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I'm fairly certain that I know the answer to this question, but I want to appeal to the collective wisdom here before I definitively file this in my mind as solved. Is there an earlier source or a similar antecedent to the title Robert Heinlein chose for his novel The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress? The title is so wonderfully evocative and for a long time I thought he must have pulled it from some earlier work, perhaps a poem, in the same way many of Shakespeare's memorable phrases have permeated the works of later writers.

I have searched on and off again for some indication of the source of Heinlein's inspiration without success. Now I think he must have created it from a blank slate.

Interestingly, Jimmy Webb used the title for his song of the same name, with permission from Heinlein's lawyers.

What do you think?

  • Technically, title cannot be copyrighted, so I doubt it would be necessary for any artist to get permission to reuse a title. Which does not mean that a polite artist wouldn't at least ask (especially for a distinctive title like this). – Donald.McLean Mar 8 '16 at 18:20
  • 1
    You're absolutely correct. Titles cannot be copyrighted. But Webb considered Heinlein something of a mentor and asked Heinlein's lawyers to ask for permission from him. Webb talks about this in a 2009 interview with Lisa Torem for Penny Black Music. I should have included more detail in my original question, but a quote from the article can be found on Wikipedia. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moon_Is_a_Harsh_Mistress_(song) – rosesunhill Mar 8 '16 at 18:44
  • You know, I have always thought that a good alternative title for H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" might be "The Goon is a Marsh Mistress". – M. A. Golding Jan 4 '18 at 23:41
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From Wikipedia, sourced to Heinlein's posthumous autobiography Grumbles from the Grave:

Heinlein's original title for the novel was The Brass Cannon, replaced with the final title at the publisher's request.

The title is probably inspired by the following quote from the novel (emphasis mine):

"I accept the title—nay, I glory in the title of 'jailbird.' We citizens of Luna are jailbirds and descendants of jailbirds. But Luna herself is a stern schoolmistress; those who have lived through her harsh lessons have no cause to feel ashamed. In Luna City a man may leave purse unguarded or home unlocked and feel no fear… I wonder if this is true in Denver?"

-- Professor de la Paz

  • That's a good quote—I remember it now. And "harsh" appears right after the semicolon. Change Luna to Moon, strike the unnecessary words and you have the title. But it does make me wonder if an editor could have come up with it. Probably unknowable. – rosesunhill Mar 8 '16 at 3:29
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No, the idiom that X is a Harsh Mistress or X is a Cruel Mistress is old indeed, going back at least to the 1800s for "Harsh" and the 1600s for "Cruel". You might want to look at THIS page for examples.

From the link:

A poem from 1910

Alfred Noyes

To a Pessimist

Life like a cruel mistress woos
the passionate heart of man, you say,
Only in mockery to refuse
his love at last and turn away...

Or from 1829

At MOA I found an 1829 from Michael Faraday, in which he says that in 1813 Humphry Davy warned him that Science is a harsh mistress.

Or from 1640

Thomas Carew has a 1640 poem titled "A Cruel Mistress." The reference is to a woman.

Doubtless there are even older examples for both. It is too good a metaphor to give up.

  • Useful site, thanks. So his innovation was in making the Moon the subject of the phrase? – rosesunhill Mar 7 '16 at 23:30
  • Likely yes, although I haven't tried looking for earlier citations of that exact phrase. – Oldcat Mar 7 '16 at 23:32
  • Can you include some of those examples in your answer instead of using only the link? – user31178 Mar 8 '16 at 2:48

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