Falser Words Were Never Spoken

By Brian Morton

IN a coffee shop not long ago, I saw a mug with an inscription from Henry David Thoreau: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”

At least it said the words were Thoreau’s. But the attribution seemed a bit suspect. Thoreau, after all, was not known for his liberal use of exclamation points. When I got home, I looked up the passage (it’s from “Walden”): “I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

Now Thoreau isn’t quite saying that each of us can actually live the life we’ve imagined. He’s saying that if we try, we’ll come closer to it than we might ordinarily think possible. I suppose that the people responsible for the coffee mug would say that they’d merely tweaked the wording of the original a little. But in the tweaking, not only was the syntax lost, but the subtlety as well.

Gandhi’s words have been tweaked a little too in recent years. Perhaps you’ve noticed a bumper sticker that purports to quote him: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” When you first come across it, this does sound like something Gandhi would have said. But when you think about it a little, it starts to sound more like … a bumper sticker. Displayed brightly on the back of a Prius, it suggests that your responsibilities begin and end with your own behavior. It’s apolitical, and a little smug.

Sure enough, it turns out there is no reliable documentary evidence for the quotation…

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Falser Words Were Never Spoken – NYTimes.com

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