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 TwainQuotes.com 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.

The rise of misattributed quotes on the Internet, social media

An editor at RealClearPolitics examines an erroneous online list of Mark Twain quotes and takes a broad view of quotes in the age of the Internet and social media:

The point of this example is that lists of quotes without specific and verifiable citations — where and when it appeared — are useless, and invariably rife with errors. Websites with names like “Brainyquote” and “Thinkexist.com” are essentially Internet compost piles.

In the pre-Internet days, “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” and “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” were the gold standards, although sometimes misattributed quotes found their way into those volumes. Much of this material is now online, but the best source of accurate quotes today is the “Yale Book of Quotations,” edited by the rigorous and charming Fred R. Shapiro.

Many of the most frequently misquoted historical figures have websites devoted to keeping the record straight for their heroes. These range from one established by a conscientious amateur Twain aficionada named Barbara Schmidt to WinstonChurchill.org, which is run by the Churchill Centre and Museum in London. The latter site even has a section called “Quotes Falsely Attributed.”

In his anthology, Shapiro goes the extra mile in tracking down the origin of erroneous quotes. Thus, he is no stranger to the misuse of quotations or even obvious forgeries. But even he was astonished at the casual speciousness of the Huffington Post inventory.

This has been a widespread issue in recent years – remember the fake MLK viral quote after the death of Osama bin Laden? While Wikipedia might have relatively good information that is regularly edited, quotations are simply floating around the Internet and social media.

I think this is tied to two other phenomena related to the Internet and social media:

1. The desire people have to find a quote that represents them. In an era of profiles and status updates, people are defined more and more by short, snappy bursts. There is simply not space to write more and who wants to read a long piece about your existence (except on blogs)? Finding the right sentence or two that sums up one’s existence or current state is a difficult task that can be aided with quotes attributed to famous figures. If you don’t want to use quotes, you can always use pictures – witness the rise of Instagram.

2. Many of these quotes are inspirational or witty. If you look at the inspirational quotes on Facebook profiles or Twitter feeds, many suggest people are continually facing and then overcoming challenges and obstacles. The overcoming-type quotes are empowering as individuals can quickly equate their challenges to some of the greatest in history. The witty quotes do something else; they suggest the user is facing life with verve and can find and wield profound words. Witty quotes can then become another status game as users try to one-up each other with piercing and whimsical takes on the world.

Perhaps this is how the average person gets to participate on a daily basis in a sound bite culture.