It Must’ve Been Moonglow
Call him Fish. Everybody did, eventually. He’d sit with us in the bleachers during pep rallies and such and when he’d hear murmured in our little group something clever or funny he’d blast it out generally and sit smiling at all the laughter and admiring glances from rows away. Clever kid, that Fish.
Perhaps the first occasion of such borrowed legacy (in this case, the taking on an urban legend for private glory) begins on page 107 of Dostoyevski’s The Idiot. A gentleman inserts himself into a story of a train ride with a cigar, a small dog, and two ladies opposite. He is caught out by a listener, who recalls other voices telling that same story in other rooms. Ambiguity in provenance is a give-away in urban legends.
(In the rural sort as well; I was told the famous Mexican Pet number by the sister of one of the many it happened to, who validated she had heard it directly from the source.)
A common source of such Upstart Crowing is Reagan, who would retell tales from the old Readers Digest and cast himself in the starring role. There was another politician who cribbed an autobiog snippet from another, but that one was from a foreign land and besides, both candidates lost. (This is itself an allusion to, you are no doubt aware, Marlowe’s "The Jew of Malta." It never stops, this filching.)
I’ve not been utterly innnocent of the practice myself. In another room was the speculation of a law to outlaw lip-syncing, and my own contribution ran like: "Any government which bans Jessica Simpson is virtuous though it offer not a single other positive feature. – Mark Twain."
Like Fish, I basked in my borrowed glory, but it was a bit more moonshine than I let on. See, although it looks like I’m ascribing the comment as part of the creation, like George Eliot did – for how could Mark Twain know of Jessica Simpson? – the quote is actually similar to Twain’s about Jane Austen. I really mean some day to go back and fully disclose my theft to the one who so kindly praised me for it.
Just today I saw a column by one of my favorites, Amy Goodman. In there was this:
While traveling the country, I was asked the other day what I thought about the mainstream media. I said I thought it would be a good idea.
Well, no, Amy Goodman didn’t say that. Or, if she did, it is remarkbly close to the quote of Mahatma Gandhi, when asked what he thought of western civilization. I’ve remembered that from years, and so, too, I’ll bet, has Ms Goodman.
We all repeat expressions, or place ourselves in old jokes, bask in moony light. But when we broadcast to the public at large, like Fish, Reagan, and Ms Goodman, perhaps we should be reminded from whence cometh out moonglow.
"I assume everything I’ve ever said has been said before. I’m screwed; I speak English" – Lenny Bruce