When you are immortal, people sit down with you on imaginary panels and try to conjure up your thoughts on contemporary issues. They draw inept pastel portraits of you. They paint you on the sides of buildings looking happy, but constipated.
“The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living,” W. H. Auden wrote on the death of Yeats.
This is good news for a writer. It means the words survive. The words are still being digested, metabolized and assimilated into the bodies and minds of the living. The Fierce Urgency of Now turns up on the campaign trail. I Have A Dream sells us cars. President Obama paints “The time is always right to do what is right,” in blue on a library’s walls.
We misquote because we love. We misquote because we have stopped memorizing things. Moments before our speeches, we can’t, as King could, unearth vast stores of biblical and literary treasures from the rich storehouses of our memories. We are using that space for our passwords and the plot of Mad Men. Instead we scan Wikipedia. We misquote because we have the vague idea that at some point, someone said something great, and the first thing that came up when we Googled it seemed about right.
These days, everyone says a great deal but not much of it is memorable. Twitter exists, words writ in hot water. We have to shout to be heard above the tumult, and it is difficult to shout beautifully. In a peculiar way we are more dependent on the Great Sayers than we ever were. Acquire a reputation for saying things well, and stray quotations flock to you, like pigeons. “When with the literate I am/Impelled to try an epigram/I never seek to take the credit/We all assume that Oscar said it,” I believe Dorothy Parker said at one point.
Like Twain and Lincoln, other behemoths of American letters, Dr. King is always a first recourse for quotation, everywhere from cynical name-dropping in SAT essays — “In the immortal words of Dr. King’’ — to showing up to add vital grace to political speech.
Do important people still say beautiful things? Barack Obama did, once, at the Democratic Convention. But dozens of subsequent speeches blur and run together, leavened occasionally by a quote from someone who knew how to say things better, or at any rate more colorfully.
Dr. King has made headlines most recently for a series of high-profile misquotations. When you’re taken out of context on your own monument, this seems a bit much — as my colleague Rachel Manteuffel noted. “Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter,” mutated, in the carver’s hands, to “I was a drum major for justice, peace, and righteousness.”
This was the misquotation for which everyone else was blamed — there was not enough room on the marble, or the committee approved something else, or — a whole concatenation of finger-pointing. Now it might be changed, though not soon enough.
Still, misquotation is a form of flattery. We seek King out for words because he was one of the rare people privileged to say and do great things. Few can manage one of the two.
Besides, one of the conditions of a statue is abiding the pigeons.
The only thing worse than being misquoted is not being quoted at all, to misquote Oscar Wilde.