Bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn: Cowardice does what Aunt Sally could not

to expurgate (as a book) by omitting or modifying parts considered vulgar; to modify by abridging, simplifying, or distorting in style or content. An eponymous word referring to Thomas Bowdler, publisher in 1818 of
The Family Shakespeare, in Ten Volumes; in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family. [More on this helpful fellow in the notes at the end of the post.]

Huckleberry-Finn-cover painting.jpg

[Cover painting from the HarperFestival 2005 edition of Huckleberry Finn.]

There has been a great deal of commentary this past week about NewSouth Books‘ plan to publish an edition of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in which all the instances of nigger are replaced with slave (and Injun with Indian). It’s the work of Professor Alan Gribben at Auburn University, who says that “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.” It’s not just some public school teachers motivating Gribben; he too shies at the word in the classroom: ”I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either Huckleberry Finn or Tom Sawyer,” he said. ”And I don’t think I’m alone… I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.”

What betrayal of a writer can be worse, than to change his words? And not just any words, but one particular word that occurs 219 times in Huckleberry Finn and is central to the book’s meaning. Twain shows Huckleberry Finn as an ignorant boy, a product of his time and place without pretense. He, and the other characters, speak as people of their age and place in life would have spoken; in fact, the second of Twain’s two short prefatory admonitions deals with speech quite firmly:


IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro
dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the
ordinary “Pike County” dialect; and four modified varieties of this last.
The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork;
but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of
personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would
suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not


The words used are carefully chosen to be authentic, and to show us the attitudes of the characters. When Jim first appears, Huck describes him as “Miss Watson’s big nigger, named Jim”. As the story goes along, with Jim a runaway slave rafting down the river with Huck Finn, the boy’s sense of Jim changes. This is plainly expressed in chapter 31, when Jim’s been caught; Huck is tempted to save him though he knows he’ll certainly go to hell for helping a runaway to escape his lawful master.

…I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and
I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then
says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll GO to hell”…

It’s a change of heart, not of mind; Huck doesn’t decide that slavery is wrong but that Jim is his friend. Jim’s still a slave but no longer a nigger, no longer some inferior being beyond the pale of friendship.

Professor Gribben has chosen to replace nigger with slave, but the two words aren’t at all equivalent. Slave is a legal term describing a human being who is legally deemed to be property of another. It might apply to a person of any race, and certainly has, historically. It is a condition, not an immutable element of identity. A slave can be freed, as some occasionally were by their masters, and the children born to freed slaves are free themselves. All slaves in the US were freed in 1865 by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. But to most whites in the 19th C. South, a nigger was a nigger, whether he was a slave or free. If some French white man who’d been captured and enslaved by the Turks (like Candide) had visited, he might have been described as a slave or ex-slave but never as a nigger.

Huck Finn’s evil father holds violent views on this very subject, and goes into them in detail when we first meet him.

“Oh, yes, this is a wonderful govment, wonderful. Why, looky here. There was a free nigger there from Ohio–a mulatter, most as white as a white man. … And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could VOTE when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to? It was ‘lection day, and I was just about to go and vote myself if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out. I says I’ll never vote agin. Them’s the very words I said; they all heard me; and the country may rot for all me–I’ll never vote agin as long as I live. And to see the cool way of that nigger–why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way. I says to the people, why ain’t this nigger put up at auction and sold?–that’s what I want to know. And what do you reckon they said? Why, they said he couldn’t be sold till he’d been in the State six months, and he hadn’t been there that long yet. There, now–that’s a specimen. They call that a govment that can’t sell a free nigger till he’s been in the State six months. Here’s a govment that calls itself a govment, and lets on to be a govment, and thinks it is a govment, and yet’s got to set stock-still for six whole months before it can take a hold of a prowling, thieving, infernal, white-shirted free nigger, and–“

How will this “free nigger” be described in the new version of Huck Finn? As a “freed slave”, I suppose. Try making that substitution in this passage and see how much difference it makes. “Freed slave” is a neutral phrase compared to the repetitive angry utterance of nigger.

We must presume that Professor Gribben does understand the difference between race— defined by unchangeable color, and legal condition—alterable by legal action. But he thinks that current unease over the word nigger justifies removing this word which is in fact the center of the book. Huck Finn is about nigger, it’s about deciding a person’s worth and status based on his color.

Twain was no fan of the farrago of falsehoods, taboos, and blind spots that make up much of “civilization”. He chooses as his protagonist a shiftless superstitious barely educated boy, who hates the prospect of being “sivilized” and having to wear shoes and not curse, the son of a violent drunk (“He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain’t been seen in these parts for a year or more,” says another boy about Huck’s father)—and then he shows us this boy weighing the evidence of his eyes and heart vs. what he’s been taught about niggers, and choosing to honor the former. Even if it means he’ll burn in Hell, even if he has to take serious personal risk to get Jim away from those who’ve captured him. They have the law, and local “civilization” on their side. Twain doesn’t exactly say what Huck has on his side, that’s for the reader to figure out.

Huck’s final words to us, with which the book ends, are “I reckon I got to light out for the
Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.“ I can imagine the bitter smile of Huck’s creator hearing that, 126 years after he was brave enough to publish a book about nigger, we aren’t brave enough to figure out how to teach something that contains that word. So we’re going to sivilize it to suit us.

TWAIN, MARK, undated photo.jpg

[Undated photo of Samuel Clemens]


According to some estimates, Huckleberry Finn is the fourth most banned book in the US. Mark Twain really had us pegged.

From the pen of Thomas Bowdler ((1754–1825):

“I acknowledge Shakespeare to be the world’s greatest dramatic poet, but regret that no parent could place the uncorrected book in the hands of his daughter, and therefore I have prepared the Family Shakespeare”

“Many words and expressions occur which are of so indecent a nature as to render it highly desirable that they should be erased.”

‘”If any word or expression is of such a nature that the first impression it excites is an impression of obscenity, that word ought not to be spoken nor written or printed ; and, if printed, it ought to be erased.”

Sample “bowdlerizations” of the texts:

Ophelia’s death in Hamlet is referred to as an accidental drowning, not a possible suicide.
Lady Macbeth’s “Out, Damned spot.” is changed to “Out, Crimson spot.”

The prostitute Doll Tearsheet is completely written out of Henry IV, Part 1.

Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” is changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”

Juliet’s “Spread thy close curtain, love performing night” is changed to “. . . and come civil night”.

And so on…

It is not commonly known that Bowdler also prepared “family” editions of parts of the Old Testament and of Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, completing this edition just before his death in 1825. [this, quotations from Bowdler, and examples, from source]

Twain would have found confirmation for the hypocrisy of “civilization” in the fact that “[t]he editions were actually edited by Bowdler’s sister, Harriet, rather than by Thomas. However, they were published under Thomas Bowdler’s name, because a woman could not publicly admit that she understood Shakespeare’s racy passages.” [Wikipedia]

Let’s be niggardly with the n-word, but…

but…sometimes it can and should be said.

stingy, sparing, parsimonious, e.g. “serving out the rations with a niggardly hand”.

from niggard
mid-14c., nygart, of uncertain origin. The suffix suggests French origin (cf. -ard), but the root word is probably related to O.N. hnøggr “stingy,” from P.Gmc. *khnauwjaz (cf. Swed. njugg “close, careful,” Ger. genau “precise, exact”), and to O.E. hneaw “stingy, niggardly,” which did not survive in M.E. []

1786, earlier neger (1568, Scottish and northern England dialect), from Fr. nègre, from Sp. negro (see Negro, from Latin nigrum (nominative form niger) “black,” of unknown origin (perhaps from Proto Indo European *nekw-t- “night,”). From the earliest usage it was “the term that carries with it all the obloquy and contempt and rejection which whites have inflicted on blacks” [cited in Gowers, 1965]. But as black inferiority was at one time a near universal assumption in English-speaking lands, the word in some cases could be used without deliberate insult. More sympathetic writers late 18c. and early 19c. seem to have used black (n.) and, after the American Civil War, colored person. Also applied by English settlers to dark-skinned native peoples in India, Australia, Polynesia. The reclamation of the word as a neutral or positive term in black culture (not universally regarded as a worthwhile enterprise), often with a suggestion of “soul” or “style,” is attested first in the Amer. South, later (1968) in the Northern, urban-based Black Power movement. [”You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you,” said Scarlett slowly. … There, she thought, I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” [Margaret Mitchell, “Gone With the Wind,” 1936] []

Dr. Laura Schlessinger, radio dispenser of advice and moral judgments, is taking considerable heat for her response to a call involving the word nigger. I don’t even know if WordPress will allow me to spell that word out—and that is what I want to talk about. If you would like to see a transcript of the call and Dr. Laura’s remarks immediately after the call, it is here.

I will say that I think Dr. Laura should apologize, but not for saying a bad word on the radio. For whatever reason, she abandoned her professional role and lost the distance and composure essential to that role. Instead of asking elucidating questions and listening to the caller’s answers, she went off on a rant of her own. As Dear Abby and Ann Landers and others have often decreed, when a spouse hears relatives or friends insulting or taunting his or her spouse, spouse1 must let the relatives/friends know that this is not acceptable, that neither member of the couple will stay to hear such insults and taunts. There are good practical reasons for this, and there is even Biblical justification: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. New American Standard Bible (©1995)

When a black woman married to a white man complained that the word nigger was being used, the therapist-of-the-air should have asked: “How is it being used? Give us an example.” Probably the example will not be a disquisition having to do with Mark Twain’s use of the word in Huckleberry Finn, or the word’s etymology, or a quotation from a black comic using the word. Most likely the remarks are of this nature: “You know niggers, they always/never…” or “Some nigger robbed the convenience store over by where I work…”

These uses are insulting, hostile, and demeaning, like all the other dehumanizing terms used to set some group apart from the rest of us. English has terms like that for Arabs, Baptists, Catholics, Jews, fat people, smart people, stupid people, white people, Hispanic people, gay people, men, women, and people whose ancestors were from Ireland, Italy, Poland, Scandinavia, and so on. Other languages have similar terms for the same list, subtracting the words for the speaker’s religion, gender, sexual preference, appearance, and ethnic origin, and adding ones for us Americans. Sometimes there’s intra-group use of such terms; Dr. Laura went off on that tangent but I will not, it’s irrelevant. When outsiders use the term it is almost exclusively insulting and demeaning. Worst of all, these dehumanizing terms are the mental preparation for pogroms, lynchings, beatings, bombings, murders, war, and ethnic cleansing (a shocking euphemism which deserves its own examination, but not here).

No question, nigger is not a word for everyday use by non-blacks, same as the other group-based terms alluded to above.

But when someone wants to excise words from our language, all of us should resist.

When we begin killing words, where will it end?

Some may say, Better words than people! My reply is that manipulating language is the same as manipulating thought, which in turn changes how we act. Dehumanizing the Other is a preparation for war, violence and mistreatment, whether organized or individual. What’s necessary and positive is to continue to educate people not to use these category-based insulting demeaning words to other people. If you want to call someone lazy then do that, but don’t couple it with an insult to the person’s innate or historic self. I can argue with you about whether I am lazy or not, and if convinced that I am, I can choose to change it, but I will always be a black Scandinavian Catholic gay smart woman, if that is what I am.

If we must substitute the ridiculous circumlocution “the N-word” for nigger, then how do we discuss historical documents that used it? How do we read literature that used it? How do we talk about the word itself and its history that renders it sharp as a sword, clanking with manacles, reeking of hatred and suffering?

James Baldwin used nigger, and not just in the vocative sense (e.g., my example, as some use “man”, “Man, you know I’m…”, “Nigger, you know I’m…”) In fact he and Dick Gregory made a serious movie by that title, and it’s the title of Dick Gregory’s 1990 autobiography. Baldwin and Gregory believed that the word and its various meanings needed to be thought about, talked about, by whites and blacks.

Apparently “the N-word” attained popularity during the OJ Simpson trial, in talking about recorded statements by Mark Fuhrman. Chris Darden, black prosecutor, tried to save Fuhrman’s credibility by letting everyone know how awful he, Darden, thought the word was: “The prosecutor [Christopher Darden], his voice trembling, added that the “N-word” was so vile that he would not utter it. “It’s the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language.”

But the Bowdlers who gave us first “the F-word” and then “the N-word” won’t stop there. Broadcasters aid and abet them, probably feeling a little frisson of guilty pleasure at being able to allude unmistakably to words the FCC won’t permit them to utter. And some people make up new “[letter] – words” to dramatize their remarks or because they feel victimized. So we have “the B-word”, and words for C, D, E, F, G, H, J, K and on through the alphabet. Some of the words so represented are offensive, others are as inoffensive as “green”.

Let’s let this “N-word” thing stop and fade away. Many times it will be sufficient to say that a person used a “racial slur referring to black people”. If not, then just say the word. “Candidate Joe Smith singled out a black man in the audience for insult, calling him a nigger and a ‘mono’, Spanish for monkey.” Let’s be grown-ups about language and about how we treat others. Hiding behind alphabetical euphemisms makes us sound like giggling 8 year olds, and prevents us from thinking and talking about the issues that euphemisms cover up.

Listening to what people say: no victim “deserves it”

Recently I’ve noticed, in reports of crimes against persons, an abhorrent phrase that seems to be commonly accepted: people being quoted as saying that the victim “didn’t deserve this”. Who does deserve being beaten, raped, or murdered? Ah, but maybe this person did deserve a beating––but was murdered instead. No, too subtle.

Was I imagining it? I googled “didn’t deserve to die”, the strongest usage, and quickly came up with half a dozen different instances.

Then, on the front page of the Oregonian a week or so ago, I saw this one: a driver with a blood alcohol level “approaching .30” ran his car up onto a sidewalk in broad daylight and pinned a pedestrian against a utility pole. As the drunk tried to drive away he hit the pedestrian two more times. Oh yes, and the pedestrian was blind and carrying a white cane. The driver was chased and boxed in by other drivers. Since his arrest, he had been trying to make a good impression: visiting the badly injured man, publicizing his own past volunteer work (performed while he was a bank exec), all that sort of thing. The article reported on his appearance in court for sentencing, definitely an occasion to choose one’s words carefully. What did he say, in his attempt at an apology?

“He didn’t deserve it. It was all my fault.”

Good to know that the blind man didn’t actually deserve being run over three times, we were all wondering about that.

What’s going on here?

According to my unscientific survey the phrase is used at least as often by the relatives of victims, as by those accused of the crime in question. So I conclude that this represents a general societal attitude, which tacitly regards some people as deserving to be harmed or attacked by others.

The connexion that came up in my mind was with a shift in moral education over the past three decades or so, which changed the focus from the person acting, to the person being acted upon, and from general principles of interpersonal behavior, to principles regarding certain groups. In an effort to end harassment of minorities and those perceived as different, we started teaching children and adults to avoid ridiculing this or that sort of person––overweight or gay, for example. Something needed to be done, to end these long-winked-at instances of bullying and cruelty, but how much better to emphasize a universal (and positive, rather than negative) approach of being polite and compassionate. Singling out groups creates assumptions that groups not named may be fair game. “Nobody told me not to call him names, he’s an Italian/left-handed/too skinny/a nerd!”

The general approach is better all around.

Some pragmatic reasons: It’s far easier, no need to remember who you’re supposed to be kind to this week. Like deciding that you are going to stop your car whenever a pedestrian is trying to cross, instead of having to make a judgment call on the fly each time. No type of person is accidentally omitted (though of course people who are dangerous, manipulative, etc., can and often must be treated differently). Those are points of persuasion for people not so much moved by moral considerations alone (to me it’s surprising how often there are practical reasons which could be used to bolster the “should/ought” arguments).

Moral arguments include: putting responsibility where it belongs, on the act-or instead of the act-ee; promoting human community rather than division; generally strengthening the moral rule which is one that makes human interchange run much more smoothly and harmoniously.

Then, from a different angle, there’s Shakespeare’s take what the just deserts of a human being, “poor bare, forked animal”, may be


Home Ground: Words of our native land

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, edited by Barry Lopez. Trinity University Press, San Antonio Texas, 2006.

One of the language byways I find fascinating is that of terms for landforms; they’re often based on metaphors (oxbow bend in a river, neck of land), some have ancient linguistic roots, others reflect the cultural history of an area with words from the language of indigenous people or early explorers. Those who share my interest will love this book, but it also has appeal for those who enjoy American regional writing or history, or are interested in how the landforms we see come into being.

Home Ground’s entries are in alphabetical order but it’s far richer than a dictionary. Entries are signed by their authors, who are mostly American writers with particular regional roots––novelists, poets, nature writers, scientists. From them we hear not just the definition and history of the term but also more diverse notes: political (the drowning of Celilo Falls in the Columbia River, by a dam, comes up in the entry for dalles), ecological, personal, and literary (quotations from hundreds of writers including Thoreau, Jack London, T.S. Eliot, Joel Chandler Harris, Pablo Neruda, Louis L’Amour, Joyce Carol Oates).

There are no fewer than three indexes: one for authors so quoted, one for terms (with cross-references), and one for specific place names mentioned: the San Andreas Fault, Satans Slab, South Dakota. And there are short biographies of the writers who produced the entries. With all this, you can browse the book or look for something specific like every mention of the Mississippi River, all the terms relating to ice, or mentions of Herman Melville.

If you have ever wondered what the difference is between a hill and a mountain, or among the words canyon/cleft/coulee/gorge/gully/ravine, you can find out right here. Terms run the gamut of languages––ronde, tseghiizi (Navajo), névé, krummholz, cuesta, gumbo (probably from a Central Bantu dialect), nunatuk, eddy (possbily Norse), erg (Arabic) and so on (although etymology is not always included). And they vary from the words of Western science (imbricated rock) to those of other observers (coyote well, paternoster lake).

And now, a few sample entries:

tule land

Tule land is a term recorded as early as 1856, just after gold rush. It usually refers to the flats of bulrushes and other reeds along the rivers of the West Coast. In the muddy shallows along the Sacramento, for example, as the river takes its time joining the San Joaquin and approaching the San Pablo and San Francisco Bays, there are vast thickets of reeds, home to waterfowl and fur-bearing animals. Tule lands are especially common at the junctures of rivers, where the slightest breeze will set the rushes whispering and rasping over the mud and standing water. The Wintu Indians called tule land “the storehouse of instant tools” because the rushes could be used to make so many things: mats, clothes, baskets, lodges, boats, and cradles, sandals, brooms, fish traps, and talismanic images. ROBERT MORGAN

nivation hollow

In A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,
Bill Bryson wrote: “I never met a hiker with a good word to say about
the trail in Pennsylvania. It is, as someone told a National Geographic reporter in 1987, the place ‘where boots go to die.’…Mile upon mile of ragged, oddly angled slabs of stone strewn about in wobbly piles…These require constant attentiveness if you are not to twist an ankle or sprawl on your face––not a pleasant experience with fifty pounds of momentum on your back.” Such a hiker on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania might just as well have been complaining about nivation hollows. A bowl-shaped depression in the ground, a nivation hollow begins to take shape when ice forms over a shallow rock basin beneath a snow bank. The ice freezes and thaws over time. During the warm period, melted snow seeps into the bottom of the hollow. During the cooler period, the seep water freezes. The rock breaks up, weathers, and erodes. Meltwater carries away the finer rock particles and the hollow becomes larger and deeper. MARY SWANDER

fil du courant

A Cajun French term meaning “thread of the current,” fil du courant is used to describe the optimal navigation course within a bayou or river. The fil is often visible as a glassy-smooth pathway through the otherwise ripping water. Louisiana shrimpers follow the fil du courant to avoid underwater obstructions and to secure sufficient depth for skim nets that extend winglike from either side of the vessel. MIKE TIDWELL

fall line

Fall line is a phrase both metaphoric and literal. In broader terms, it means the zone where the Piedmont foothills level out into the coastal plain, where sandy soil derived from marine deposits replaces rocky rolling land. On some southeastern rivers, such as in the Carolinas and Virginia, the Fall Line is a specific place where shoals and rapids once stopped navigation from the coast because ships couldn’t pass through. Cities such as Richmond, Fayetteville, and Columbia sprang up at the head of navigation, and mills and factories were built to take advantage of the water power at the falls and rapids. The abrupt change of elevation caused industry and commerce, courts and seats of government, to take root in those areas. ROBERT MORGAN

Line drawings, by Molly O’Halloran, illustrate some of the terms, such as this one for “Quaking Bog” which shows how peat, sphagnum, geologic forms, plants and water all combine to form this floating vegetative structure that will seem solid until stepped on. [The scan is much reduced, and for some reason tinted beige, unlike the original.]

quaking bog2.jpg

“Infectious” vs. “contagious”

Just because we’re all hearing about H1N1 flu, and these terms are being used a lot, here’s the difference:


1. A disease capable of being transmitted from person to person, with or without actual contact.
2. Syn: infective
3. Denoting a disease due to the action of a microorganism.


Relating to contagion; communicable or transmissible by contact with the sick or their fresh secretions or excretions.
[from Stedman’s online Medical Dictionary]

Anthrax, for example, is infectious but not contagious. It is caused by a microorganism, the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, but it’s not “communicable or transmissible by contact with the sick or their fresh secretions or excretions”. People most often get anthrax from contact with infected hides or other animal products, and from soil where the hardy spores of the bacterium can remain for decades after being deposited by infected animals. [Such spore formation is known in only a few bacteria.]

There’s some confusion inherent in these terms because it seems that the “contact with the sick or their fresh secretions or excretions” part only applies to sick humans. You might get rabies from breathing in droplets of the saliva of an infected animal, but that is not considered to be contagion. As near as I can tell, anyway. So, since a human being with rabies doesn’t infect others, the disease is considered non-contagious.

An important factor in any contagious disease is how easily it is transmitted from one person to another. You can’t get HIV from touching the skin of an infected person, but influenza and the common cold can be transmitted that way. Shake hands with someone who just sneezed into his or her hand, and the bacteria are on your hand; when you touch your mouth, nose or eyes, the microorganisms can enter your system. TB is contagious, as is leprosy, but they are not transmitted by brief casual contact.

Right now the question about H1N1 flu is, how contagious is it? And then, how fatal is it? Influenzas mutate rapidly so the virus which seems to have originated in Mexico may be changing to something different as it spreads. Hence the reluctance of medical officials to make predictions about what is in store for the world with this disease.

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.