Writing in the Atlantic in 2003, Jonathan Rauch made a joke. “Introverts are also not misanthropic,” he wrote, though some of us do go along with Sartre as far as to say ‘Hell is other people at breakfast.’” Jean-Paul Sartre said nothing about bagels, but the Internet has turned Rauch’s bon mot into fact.
Mary Schmich was alerted to a piece by Kevin Delaney that “quoted” Sartre’s Rauch-written aphorism by Dan Bloom, a Taiwan-based blogger who spotted it in a Times supplement distributed with a Chinese newspaper. (I can vouch for Bloom’s interest in this matter; he’s copied me on 10 emails that he’s sent to the Times and others about the gaffe.)
Schmich called Fred Shapiro, who edited “The Yale Book of Quotations.” “Any time you see a quote attributed to Mark Twain, figure that one is false,” Shapiro told her. “Similarly with Yogi Berra and Benjamin Franklin.” (Indeed, Mike Daisey got a Twain quote wrong when he published his now-famous nonapology.) Schmich writes that one of her lines is now frequently attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, and that something she didn’t write is now often attributed to her.
Schmich warns readers to be wary of online quotes, but you don’t have to bother your iPhone to read an inaccurate quote. I live in the Washington, D.C., area, where a mangled quote recently got carved in stone, which is actually kind of a tradition around here.
It’s too bad Rauch didn’t make Sartre say “Hell is other people at brunch.” No one would have ever questioned that.