Carole King famously sang, “[I]t’s too late, baby now, it’s too late,/ Though we really did try to make it.” Something in this song created a gluey intangible not-yet-named noun that affixed itself to my soul. When I hear the words “Somethin’ inside has died, and I can’t hide/ And I just can’t fake it,” I feel a shudder throughout my being.
But that’s not what I want to write about. Or is it?
Let’s take King’s premise – that it is too late – and set it off against the theme of this week’s I Swear Crossword, a statement attributed to 19th-century author George Eliot suggesting the opposite (the remark is divulged later herein, so solve the puzzle now). Not being an Eliot scholar, I rely on Rebecca Mead’s article “Middlemarch and Me,” from the Feb. 14, 2011, issue of The New Yorker. Totally.
Mead tells of a speech she gave in 2010 to a gathering of Eliot aficionados. Her topic was the quotation just referenced. Then, as now, it was used far and wide, based on its Web proliferation. Mead cleverly takes the opportunity to spin her speech material into a segment of her article, which is subtitled “What George Eliot teaches us.”
Eliot, who didn’t start writing until she was 36, arguably lived out the theme of the quote in question. The issue, though, is whether she actually wrote or said the words.
Like the typical writer for a New Yorker piece of this nature, Mead (a) has read everything her subject ever wrote and (b) corresponded with the leading living experts on her topic. And her prose is impeccable. For instance:
“It was an appealing notion: who doesn’t want to believe that there’s still time to do what hasn’t yet been accomplished? … But the sentence didn’t sound to me like anything George Eliot would say – at least, not my George Eliot, whose finest moments were often compassionate depictions of characters not quite coming up to the mark.”
Cutting to the chase, Mead recounts correspondence from a Harvard professor, who had written about “the anthologizing of Eliot during her lifetime.” The expert from Harvard is quoted: “I’ve always assumed [the quote] was apocryphal. … It shows up nowhere in full text searches of G.E.’s work.”
What is strange, though, is that this quotation emerged in an 1881 magazine contest – less than a year after Eliot’s death. A Big Apple periodical, “The Literary News,” challenged readers to “quote the most striking passage known to you from George Eliot’s writings: not to exceed thirty words.” It was captioned “Gems of George Eliot.”
There among 71 winning entries was “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” Disregarding the rules, however, the submitter cited no source.
This column has been around since 1993, the I Swear Crossword since 2006. I am thinking of shutting them down at the end of this year. I fear it’s too late for them to become more than they are. Whatever mark they’ve come up to, I don’t see them going much further.
Your input is welcome. Is it too late or not?
Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at email@example.com.