Trying to trace the quote: “There Are Only Three Great Cities in the U.S…All the Rest Are Cleveland”

In the Internet/social media age, it can be difficult to know the origin of quotes. Here is an attempt to investigate the provenance of a quote about archetypal American cities:

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Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain employed this joke; it is not recorded in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”. 1 Also, it is not listed on Barbara Schmidt’s valuable website. The comedian Russell Brand did improbably attach a version to Twain in his 2014 book “Revolution”. 2

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1975 issue of a periodical called “Best Sellers” which was composed of book reviews. A reviewer named Edward Gannon printed an instance and attributed the words to an unnamed Frenchman…

The small collection of cities deemed worthy by quipsters has varied; the group has included: New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington, Boston, Atlanta, and Santa Fe. Tennessee Williams died in 1983, and one year afterwards the joke was attributed to him…

In conclusion, this quip was difficult to trace because the phrasing and the list of cities was highly variable. The attributions were anonymous in the two earliest close matches. It was conceivable that Tennessee Williams used the joke, but based on current evidence it was unlikely that he coined it. The linkage to Twain was spurious. Future researchers may discover more.

See an earlier post about this quote. There, I discuss how urban sociology uses cities as models and both the advantages and limitations to doing so.

What is particularly interesting about this investigation is how the cities in the quote can differ. There are two main ways a speaker of the quote can tweak the meaning:

-Playing with the first list of three unique American cities. There are plenty of locations that could claim they fit the bill. Perhaps it has to do with size, history, unusual places to visit, an exemplary cultural scene, geography, and more. Boosters might place their own city in this grouping.

-Deciding which city should go at the end. Cleveland makes some sense in that it can stand in for many Northeastern or Midwestern cities with its location on a major waterway, a central downtown surrounded by sprawling suburbs, and a history of segregation and manufacturing jobs gone away. Yet, does it best represent all cities? For example, numerous scholars and boosters have noted Chicago’s status as the all-American city. Or, in an era of growing Sun Belt populations, perhaps a booming southern city like Dallas might be apropos.

In other words, this quote of unknown origins can be continually updated by different users to reflect their particular take on the state of American cities or society.

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