FIND THE SOURCE OF THE QUOTATION…

…And Win the Undying Respect of the Internet.

This quotation is all over the Internet, attributed to Washington Irving:

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.

Dr. Boli does not believe that Washington Irving wrote those sentences. The actual work is never cited—a sure marker of a misattributed quotation. But in trying to trace the quotation to its real author, Dr. Boli has found only more bafflement.

Here is the longest version of the quotation he can find, as it was printed in The Mother’s Assistant in 1845:

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, of unspeakable love. If there were wanting any argument to prove that man is not mortal, I would look for it in the strong, convulsive emotion of the breast, when the soul has been deeply agitated, when the fountains of feeling are rising, and when tears are gushing forth in crystal streams. O, speak not harshly of the stricken one—weeping in silence! Break not the deep solemnity by rude laughter, or intrusive footsteps. Despise not a woman’s tears—they are what make her an angel. Scoff not if the stern heart of manhood is sometimes melted to tears of sympathy—they are what help to elevate him above the brute. I love to see tears of affection. They are painful tokens, but still most holy. There is pleasure in tears—an awful pleasure! If there were none on earth to shed a tear for me, I should be loth to live; and if no one might weep over my grave, I could never die in peace.

——Dr. Johnson.

You will note the attribution. It seems very unlikely that a Boston publication would attribute a quotation to Dr. Johnson if it was actually by America’s greatest living writer, the one who gave Americans the right to say that their young nation occupied no mean place in the republic of letters.

The Mother’s Assistant is only one of many miscellanies that printed the passage in question in the 1840s—Dr. Boli chose it only because its clear and large type made it easy for Google’s optical character recognition to spare him the trouble of transcribing the whole thing. But in spite of its popularity, the quotation maddeningly seems not to exist anywhere outside collections of quotations. In the 1840s and 1850s it is almost always attributed to Dr. Johnson; but by the 1880s we begin to see it attributed to Washington Irving. In our own century the attribution to Dr. Johnson is completely forgotten; it belongs to Irving. Yet it does not seem to fit the style of either man, and Dr. Boli regards both attributions as spurious. But he has not been able to find it attributed to anyone else.

The quotation does not appear in Google Books at all before 1840. The earliest instance of it Dr. Boli has been able to find is in the Miscellany section of The American Masonic Register, published in Albany, February 6, 1841. Here it is not attributed at all, and it shares space with other miscellaneous paragraphs picked up from here and there:

The Lancaster Gazette offers a new remedy for the tooth-ache, which is, “to boil the head and shake the bones out.”

Is this actually the first appearance of this famous essay on tears? Was it made up by the editor of a Masonic newspaper in Albany to fill a couple of column inches, and then picked up by other editors, with “Dr. Johnson” added to give it weight and authority? Or can one of Dr. Boli’s alert readers find an earlier instance of the same quotation with a positive attribution? That is your assignment for this evening.

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