I saw it in print, it must be right!

Exercise your ear for language. Of these quotations, which was not written or uttered by Thomas Jefferson? [some irregular spellings are contained, they aren’t typos but represent the flexibility of orthography in earlier centuries.]

“An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second.” 1

“But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.” 2

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” 3

“A mind always employed is always happy…The idle are the only wretched. In a world which furnishes so many emploiments which are useful, and so many which are amusing, it is our own fault if we ever know what ennui is, or if we are ever drive to the miserable resource of gaming, which corrupts our disposition, and teaches us a habit of hostility against all mankind.” 4

Probably you had no difficulty in identifying #3 as the one that doesn’t fit. It seems to stick out like a wrong note in music: inappropriate to the man and his time, both in sentiment and expression. For me, being old enough to recall the human potential movement, it clearly has a connexion to that school of folly. Spontaneity, individualism, do whatever feels right to you (regardless of consequences to others, or even yourself), were exalted above all else. Impulse over reason. All self-expression is good. Learning, self-restraint, and practice are by implication unnecessary, and a cruel blow to one’s inner child.

“…you just get stoned, get the ideas in your head and then do ’em. And don’t bullshit. I mean that’s the thing about doin’ that guerrilla theatre. You be prepared to die to prove your point.”
Abbie Hoffman 5

“I do my thing, and you do your thing. I am not in this world to live up to your expectations, and you are not in this world to live up to mine. You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.”
Frederick E. Perl 6

But all over the net, I found that laissez–faire quotation #3,

“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”

attributed to our third president, author of the Declaration of Independence, a man of such parts that John F. Kennedy famously remarked, upon the occasion of a White House dinner honoring Nobel Prize Winners, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet.” [Please indulge me while I point out the obvious, that Thomas Jefferson did not acquire any of these abilities by simply expressing himself and “doing his thing.”]

The mis-attributed quotation came to me a few weeks ago from some newsletter list I got on, and it seemed so anachronistic to me that I started looking for who really said it. Well, according to most websources, it was Thomas Jefferson. Google it and see. I did find another person credited with it, but the Jefferson attributions were far more numerous. But truth isn’t established by majority vote, so I kept looking.

Finally I discovered The Jefferson Encyclopedia which has a page of “Spurious Quotations” but I did not find “Don’t ask. Act!” there, so I wrote to them. This, now, is a reliable source, part of the foundation which protects and restores Jefferson’s estate at Monticello and sponsors educational and research programs. The encyclopedia site is described as “Trustworthy information on Thomas Jefferson and his world by Monticello researchers and respected Jefferson scholars.” I got a prompt reply; the experts there have had more than one inquiry on the subject, and mine must have been the last straw, as they decided to add a page concerning the “Do you want to know who you are?” quotation to their informational wiki-encyclopedia.

The true author of those words? Witold Gombrowicz, of course! He was (1904-1969 ) a Polish novelist and dramatist. As Anna Berkes, the Monticello researcher who kindly answered my email query, put it:

“Also, most people would much rather put “Thomas Jefferson” on their signature line or plaque or bumpersticker than, say,
Witold Gombrowicz; so it’s often an uphill battle to try to
dis-associate Jefferson from quotations like these.”


This painting is a copy of the second life portrait of Jefferson (1805) by Rembrandt Peale. Source.

The web is the best example to date of how something can get written once, and then copied by dozens of others who rely on the authority of the first.

The late Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay on the phenomenon, about how someone’s questionable comparison of the size of the earliest horses (Eohippus, when I was in school) to the size of a fox-terrier, was repeated by textbook publishers from 1904 to 1988 when Gould’s “The case for the creeping fox terrier clone” appeared in Natural History Magazine. (You can also find it in Bully for Brontosaurus, a collection of Gould’s essays, and in Google’s online digitization of same.) Gould’s point was the failure of textbook writers (compilers?) to consult original sources and use fresh material, instead of doing what, in a student, would be condemned as plagiarism. The only fox-terrier familiar to very many people is Asta in the Thin Man movies, but probably few people born after 1950 would know about William Powell’s debonair canine sidekick. Thus, as an aid to understanding, the metaphor has outlived its effectiveness.

And copying blindly leads also—as in the case of the Jefferson mis-attribution—to just plain wrong information. The Eohippus/fox-terrier comparison may be such a case. The AKC standard for the Wire(haired) Fox Terrier prescribes a height of 15.5 inches at the withers—roughly the shoulder—for the male. Wikipedia states that Hyracotherium (formerly Eohippus) “averaged 8 to 9 inches (20 cm) high at the shoulder.”


And why did I write this post? I admire Jefferson, and I wanted to help set the record straight. So, Google, find this: Thomas Jefferson did not say or write “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.” It was Witold Gombrowicz.

Little Blue Books


Before Project Gutenberg, there were Little Blue Books. Before paperback books (not pamphlets, but books) came along in the 30’s, there were Little Blue Books. My remaining library of them is shown above, and below are a few with a paperback of the same period.


“Little Blue Books” was the popular name for a series of tiny publications printed on pulp paper, with slightly heavier paper covers, by E. Haldeman-Julius between 1919 and 1951. Emanuel Julius was the son of Russian immigrant Jews; he said his life was changed when, as a boy, he got hold of a 10 cent publication of Oscar Wilde’s grim poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and read it straight through oblivious to the freezing weather in which he sat. At that moment, he thought “how wonderful it would be if thousands of such booklets could be made available.”

All of us who were bookworms in childhood can identify with that experience. I don’t remember much of my youth but I can still recall exactly where I was when I read the end of To Kill A Mockingbird: sitting on a log in some neighbor’s front yard, having put the paperback in my pocket before setting out ostensibly to take the dog for a walk. And on a difficult bus trip to San Francisco, I buried myself in the Little Blue Book of Macbeth and came across the encouraging lines “Time and the hour/run through the roughest day.” I was on the bus with my parents, but seated separately; they were barely speaking to one another, having had another of the fights over my father’s extreme stay-at-home habits–this one followed by “Well, maybe you’d like to go to San Francisco (about 40 miles)?” “Driving and parking there is too awful.” and so on, until we ended up a silent trio on Greyhound.

I still have that 15-cent copy of Macbeth, and most of the other LBB’s that I acquired. The titles in this line included a lot of classics, not just because they were copyright-free, but because Haldemann-Julius had an agenda: a mixture of the classical, the progressive, and the useful.

Here’s a sampling of titles [my apologies for such a long list, but, I confess, when I started looking at the lists on the Penn State Axe Library site, I found it hard to stop selecting examples!] :

1a. The Ballad of Reading Jail, by Oscar Wilde. First Edition. [Cover title.] People’s Pocket Series. [1919] [

1b. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Second Edition. [Cover title.] People’s Pocket Series. [1919]

3a. Walt Whitman’s Poems. [1920.]

17c. On Walking, by Henry David Thoreau. [1921.]

60a. Emerson’s Essays. [1920.]

90c. The Mikado, by W. S. Gilbert.

94a. Trial and Death of Socrates. [1920.]

95a. Confessions of an Opium Eater, by Thomas De Quincey. [1920.]

60a. Emerson’s Essays. [1920.]

140a. America’s Prison Hell, by Kate O’Hare. [1920.

1001. Tales of Italian Bandits [by] Washington Irving. [1927.]

1002. A Dictionary of Sea Terms [by] Frank Wells. [1926.]

1003. How to Think Logically [by] Leo Markun. [1926.]

1004. How to Save Money [by] J. George Frederick. [1926.]

1005. How to Enjoy the Orchestra [by] Isaac Goldberg. [1926.]

1006. A Book of Children’s Games [by] Grace Perkins. [1926.]

1008. The Origin of Religion [by] Joseph McCabe. [1926.]

1009. Typewriting Self Taught [by] Miriam Allen DeFord. [1926.]

1010. A Handbook for Amateur Magicians [by] George Milburn. [1926.]

1011. Pocket Dictionary, English-French, French-English [by] Vance Randolph. [1927.]

1014. The Best American Jokes, edited by Clement Wood. [1926.]

1017. Without Benefit of Clergy [by] Rudyard Kipling. [1926.]

1019. Bluebeard and His Eight Wives [by] Clement Wood. [1926.]

1020. Why I Am an Infidel [by] Luther Burbank. [1926.]

1021. Italian Self Taught [by] Isaac Goldberg. [1926.]

1022. An Odyssey of the North [by] Jack London. [1926.]

1162. Mystery Tales of Ghosts and Villains [by] Montague Rhodes James, Katherine Rickford [and] Charles Dickens.

1163. The Policewoman’s Love-Hungry Daughter and Other Stories of Chicago Life [by] Ben Hecht.

1177. Woman and the New Race [by] Havelock Ellis.

1178. The Chorus Girl and Her Lover’s Wife and Other Stories [by] Anton Chekhov.

1179. How to Make Desserts, Pies and Pastries [by] Mrs. Temple.

1182. How to Make Your Own Cosmetics [by] Gloria Goddard.

1183. How to Play Checkers [by] W. Patterson.

1185. The Weather: What Makes It and Why [by] Clifton L. Ray.

1186. A Handbook of the Rules of Golf, compiled by Harold Dix.

1188. Sex and the Garden of Eden Myth, a Collection of Essays on Christianity [by] Maynard.

1189. Pin Money: One Hundred Ways to Make Money at Home [by] Gloria Goddard.

1190. What Price Love? [by] Anton Chekhov.

1286. Do Human Beings Have Free Will? A Debate: Affirmative: Professor George Burman Foster, Negative: Clarence Darrow.

There are some patterns here: how-to and self-improvement, progressive politics and “free-thinking” about religion and society, and, of course, plenty of titles containing the words “love,” “sweetheart,” and “sex.” But there are also the large and small lights of Western Literature: Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, O. Henry, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Balzac, Ibsen, Mark Twain, Rabelais…there seems no end to Haldeman’s inclusiveness, until one thinks that a complete set of Little Blue Books would make the ideal accompaniment to a desert island existence. And cheap, too; in the beginning they retailed for a nickel; by the early 1960’s the price was all the way up to fifteen cents. So the 39 titles above would have run you a total of $1.95 at a nickel apiece, $5.85 at 15 cents.

Haldeman published some works he’d written himself, including

1287. Brann, Who Cracked Dull Heads [by] E. Haldeman-Julius.

1288. America’s Fakirs and Guides, Surveying the Leaders and Misleaders of Our Day [by] E. Haldeman-Julius.

The Brann of LBB 1287 was William Cowper Brann (1855-1898), an opinionated American journalist and newspaper owner who attacked aspects of religion, social pretense, and anything else that roused his ire. He died in Waco, Texas, after being shot in the back by a man who objected to his vituperative editorials about Baylor College; Brann turned and shot his attacker dead before walking to the jail, from which he was soon released. He died the next day.

I encountered Haldeman’s magnum-opus-in-small-pieces early in my teens. I was questioning religion and social conventions, fascinated with adventure tales, and lived with my nose in a book. Mostly I went to the library, but Little Blue Books were portable, full of surprises and oddities, and felt in some way personal. I must have bought them by mail, because I never remember seeing one in a bookstore or on a drugstore book rack. I now know that J. Edgar Hoover had mounted a campaign against Haldeman and his publications in the 1950’s and forced most bookstores to stop carrying them. The Little Blue Book series was, in its day, “edgy”: marked by progressive politics, including socialism, and consideration of forbidden topics like free love, homosexuality, evolution, birth control, and women’s rights. You can see that a cranky repressive guy like Hoover couldn’t allow such pollution of the American intellectual landscape.

Despite J. Edgar, 300 million Little Blue Books were published between 1919 and 1978, so I suppose those who blame our moral decline on things like Pokémon and gay marriage can just add Haldeman’s smart-alecky elitist smut to their list.


In praise of memorization

Recently I went looking for a certain poem by Richard Wilbur, after mentioning it to a friend. The book itself is physically full of memories: purchased decades ago when I was in college, it shows the stains from a Yosemite trip two decades later, when a bear broke into our car, ate many foods that disagreed with him, and left various bodily fluids behind. But those are only the outer memories.

A few of Wilbur’s poems were among ones I memorized for my own enjoyment sometime between the bear and now. I used to copy poems on index cards and tape them to the dashboard so I could read them aloud while driving, repeating the lines until I had them by heart. The point was not to impress anyone–I’ve never repeated one to another person–but to have them in my mind to “read over” to myself. I liked them and wanted to have them around.

But I found this interior possession of the texts enabled a different sort of experience with the poem from the one I have with poems on a page. Perhaps it is like the difference between studying some historic coin in a clear plastic holder at your desk, and carrying it in your pocket daily for a year or two. Your senses and your mind will acquire a quite different apprehension of that coin. Same with the poems in my head, except that I did not have to worry about them getting worn and dulled from handling.

It also gave me a tiny taste of an older human culture based on memory and oral performance of works, rather than reliance on writing, and private silent reading. Homer’s works are the most famous examples; the Iliad (>15,000 lines) and the Odyssey (>12,000 lines) were preserved and performed orally, a few scenes at a time. Alexander the Great is said to have memorized the entire Iliad. In a few religions today the entire sacred book is memorized by some, and in India minstrels are said to have the entire Mahabharata (six times the length of the Bible) in memory. And, in all these cases, most ordinary people had a deep familiarity with these works–their characters and events–and could quote and recognize many lines and phrases.

It’s not necessary to read text aloud in order to hear it, and I found myself hearing new sound relationships within a poem as well as savoring familiar ones. Once I’d become intimate with a poem in this way, occasionally a line or phrase would surface in my thought, brought forward by some part of my mind that found it apt to the current situation or a passing thought, and this expanded what I saw in the poem. The poem was always available to me, to be considered as advice for living, as sound or rhythm, as a product of craft, an example of style, an exemplar of how life seemed to someone at a particular time and place. This wasn’t some scholarly exercise, it was enjoyable as an end in itself. But I can only guess at how it was, or is, to have the living texts of your culture within your mind in this way: the Icelandic sagas, the Iliad, the Hindu epics. What a richness!

I’ll have to work on these poems again because my memory has faded over the years. Now, the only one I remember most of is a grim work by James Shirley (1596-1666) with a jogtrot rhythm, that begins

The glories of our blood and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armour against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings.

The last lines are sometimes quoted:

Only the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in their dust.

And here’s the Richard Wilbur poem that started all this.

Praise In Summer by Richard Wilbur 

Obscurely yet most surely called to praise,
As sometimes summer calls us all, I said
The hills are heavens full of branching ways
Where star-nosed moles fly overhead the dead;
I said the trees are mines in air, I said
See how the sparrow burrows in the sky!
And then I wondered why this mad instead
Perverts our praise to uncreation, why
Such savour’s in this wrenching things awry.
Does sense so stale that it must needs derange
The world to know it?  To a praiseful eye
Should it not be enough of fresh and strange
That trees grow green, and moles can course in clay,
And sparrows sweep the ceiling of our day?