July 25, 2017

“Why are you not here?” – Thoreau’s famous (apocryphal) question to Emerson...

Emerson & Thoreau in jail (quotes)
Fake quotes are sometimes harder to identify and debunk than “fake news,” especially when they are cited by hundreds of books and thousands of websites.

A good example is the question Henry David Thoreau supposedly asked his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson in July 1846 when Thoreau was jailed overnight in Concord, Massachusetts for refusing to pay the local “poll tax,” as a protest against slavery and/or the Mexican-American War.

According to the oft-told story, Emerson visited Thoreau in jail and asked why he was there.

Thoreau purportedly responded: “Why are you not here?”

This legendary jailhouse meeting and Thoreau’s legendary zinger are exactly that – legend, not fact. But the facts about Thoreau’s night in jail are not easy to pin down.

Some sources give the date of Thoreau’s incarceration as July 23, 1846. Others say July 24, 1846.

Possibly, both dates apply, since he was arrested during the day, stayed in jail one night, and was released the following morning after someone anonymously paid the tax for him.

Some versions of the story say Thoreau refused to pay the tax to protest the Mexican-American War, which had begun a few months earlier. Others say he was protesting slavery.

Again, my guess is that it could have been both.

The war started in part because Americans in the then Mexican-owned region of Texas opposed Mexico’s law prohibiting slavery. They wanted Texas to be annexed by the U.S. as slave-holding territory and eventually a slave state. 

So, there was a link between the two issues.

On January 26, 1848, Thoreau mentioned his night in jail in an address to a group of local intellectuals called the Concord Lyceum.

The speech, originally titled “The Rights and Duties of the Individual in Relation to Government,” was first published with a few tweaks in 1849 under the title “Resistance to Civil Government.”

It later came to be known and reprinted after Thoreau’s death as “Civil Disobedience.”

In that influential work (which includes the famous quotation “That government is best which governs least”), Thoreau’s explanation for his refusal to pay the poll tax seems to refer to slavery, war and general principle:

       “It is for no particular item in the tax bill that I refuse to pay it. I simply wish to refuse allegiance to the State, to withdraw and stand aloof from it effectually. I do not care to trace the course of my dollar, if I could, till it buys a man, or a musket to shoot one with—the dollar is innocent—but I am concerned to trace the effects of my allegiance. In fact, I quietly declare war with the State, after my fashion…”

He added an oddly hypocritical ending to that high-minded declaration: “...though I will still make use and get what advantages of her [i.e., the State] I can, as is usual in such cases.”

In a mention of his night in jail in the book Walden, published in 1854, Thoreau wrote:

       “I did not pay a tax to, or recognize the authority of, the State which buys and sells men, women, and children, like cattle, at the door of its senate-house.”

Thoreau’s non-payment of the poll tax as a political statement seems to have been inspired by his friend, writer, educator and abolitionist Bronson Alcott.

In 1843, Alcott refused to pay the poll tax, as a symbolic protest against slavery. As a sort of symbolic punishment, the local sheriff put Alcott in jail for a couple of hours until someone (possibly his wife) paid the tax for him.

After hearing of Alcott’s protest, Thoreau began refusing to pay the poll tax.

Three years later, Concord Constable Sam Staples stopped Thoreau on the street on either July 23 or July 24, 1846 and urged him to pay up.

According to an article in the August 1975 issue of the venerable history magazine American Heritage, Staples even offered to loan Thoreau the money.    

Thoreau wasn’t wealthy, but the bill didn’t amount to much. The annual poll tax, which was supposed to be paid by male citizens between the ages of 21 and 70, was $1.50, or about $40 in today’s dollars.    

Thoreau told Staples he was still refusing to pay. It’s not clear whether the reason he gave at the time was to protest slavery or the Mexican-American War or both.

The Night Thoreau Spent in JailEither way, it was simply a symbolic gesture. The poll tax supported city services, not the state or federal government, and it had no real financial connection to slavery or the Mexican-American War.

Thoreau’s willingness to go to jail for his political views is generally portrayed as an inspiring and brave act. Undeniably, it has inspired many people, including Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

However, researchers who have looked into the poll tax law have said that, while it could be enforced by seizing property in lieu of payment, it’s questionable whether non-payment would have been — or legally could have been — punished with a lengthy jail sentence.

At any rate, it is true that Thoreau spent one night in jail for his principled act of tax evasion.

He was released the next day after someone (probably his aunt Maria Thoreau) paid the tax for him.

Perhaps it’s more accurate to say Constable Sam Staples kicked him out of jail.

Thoreau argued that since he didn’t personally pay the tax, he had a “right” to remain in locked up. Staples disagreed and made him leave.

According to legend, while Thoreau was in the Concord jail, his friend, fellow writer and social commentator Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to visit him and said “Henry, why are you here?” or “Henry, I am sorry to find you here.”

The most famous version of Thoreau’s response is “Why are you not here?” (with emphasis on not.)

Thoreau’s line is also given as “Why are you not here also?” or “Waldo, why are you NOT here?” or “What are you doing OUT of jail?”

The story of this exchange appears to have been made up after Thoreau died in 1962.

As noted by Yale Law School librarian and scholar Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the authoritative Yale Book of Quotations, there is no evidence that Emerson visited Thoreau in jail. And, Emerson is unlikely to have asked the question he supposedly asked since he’d have known why Thoreau was in jail.

Moreover, although Thoreau and Emerson recorded in detail the things they did and said, in their essays, journals, letters and books — and Thoreau wrote about his night in jail in Walden and “Civil Disobedience” — neither wrote anything about such a visit.

Shapiro and language maven Barry Popik have traced the first known version of the legend to an article published in the Christian Examiner in July 1865, three years after Thoreau’s death.

Popik’s post about the mythical exchange on his website documents several other versions of the story in newspaper and magazine articles published after that in the 1800s.

Since then, versions of the story have been included in many biographies of Thoreau and history books, typically cited as if Emerson’s visit and Henry’s zinger of a reply to Waldo were historical facts.

In 1969, during the Vietnam War, the legend was further enshrined in popular culture by the widely-produced anti-war play The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail, written by Robert E. Lee and Jerome Lawrence.

In the play, Emerson says “Henry! Henry! What are you doing in jail?”

Thoreau responds, “Waldo! What are you doing out of jail?”    

After 1846, the real life Thoreau continued to refuse to pay his poll tax. In the 1849 printing of “Civil Disobedience” he said proudly: “I have paid no poll tax for six years.”

Apparently, Constable Staples gave Thoreau a pass after his one famed night in jail, or maybe Aunt Maria kept paying the tax for him, since he didn’t end up in jail for non-payment after that.

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Related reading…

July 12, 2017

“There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.”


It is often claimed that the familiar expression of compassion “There, but for the grace of God, go I” is based on a quote by the 16th Century English Protestant clergyman John Bradford.

According to tradition, Bradford was a prisoner in the Tower of London when he said it.

He had previously been a prominent supporter of the religious reforms imposed by King Edward VI, which essentially banned Catholicism in England and established the Protestant Church of England as the country’s official religion.

Part of this “reformation” involved jailing or executing Catholic clergymen who weren’t willing to go along with the change.

After Edward died in 1553, Mary I (a.k.a. “Bloody Mary” Tudor) took the throne in England and forcefully reimposed Catholicism.

That involved jailing or executing Protestant clergymen who weren’t willing to go along with the change.

One of them was John Bradford, who refused to acknowledge the authority of the Pope and was convicted of “trying to stir up a mob.”

Queen Mary had Bradford locked up in the Tower of London with other notable Protestant leaders, such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.

One day while there, legend has it, Bradford looked down and saw a criminal being led to execution. (In some versions of the story, it’s a group of criminals.)

Simultaneously feeling compassion for the criminal and relief that he was better off, Bradford allegedly uttered the famous quotation “There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.”

This quote has long been cited as the origin of the proverbial saying “There but for the grace of God go I.”

This was memorably modernized as “There but for fortune go you or I” by Sixties folksinger Phil Ochs, in his much-covered song “There But for Fortune.”           

It should be noted that modern quote and phrase sleuths have been unable to find any documentation that Bradford actually said anything like the quote he’s alleged to have said.

The traditional story of Bradford’s famous quotation appears to come from biographies written about him in the 1800s, centuries after he was dead.

There’s no record of such a quote in historical records from Bradford’s own time and no such words in his writings.

Nonetheless, “There but for the grace of God goes John Bradford” is included as an attributed quote in many books of quotations. (It’s sometimes given as “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford”.)

The association this questionable quote has with the date July 1 is ironic.

The usual explanation of the quote’s meaning is that Bradford was expressing sympathy for the soon-to-be-executed criminal (or criminals) and suggesting that, except for God’s mercy, he might be sharing the same fate.

As it turned out, Bradford’s final fate actually was the same. Maybe worse, depending on how the criminal(s) got snuffed.

On July 1, 1555, Queen Mary had Bradford burned at the stake.

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July 09, 2017

“You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925)
July 9th is the anniversary of one of the most famous political speeches in history, the “Cross of Gold Speech” by William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925).

Bryan, one of America’s most charismatic and gifted orators, made the speech at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on July 9, 1896. (For some reason, many books and websites, including normally credible sources like Britannica.com, give the date as July 8, 1896. I triple-checked it. The correct date is July 9.)

Bryan’s address that day is called the “Cross of Gold Speech” because of his fiery, oft-cited closing lines:

       “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

The speech contains another line about the importance of agriculture to society that also appears in many books of quotations:

       “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

The meaning of Bryan’s words about farms is easy to grasp: their existence and an adequate food supply is crucial to civilization.

The meaning and context of the “cross of gold” quote is more complicated.

So were the political views of William Jennings Bryan.

He was something like a cross between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Like them, he was a populist politician.

He was a member of the Democratic Party and served as a Democratic Congressman for Nebraska from 1891 to 1895. But his primary allegiance was to his own moral principles and beliefs and his own hard core supporters, the majority of whom were low-income farmers and working people in rural areas of the country.

Bryan was known (and portrayed himself) as a strong advocate for the “common man” against wealthy businessmen and corporations. But Black Americans and immigrants were not among the common people Bryan cared about.

During the 2016 presidential campaign in an interesting article titled “Is Bernie Sanders Our William Jennings Bryan?” historian Michael Kazin noted: “Bryan and nearly all other Democrats in his day were unabashed defenders of Jim Crow. Their populism halted abruptly and cruelly at the color line. Neither did the eloquent Bryan, widely known as the Great Commoner, say much to defend the millions of common Jewish and Catholic immigrants who suffered from discrimination at the hands of his fellow native-born white Protestants.”

On the other hand, Bryan was an early supporter of the Women’s Suffrage movement and helped push for passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right vote.

But that partly reflected the fact that, like Bryan, most white Suffragettes supported state Prohibition laws and the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of liquor.

He was also a fundamentalist Christian who became one of the most high-profile critics of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Most notably, Bryan defended the state of Tennessee’s ban on teaching evolution in schools in the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial.”

Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech focused on the debate over “bimetallism,” one of the biggest, most controversial monetary policy issues in the late 1800s. It’s an arcane, now outdated issue that’s a bit hard to grasp and summarize. Here’s my layman’s attempt…

Cross of goldcartoon by Grant Hamilton, JUDGE magazine, 1896From the end of the Revolutionary War until 1873, money in the United States was “backed” by deposits of both silver and gold and the U.S. government minted both gold and silver coins. This “bimetallic standard” required the government to buy significant quantities of both metals.

During the mid-1800s, as more and more silver was mined in the U.S., that artificially propped up silver prices and benefitted owners of silver mines, which were primarily located in Western states.

It also caused creeping inflation in the costs of certain basic goods, such as agricultural products. That benefitted Midwestern and Western farmers but tended to increase living costs for most other working people. In addition, monetary inflation hurt banks and other lenders, by eroding the value of their loans.

In 1873, Congress passed a law ending bimetallism and moving the U.S. to the “gold standard” used in the United Kingdom and a number of other countries.

Midwestern and Western states opposed the change and pushed for a return to bimetallism, especially after the U.S. was hit by a severe economic depression in 1893.

William Jennings Bryan became a prominent leader of their “Free Silver” movement, which wanted the government to go back to bimetallism and mint an unlimited amount of silver-backed money on demand.

In his convention speech on July 9, 1896, Bryan framed the issue as a battle between “prosperous” people in big cities and “the struggling masses.” It was sort of a rural-based “trickle up” theory.

       “The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it,” he said. “You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

Bryan also took a shot at the idea that the U.S. should care about other countries’ monetary policy, much like some modern politicians attack free trade, globalism and the Paris climate change agreement.

       “Our ancestors, when but three million, had the courage to declare their political independence of every other nation upon earth,” he opined. “Shall we, their descendants, when we have grown to seventy million, declare that we are less independent than our forefathers? No, my friends...instead of having a gold standard because England has, we shall restore bimetallism, and then let England have bimetallism because the United States have.”

Here’s the full final paragraph of his speech, showing the context of his famous “cross of gold” line:

       “If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

Bryan had used versions of the crown of thorns/cross of gold lines in previous speeches. But no speech he’d ever made generated so much attention or had such an effect.

At the end of his address, the convention delegates cheered and applauded Bryan wildly and carried him on their shoulders.

Reports of his speech and its reception were published in newspapers throughout the country. It made him a national celebrity and earned him the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in the 1896 election.

His campaign slogan was “No Crown of Thorns, No Cross of Gold.”

Republicans and Republican-leaning editors viewed Bryan as a dangerous demagogue, whose “free silver” proposal would make America’s economic problems even worse.

The majority of “the struggling masses” were also leery of Bryan’s call for a return to bimetallism. That November, Bryan was soundly defeated by Republican candidate William McKinley.

Nevertheless, he remained a Democratic superstar. He received the party’s nomination for president again in 1900 – and lost again to McKinley.

Bryan ran for president a third time in 1908, but lost in a landslide to Republican nominee William Howard Taft.

However, in the realm of famous quotations, Bryan ultimately beat both of them. Neither McKinley nor Taft ever said anything cited by thousands of books and websites like Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” quotes are.

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June 14, 2017

“Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”


Baseball Hall of Famer Satchel Paige (1906-1982) is considered one of the greatest pitchers in history — despite the fact that he only played for teams in the major leagues for about five years. 

Paige actually had a very long career in baseball that started in 1926.

But from the mid-1920s to the late 1940s he was limited to playing for teams in “The Negro League,” due to the strict racial segregation that continued to be imposed in America during the first half of the 20th century.

In 1947, Paige’s former Negro League teammate Jackie Robinson finally broke baseball’s color barrier.

The following year, at age 42, Paige was recruited as a pitcher by the Cleveland Indians.

That simultaneously made him both the first Negro pitcher in the American League and the oldest major league “rookie” ever.

In 1951, Paige moved to Missouri to play for the St. Louis Browns. (I once owned a Topps baseball card showing him in his Browns uniform, with his name misspelled as “Satchell.” Looking at the prices that card fetches now on eBay, I wish I still had it.)

In 1953, a magazine story about Paige included what became a famous quote that’s included in many books about quotations and baseball:

      “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” [Sometimes given as “…may be gaining...”]

This the best known of the six rules attributed to Paige in that article, which was written by sports journalist Richard Donovan and published in the June 13, 1953 issue of Collier’s.

The six rules, (variously known as Satchel Paige’s “Six Rules for a Long Life” and “Rules for Staying Young”) were featured in a sidebar of the article and recorded as follows:

      “1. Avoid fried meats, which angry up the blood.
       2. If your stomach disputes you, lie down and pacify it with cool thoughts.
       3. Keep the juices flowing by jangling around gently as you move.
       4. Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social rumble ain’t restful.
       5. Avoid running at all times.
       6. Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

The Collier’s article made Paige’s rules famous.

Paige enhanced awareness of them by reciting the rules to fans and reporters throughout the rest of his life. He even had them printed on the back of his business cards.

However, over the years, questions arose about whether Satchel’s rules had actually been created by him or by Richard Donovan.

The truth seems to be somewhere in between.

In Paige’s 1962 memoir, Maybe I’ll Pitch Forever, he said he did have a system of personal rules that helped him be one of the best — and eventually oldest — pitchers in baseball.

“Some sports guy on the East Coast heard me talking about them once and then he went and turned them into a bunch of rules for me to stay young,” Paige recalled.

Regarding the most-quoted rule about not looking back, Paige said: “That last one that fellow wrote was my real rule. When you look back, you know how long you’ve been going and that just might stop you from going any farther...So I didn’t.”

In the excellent biography SATCHEL: The Life and Times of an American Legend, author Larry Tye concludes that the rules were based on things Paige said to Donovan during hours of interviews, but the exact wording was probably Donovan’s.

Paige retired from major league baseball not long after Collier’s published his “six rules” in 1953. But he remained a popular celebrity until his death from a heart attack in 1982.

His heart problem may have had something to do with the fact that — by his own admission — Satchel regularly violated Rule #1.

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Further reading and viewing about Satchel Paige and the Negro Leagues


June 01, 2017

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”

I have measured out my life with coffeespoons WM2 
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” by the American-born British poet T.S. Eliot (Thomas Stearns Eliot), is one of the most famous poems of the 20th Century.

It was first published in the June 1915 issue of Poetry magazine, an influential Chicago-based journal read by literary luminaries and poetry buffs in both America and Europe.

Although critical reception of the poem was mixed, it launched Eliot’s career as a poet and gave him initial visibility that grew to worldwide fame with publication of his other early masterpieces of modernist verse: “Gerontion” (1920), “The Waste Land” (1922) and “The Hollow Men” (1925).

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was included in Eliot’s first book of collected verse, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917).

It remains one of his best-known poems and contains several passages found in many books of quotations.

One of those oft-quoted passages comes from the beginning of the poem:

       “Let us go then, you and I,
       When the evening is spread out against the sky
       Like a patient etherized upon a table.”

In literal terms, an evening spread out like an anaesthetized patient makes no sense.

But, like much of the verse Eliot wrote, it evokes an image that works memorably as poetry.

As the poem proceeds, it becomes apparent that the character speaking is an old man who seems disillusioned, lonely, bored and unhappy.

“I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” he says in one of the poem’s most famous lines. (Sometimes misquoted as “I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.”)

Other passages express the old man’s haunting feeling that life and love have passed him by and that he may have let them pass, by settling into a humdrum existence.

In another oft-quoted part of the poem he says:

       “I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
       I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
       Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

The poem ends, gloomily, with these final famous lines:

       “We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
       By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
       Till human voices wake us, and we drown.”

Eliot’s poetic trip inside an old man’s mind in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” was not based on his personal experience.

He was only 22 years old when he began composing the poem in 1920 and only 26 when it was first published.

I suspect that, in part, the poem reflects the sense of dread many young people feel when they realize they might reach old age without having pursued their dreams, without ever having found true love, without escaping the sometimes soul-crushing limitations imposed by society and the need to make a living.

As Eliot reached middle age and beyond, his work became less gloomy.

His even wrote comedic plays and a book of whimsical poems about cats titled Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (the basis for the hit Broadway musical Cats).

Eliot’s last well-known poem, published in 1959, suggests that, after an unhappy first marriage, he found happiness with his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher.

It’s a romantic, almost sappy bit of verse titled “A Dedication to My Wife” that has become a popular wedding poem.

Apparently, Esmé helped Eliot escape the lonely fate of his character J. Alfred Prufrock.

When they wed in 1957, she was 32. He was 68.

To which I say: good for you, old man.

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May 24, 2017

“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”


On May 24, 1995, five days after its official premiere in Los Angeles, Braveheart was released to theaters nationwide in the USA.

The movie stars Mel Gibson as the 13th century Scottish rebel leader William Wallace. He also directed it.

It was a major critical and box office success. And, it also generated a famous, oft-recycled and parodied movie quote.

It’s a line Gibson shouts to his men, just before they fight the much larger English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge:

       “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

That line is part of the answer Gibson gives after one nervous Scottish soldier suggests out loud that it might be better to retreat and live to fight another day.

Gibson responds by saying:

      “Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you’ll live — at least a while. And, dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!?! Alba gu bràth!”

If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t seen Braveheart, you can view a clip of this scene online.

In Scottish Gaelic, “Alba gu bràth” (sometimes spelled Alba gu bra, Alba go bragh or Alba go breá) means “Scotland forever!”

The literal meaning of gu bràth in Gaelic is “until Judgment,” meaning the final Judgment day foretold in the Bible. The Irish, who also fought for their freedom against the English, have a similar term: “Erin go bragh” (“Ireland Forever”).

The inspiring speech Mel gives in the film is fictional, but Braveheart is based on true historic events.

William Wallace was a key leader of the Scottish rebellion against the English in the 13th century, during what’s called the First War of Scottish Independence.

At the bloody Battle of Stirling Bridge, fought on September 11, 1297, Wallace succeeded in getting his outnumbered followers to defeat the much larger English army they faced.

That battle, and the legends that arose about Wallace, encouraged the Scots to continue and ultimately achieve the goal of Scottish independence.

Unfortunately, Wallace didn’t live to see it. He was caught, tortured, disemboweled and beheaded before that came to pass, as is graphically depicted in Braveheart.

History buffs have noted that some things in Braveheart stray more than a wee bit from the facts.

For example, the Lowland Scots that Wallace led didn’t wear kilts, like they do in the movie.

And, the bridge that played a major role in the Battle of Stirling Bridge — by creating a bottleneck that prevented English troops from overwhelming the Scots — was nowhere to be seen in the movie.

But somehow, whenever I rewatch Mel’s rousing speech in Braveheart, those seem like nitpicks. Alba gu bràth!

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May 18, 2017

“Never play cards with a man called Doc” — and other advice from Nelson Algren…

Nelson Algren (1909-1981)
The
copyright record for the novel A Walk on the Wild Side by Nelson Algren says it was copyrighted on May 18, 1956.

Traditionally, the copyright date is also a book’s initial publication date.

Algren’s novel might have been released sooner if not for a dispute he had with his publishing company, Doubleday.

Doubleday had published Algren’s breakthrough book of short stories, The Neon Wilderness, in 1947.

In 1949 it published his blockbuster novel The Man with the Golden Arm, which won the National Book Award in 1950 and was later made into a hit film starring Frank Sinatra.

The next novel Algren wrote was A Walk on the Wild Side.

After reviewing its story about a drifter from Texas who, among other things, rapes a woman, works in a condom factory and then in a whorehouse in New Orleans, the editorial powers that be at Doubleday decided it was a bit too risqué.

As noted by book news journalist Frederick Babcock in his column in the Chicago Tribune on February 26, 1956, they told Algren to tone it down.

Algren made a few minor token changes. Doubleday pushed for more. Algren took a walk, so to speak, and gave the novel to Farrar, Straus & Cudahy to publish. 

Newsclip about Nelson Algren, 1956Given the eventual lasting fame of the book and its title, you could say the editors at Doubleday make a big mistake. But in 1956 the novel was panned by critics and initial sales were low. Algren was so devastated he tried to commit suicide.

He survived. He continued to write and he taught writing at several universities. But he didn’t publish another book until 1962.

He didn’t write another novel until 1974. Titled The Devil’s Stocking, it wasn’t published until 1983 — two years after Algren died from a heart attack.

A Walk on the Wild Side has lived on as a book that continues to be reprinted and is now more favorably viewed by critics.

In 1962, it was adapted into a film with a star-studded cast, including Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Jane Fonda, Anne Baxter and Barbara Stanwyck.

The title song for the film, scored by Elmer Bernstein with lyrics by Mack David, was nominated for an Academy Award and is on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest film music.

In 1972, Lou Reed released his catchy song “A Walk on the Wild Side” (produced by David Bowie and Mick Ronson).

By that time those words were already a common idiomatic expression meaning to do things that are risky or morally questionable.

Reed’s song made the phrase even more famous and familiar to new generations.

Algren’s novel A Walk on the Wild Side also includes his best known quote. It’s some memorable advice about certain things you should never do that shows up in many books of famous quotations:

       “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 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.

A Walk on the Wild Side, Nelson Algren Ace edition 1960Kline also shares other life lessons he’d learned with Dove.

Here’s a longer excerpt from A Walk on the Wild Side in which he recites them:

      “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.”

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.”

Several 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’s one more sensible 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. Never turn the pot handles outward on the stove.

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