Monday, September 10, 2007

Ralph Oliver Waldo Wendell Emerson Holmes


From a comment on Celestial Inspiration it was interesting to learn that the quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes has also been credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson:

What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.

It seems entirely plausible to me that Emerson could have been the actual source of the quote. I do know this – after spending a little time gathering quotes, I’ve seen certain ones get attributed to multiple sources, either by design or by mistake.

One of the all-time best misquotes is the Chief Seattle 1854 speech. Don’t you love this? -

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memories of the red man….

Great stuff, but of course the words were never uttered by Chief Seattle. According to snopes:

The words Chief Seattle has become famous for were written by Ted Perry, the screenwriter for Home, a 1972 film about ecology. They have since been widely quoted in books, on TV, and from the pulpit. A children's book, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message From Chief Seattle, sold 280,000 within the first six months of its 1991 issue.

Fascinating, but it doesn’t answer the tiny matter of Emerson v. Holmes. Here, I should add that the "tiny matters" quote has been attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senior (poet, 1809-1894) AND Oliver Wendell Holmes, Junior (jurist, 1841-1935), in addition to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882).

One website of quotations credits both Emerson and Holmes with the quote. But the funniest web listing placed it under the category "Lies." (Language is such a capricious prankster. But applying that suggested meaning of the word "lies" gives the quote a new significance. Perhaps it DOES comment on our capacity for self-deception.)

Another especially helpful website on the Transcendentalists covers Emerson, Holmes, Thoreau, Fuller, Alcott, and others. From there it’s easy to track back to some original sources. I figured I was about to crack the case when I found the online text of Ralph Waldo Emerson, an 1885 book by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. It stood to reason that Holmes could have quoted Emerson in the course of the biography and hence received credit for the quote. The only problem is that it does not appear in the book.

I searched some Emerson text and never found the quote. Then I read this query:

Q. Can you tell me the source of the quote "What lies behind us, and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."
A. This quote is often attributed to Emerson, especially on the Internet. However, it does not appear in the Complete Works, nor in the Complete Journals. Various Internet sites (search Google) reveal both Henry Thoreau and Oliver Wendell Holmes as sources, although the sites do not list any sources. The best solution at present is NOT to attribute the quote to Emerson.

My guess now is that the quote came from a Hollywood screenwriter. I still like it. In any event, I believe the Holmes camp concedes the following quotes to Mr. Emerson:

Stay at home in your mind. Don't recite other people's opinions. I hate quotations. Tell me what you know. Journals, 1843

By necessity, by proclivity, and by delight, we all quote. In fact, it is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent.

Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.

But for all I know, they might be recent inventions as well.

So much for definitive answers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On Liberation From The Self, Moss Plugs and Other Delights...

I am wondering how the owners of Balsam Mountain Preserve are doing on their own personal liberation.

For myself, I continue to work on ways to decrease my own carbon footprint. What was I thinking when I planted grass (the green stuff that grows on the lawn). I understand moss plugs mixed with buttermilk in the blender is the way to go.

Thanks for the blog on Emerson. He is one of my favorites.