Robin

Context is Everything

A search to confirm a quote illustrates the importance of context.

The other day I read a great quote attributed to the 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:

In each pause I hear the call

There's one small problem: that's not what Emerson wrote.

The phrase in question appears to have its origins in "Walden", a lesser-known Ralph Waldo Emerson poem that contrasts the contentment Emerson experienced at his rural retreat with his disinterest in city life. One stanza makes reference to hearing a call:

How drearily in College hall
The Doctor stretched the hours,
But in each pause we heard the call
Of robins out of doors.

Variations on this stanza appear in Emerson's journals, including the following entry from 1857:

The Doctor in the College halls(s)
Praelects thro' dreary hours
But in each pause I hear the call(s)
Of Robin out of doors.

While it is possible to find an Emerson reference that contains the phrase "in each pause I hear the call", the phrase viewed in context conveys a very different meaning than when viewed outside its original context.

Here's where it gets interesting. I didn't stumble across this quote in an internet meme -- I read it in a book by a Pulitzer prize winning journalist.

"Thank You for Being Late", a nonfiction work addressing the challenge of adapting to technological acceleration, describes an interview in which a source states,

"Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: 'In each pause I hear the call'."

Thomas Friedman, the author of "Thank You for Being Late", uses this quote to frame the central goal of his book:

"...to pause, to get off the merry-go-round on which I've been spinning for so many years..."

A highly respected journalist, Friedman accurately reported the information as provided by his source. But his source was misquoting the original information.

This discovery was the inspiration for my "Swallowing the Red Pill" blog post about confirmation of secondary sources and also highlights the importance of context.

Technical documents, including monographs and GLP reports, contain thousands of words.
As writers we must take care to create documents that are difficult to misquote.


Emerson RW. The Complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Volume IX. Riverside Press, Cambridge. 1904.
Emerson RW. Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Volume XIV: 1854-1861. (S Smith and H Hayford, editors). Harvard University Press. 1978.
Friedman T. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 2016.

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