Justin Trudeau’s literary sources: they’re tough to track down

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), German poet, dramatist, and novelist, in Italy. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

I once heard a pretty fair speechwriter—Michael Waldman, who used to do the job for President Bill Clinton and is now executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school—remark that a portentous quotation used too prominently is often the warning sign of a weak speech.

It doesn’t get much more prominent than the very first line of a star candidate’s speech announcing his bid for a political party’s top job.  Justin Trudeau started his pitch for the Liberal leadership the other night in Montréal with this doozy: “Make no small dreams, they have not the power to move the soul,” which is attributed, in the prepared text released by Trudeau’s campaign, to Goethe.

That would be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, of course, the great German writer of Romantic period. I regret to admit I’m a bit weak on Goethe, so I had no idea what Trudeau might have been reading when he came across this uplifting line. I asked his campaign. A spokesman emailed to say Trudeau thinks it’s from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, but he’s not entirely sure. Apparently, the candidate “read it a long time ago and it stuck with him.”

I can’t help wondering if he might have refreshed his memory with a bit of Google searching. You can find the no-small-dreams line easily among online compendiums of ostensibly inspiring quotations. Some sites say Goethe penned it, others credit Victor Hugo, but none that I can find say exactly what work of literature it comes from. Oddly, it’s not in Bartlett’s Famous Quotations under either author’s name.

Andrew Piper, an associate professor in McGill University’s department of languages, literatures, and cultures, and a guy who knows his Goethe, was kind enough to search for me, but he couldn’t figure out where the quote originates, even when he ran it in German (“Träume keine kleine Träume, denn sie haben keine Kraft”) through the digitized collected works of Goethe (148 volumes, including letters). “My best guess is it is apocryphal,” Piper says, “but maybe it’s a paraphrase of something.”

A very similar quote—“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood”—is reliably attributed to Daniel Burnham, an American architect of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Who knows how words like these might get swirled around, especially in this era of digital cut and paste?

I’d be hard pressed to explain why all this fascinates me. Partly it’s that political rhetoric that tries to borrow profundity, in the way Waldman is wary of, sets my teeth on edge. In Trudeau’s particular case, I think he’d be undermining himself even if his Goethe was indisputably the genuine article. His best moments in an interview come, in my opinion, when he’s most self-effacing. But maybe that’s not going to be a dominant aspect of his public persona. We’re only just learning.

Sifting through Goethe quotes, I came upon this: “Doubt grows with knowledge.” You can look it up.