12 July 2011

Fools and Criticism

Wikiquote—one of the Wikimedia side-projects dwarfed by its famous sister Wikipedia—has a policy that all quotation-collections ought to employ: sources must be given for all quotations used. Further, quotations are divided up into categories—quotations with sources, attributed quotations, and misattributions, typically. There are also often sections devoted to such things as famous observations about the subject of the page—for example. Alleged quotations without sources are placed on the discussion page, and Wikiquote editors (as time permits) gradually run them down.

I track certain pages and periodically check to see if anything new has come up there. Recently some anonymous editor produced an (alleged) Benjamin Franklin quotation I wasn’t aware of:
Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain—and most fools do.
Several of the big quotation sites have this one, but, as correctly noted by the Wikiquote editor, it’s not by Franklin. It’s from Dale Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People. The passage there reads:
Bitter criticism caused the sensitive Thomas Hardy, one of the finest novelists ever to enrich English literature, to give up forever the writing of fiction. Criticism drove Thomas Chatterton, the English poet, to suicide.

Benjamin Franklin, tactless in his youth, became so diplomatic, so adroit at handling people, that he was made American Ambassador to France. The secret of his success? “I will speak ill of no man,” he said, “…and speak all the good I know of everybody.”

Any fool can criticize, condemn and complain—and most fools do.

But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.
So this—it appears—is another one where somebody has attributed an author’s words to a person he’d quoted just before it. The Wikiquote editor suggests that this may be due to a misprint in some edition of Carnegie’s work, and that’s always possible, but this sort of thing happens often enough without any misprint to aid the process that I at least see no need to postulate it.

So, this much is now clear—Dale Carnegie was quoting Ben Franklin, somebody mistakenly thought his words were Franklin’s, and the misquotation was born. But is that really the case? Was Carnegie quoting Franklin? Did Franklin actually say “I will speak ill of no man … and speak all the good I know of everybody”? That’s not so clear. Turning to good old Google Books (and how that massive index has speeded up this sort of work at least tenfold) we find the oldest source for it is a book from 1901, Little Journeys to the Homes of American Statesmen, where it appears as an introductory quotation to an account of Franklin’s life:
I will speak ill of no man, not even in matter of truth; but rather excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasion speak all the good I know of everybody.
The author, Elbert Hubbard, attributes it to “Franklin’s journal”, which is not very helpful. It is almost certainly, however, not from Franklin’s journal, exactly, but rather from a lost paper quoted in an 1815 source, a “Life of Benjamin Franklin” by Robert Walsh, printed in Delaplaine’s Repository of the Lives and Portraits of Distinguished Americans, volume 2, pp. 51-52. It’s part of a self-improvement plan Franklin drew up as a young man in the year 1726. The relevant section reads:
4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever, not even in a matter of truth; but rather by some means excuse the faults I hear charged upon others, and upon proper occasions speak all the good I know of every body.
A few words have changed, but it appears to be the same item. Carnegie’s wording, however, strongly suggests that he didn’t get it from this source, but rather from Little Journeys or some close textual relative.

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