Twain's whiskey/water quote appears greatly exaggerated

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 28, 2011 

WASHINGTON — California politicians invariably invoke Mark Twain when debating Western water controversies. They shouldn't.

Rhetoric, too often, runs ahead of historical fact.

The specific quote in question rolls right off the tongue. Sing along, now:

"Mark Twain once said that whiskey is for drinking but water is worth fighting over," then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recited, illustratively, in 2009 at a Fresno event.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a serious player in setting California water policy, has likewise long favored the Twain quote. So did Schwarzenegger's gubernatorial predecessor, Gray Davis. So have many others; ad, to be perfectly honest, nauseum.

"The 'whiskey' quote has been around as long as I have been in the water world, (which is) 31 years," noted Rita Sudman, executive director of the Sacramento-based Water Education Foundation.

But there's a problem. This is, all evidence shows, another sound bite that's too good to be true.

"It's a great quote," Twain biographer Joe Fulton said in an interview Friday, "but I really don't believe that Twain ever said it."

Twain is not alone. Many quotes get recycled for political purposes, even if ambiguity remains about their provenance.

During congressional debate over an Armenian genocide resolution last year, for instance, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, summoned a familiar sounding Adolf Hitler episode from 1939 in which Hitler said, according to Sherman, "We can get away with the Holocaust; after all, who today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?"

Many lawmakers have invoked the same Hitler quote, or something like it, and there is evidence to support that Hitler said it. But from the other side, an Institute for Turkish Studies scholar who is opposed to an Armenian genocide resolution conducted his own analysis casting into doubt how the quote sprang to life.

The search for scholarly certitude, though, may miss the political point. The quotes attributed to Hitler and Twain, and others like them, keep resonating in part because they are a type of expert witnessing and in part because the sentiments expressed align with the speaker's reputation.

In other words, they sound right.

"It's exactly the kind of thing he would say," said Fulton, the Twain scholar.

An English professor at Baylor University in Texas, Fulton immersed himself in Twain's correspondence, 19th century newspaper accounts and more to research his new book, "The Reconstruction of Mark Twain." The book includes two chapters on Twain's professionally formative years in California and Nevada, where water fights loomed large.

Another Twain biographer, Texas A&M University English professor Jerome R. Loving, likewise examined every letter and relevant scrap of paper he could find for his 2010 book "Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens." He is still not done with his Twain research, and yet he has found no evidence for the whiskey/water quip.

"I have never run across that quotation," Loving said Friday.

Though it's impossible to prove Twain didn't say something during his 74 years, the absence of proof that he did say is it telling, given the extent to which Twain's life was contemporaneously documented. At the University of California's Bancroft Library, keeper of the Mark Twain papers, researchers have combed through a treasure trove that includes 600 unpublished Twain manuscripts and some 28,000 letters to and from the Twain family.

Individually, whiskey, water, drinking and fighting may be common enough topics. As a tidy little quote, though, the "whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting" observation is nowhere in Twain's documented life and times.

"That's one we have never found," Neda Smith, an assistant with Bancroft's Mark Twain Papers and Project, said Friday.

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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