Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"Anon...was often a woman"

In the recent issue of Yale Alumni Magazine (at which point I need to acknowledge that my friend Jane, for all I know, had found this first), Fred R. Shapiro writes that behind the quote of many a man there is a woman. Taking his cue from Virgina Woolf, who wrote "I would venture to guess that Anon/who wrote so many poems without signing them/was often a woman," Shapiro notes that:
Virginia Woolf wrote those words about the entire realm of literary creation, not about that special subset of it called "quotations"—the minting of concise snippets so eloquent or insightful as to be memorable. But those of us who dig deeply for the earliest sources of well-known lines discover, time and again, that here, too, Woolf was right: Anonymous was a woman. Many of the great quotesmiths have been women who are now forgotten or whose wit and wisdom are erroneously credited to more-famous men.
Although he leaves aside the contexts that could explain why this happens (and I suppose that I wouldn't be satisfied with his answer if he did discuss them), Shapiro's article presents numerous cases in which quotations attributed to Voltaire, Hemingway, Churchill, and Yogi Berra, amongst others, can be traced to women. Take, for example, the Voltaire case:
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
The French philosopher Voltaire is widely credited for what may be the most celebrated quotation about freedom of speech. Bartlett's lists it under his name, calling it a paraphrase from his letter to a M. le Riche, February 6, 1770—but that attribution was based on a misreading. The quote does not appear in Voltaire's letter to François-Louis-Henri Leriche of that date, nor anywhere else in Voltaire's works. The real writer was Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1868–1919), English author of The Friends of Voltaire, a book she published in 1906 under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre. The illustrious line is Hall's own characterization of Voltaire's attitude. Discussing a book by one of his friends, she explains that even though he had thought the work rather light, he rose to its defense when it was censored.

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