jersey, poet Joyce Kilmer jotted down the first two lines of a new poem in his notebook, along with the date — February 2, 1913.

Those two lines went on to become among the most famous, most inspiring and most mocked bits of American verse in history:

       “I think that I shall never see
        A poem lovely as a tree.”

The rest of Kilmer’s well-known poem “Trees” was written on a following page of the notebook.

It was first published in the August 1913 issue Poetry Magazine. In 1914, it was included and featured in his second book of poetry, Trees and Other Poems.

Kilmer was already a successful poet, journalist and lecturer in 1914. But it was “Trees” that gave him broad and lasting fame.

Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see just how famous and impactful the poem would become.

When America entered World War I in 1917, Kilmer enlisted. On July 20, 1918, he was killed at age 31 by a German sniper during the Second Battle of the Marne on the Western Front.

In the decades since Kilmer’s death, “Trees” has been reprinted in countless collections of poetry. It became one of the standard poems taught to and recited by American school children.

In 1922, composer Oscar Rasbach turned it into a song that has been recorded by many popular singers and musicians, including Nelson Eddy, Robert Merrill, Paul Robeson, Mario Lanza and Julian Lloyd Webber.

More importantly, the poem helped inspire tree planting programs and forest preservation efforts in the U.S.

It has long been one of the primary pieces of literature that the Arbor Day Foundation uses to promote National Arbor Day, which is celebrated each year on the last Friday in April. (Many states observe Arbor Day on different dates depending on best tree planting times in their area.)

Each year on Arbor Day, the Foundation honors people who make notable efforts to plant and protect trees by giving them a “Joyce Kilmer Award.”

Kilmer was a devout Catholic and his spiritual nature is reflected in the last two lines of “Trees,” which are nearly as famous as the first two lines:

       “Poems are made by fools like me,
        But only God can make a tree.”

Scholars have noted that Kilmer may have unconsciously or knowingly plagiarized those final lines.

In 1908 and 1909, before becoming an established poet, Kilmer was a school teacher.

It’s likely that he had read or heard about a popular book about children published in 1907, Labour and Childhood, written by the pioneering British children’s health advocate Margaret McMillan.

McMillan encouraged outdoor activities for children. In her 1907 book, using the current British term for indoor school equipment, apparatus, she wrote: “Apparatus can be made by fools, but only God can make a tree.”

Of course, many critics have also lambasted “Trees” and Kilmer’s other poems for being simplistic, stylistically outdated, syrupy, sentimental and (punningly) sappy.

Since 1986, The Philolexian Society of Columbia University, a college literary society of which Kilmer was once vice president, has held an annual “Joyce Kilmer Memorial Bad Poetry Contest.”

Yet it’s hard to deny that the simple, but poignant and memorable, lines in Kilmer’s poem “Trees” have inspired millions of people to adopt a more reverent attitude toward trees and nature and helped encourage the planting and protection of millions of trees.

That’s not a bad legacy.

So, to Kilmer’s critics I say: What have YOU ever written that will be remembered, inspire millions of people and benefit the environment decades later?

Some links worth exploring:

• The complete text of Kilmer’s book Trees and Other Poems.

RisingDove.com, the website about Joyce Kilmer and his family, maintained by his granddaughter.

• The book A Cave of Candles: The Story Behind Notre Dame's Grotto by Dorothy V. Corson. In her research for the book, Corson tracked down the date when “Trees” was written and other interesting background facts about the poem by talking to Kilmer’s oldest son Kenton. (That excerpt is online here.)

• The Kilmer House website

• The more than 100 videos on YouTube inspired by Kilmer’s poem “Trees”

• Web page about the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in North Carolina, a 17,000 acre tract of forest land preserved in Kilmer's memory in 1936.

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