Quote Origin: I Can’t Write a Book Commensurate with Shakespeare, But I Can Write a Book by Me
Sir Walter Raleigh? Walter Alexander Raleigh? Dale Carnegie? Andrew McAleer?
Question for Quote Investigator: Creating an artwork or writing a book requires audacity. The existing trove of high-quality art and literature is humbling in its size and magnificence. The newcomer must wonder whether it is possible to equal or surpass previous achievements. Here are two versions of a pertinent remark:
(1) I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me.
(2) I cannot write a book commensurate to Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me.
This statement has been attributed to Sir Walter Raleigh which is an ambiguous name. Sir Walter Raleigh of the Elizabethan era was an English statesman and explorer who died in 1618. A different Sir Walter Raleigh was a Professor of English Literature at Oxford University who died in 1922. I have been unable to find a citation for this quotation. Would you please help me?
Reply from Quote Investigator: Sir Walter Raleigh (Walter Alexander Raleigh) authored a well-received book about Shakespeare in 1907. During that year he sent a letter to Thomas Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen College, Oxford. The letter was published posthumously by Lady Raleigh in 1926. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:¹
Everyone says it was a horribly difficult thing to write on Shakespeare. So it was and is, I suppose, but I didn’t think of it that way, or I couldn’t have written.
I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me, — which is all that any one can do. I feel as free to think about Shakespeare as to think about the moon, without putting myself into competition. So I was not conscious of impudence, or even of ambition.
Thus, Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh deserves credit for the quotation under examination. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1929 Thomas Ernest Rankin of Carleton College, Clarence DeWitt Thorpe of University of Michigan, and Melvin Theodor Solve of University of Arizona co-authored a textbook titled “College Composition”. These scholars found Raleigh’s remark memorable enough to share a slightly altered version with their students:²
“I can’t write a book which is commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me,” said Walter Raleigh (Letters, Vol. II, p. 314). The idea is not new but it is well put, and anyone who uses this sentence is under obligation to its author.
In 1948 the famous self-help author Dale Carnegie published “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living”. He described his first attempt to write a book about public speaking which produced a dull hodgepodge of other people’s ideas that was so synthetic that he threw away the old draft, and he began an entirely new draft:³
So I quit trying to be a combination of other men, and rolled up my sleeves and did what I should have done in the first place: I wrote a textbook on public speaking out of my own experiences, observations, and convictions as a speaker and a teacher of speaking.
I learned — for all time, I hope — the lesson that Sir Walter Raleigh learned. (I am not talking about the Sir Walter who threw his coat in the mud for the Queen to step on. I am talking about the Sir Walter Raleigh who was professor of English literature at Oxford back in 1904.) “I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare,” he said, “but I can write a book by me.”
In 1996 the quotation appeared in “The Fairview Guide To Positive Quotations” compiled by John Cook:⁴
I can’t write a book commensurate with Shakespeare, but I can write a book by me. — Sir Walter Raleigh
In 2007 the same quotation and attribution appeared as a filler item in “The Beaver Press” newspaper of Beaver, Utah.⁵
In 2008 Andrew McAleer published “The 101 Habits Of Highly Successful Novelists”, and he included the same quotation and attribution.⁶
In conclusion, English Professor Walter Alexander Raleigh deserves credit for the statement he wrote in a letter in 1907. The quotation was not penned by Sir Walter Raleigh of the Elizabethan era.
Image Notes: Public domain depiction of William Shakespeare known as the Chandos portrait. This artwork is dated 1610 and attributed to the painter John Taylor.
Acknowledgement: Great thanks to quotation expert Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe’s latest wondrous project is the website “A Celebration of Great Opening Lines in World Literature”.
 1926, The Letters of Sir Walter Raleigh (1879–1922), Edited by Lady Raleigh (Lucie Gertrude Jackson Raleigh), Second Edition, Volume 2, Letter From: Walter Alexander Raleigh, Letter To: T. H. Warren (Thomas Herbert Warren, President of Magdalen College, Oxford), Letter Date: April 28, 1907, Start Page 314, Quote Page 314, Methuen & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
 1929, College Composition by Thomas Ernest Rankin (Professor of English, Carleton College), Clarence DeWitt Thorpe, (Professor of the Teaching of English, University of Michigan), and Melvin Theodor Solve (Associate Professor of English, University of Arizona), Chapter 10: Getting and Using Material, Quote Page 406, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
 1948, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, Chapter 16: Find Yourself and Be Yourself: Remember There Is No One Else on Earth Like You, Quote Page 125, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
 1996, The Fairview Guide To Positive Quotations, Compiled by John Cook, Part 1: Peace of Mind, Chapter: Self-Acceptance, Topic: Having Realistic Expectations of Ourselves, Quote Page 171, Column 2, Fairview Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Verified with scans)
 2007 November 29, The Beaver Press, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Beaver, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
 2008, The 101 Habits Of Highly Successful Novelists: Insider Secrets From Top Writers by Andrew McAleer, Part III: Discipline, Chapter 8. The Editing Process, Quote Page 139, Adams Media, Avon, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)