Mark Twain? Ben Wade? Emery A. Storrs? James Matthew Barrie?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a well-known quotation about heaven and hell that is usually credited to Mark Twain. I have found it phrased in different ways:
Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.
I would choose Heaven for climate but Hell for companionship.
Heaven for climate. Hell for society.
My friend is adamant that the quotation was really created by James M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. Initially, I thought that possibility was unlikely, but when I searched I found some websites that agree with my friend’s claim. Could you examine this question?
Quote Investigator: J. M. Barrie did use a version of the quip in 1891 in a story called “The Little Minister” published in a collection titled “Good Words” [GWJB]. This early usage caused some reference works to credit Barrie with the phrase.
A scholarly multi-volume edition of Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals revealed that sometime between May 1889 and August 1890 Twain recorded a version of the joke on one of his writing pads [MTN3]. Thus, Twain’s paper trail preceded Barrie’s publication, and some reference works attributed the expression to Twain based on this evidence.
However, the earliest citation located by QI did not mention Twain or Barrie. Instead, the joke was attributed to Ben Wade by a judge named Arthur MacArthur while he was speaking at a National Conference of Charities and Correction in 1885. The context did not provide enough details to uniquely identify Wade, but MacArthur may have been referring to the United States Senator Benjamin Franklin “Bluff” Wade [AMBW]:
The effect of that paper reminded me of an anecdote relating to Ben Wade, who was once asked his opinion on heaven and hell. Well,” said Mr. Wade, “I think, from all I can learn, that heaven has the better climate, but hell has the better company.”
Here are additional selected citations and details in chronological order.
The second earliest citation located by QI also did not refer to Twain or Barrie. An 1886 book titled “Life of Emery A. Storrs: His Wit and Eloquence” credited Storrs with the humorous comment [IAES]:
A young man once approached him with, “Mr. Storrs, pardon me, but you are a man who has thought much upon all topics. I wish to ask you for your opinion of Heaven and Hell.” Fixing his keen eyes on the enquirer, Mr. Storrs answered “When I think of the beauteous descriptions of the abode of the saints, and when I recollect that many noble witty, genial souls have died ‘unregenerate,’ I must answer you, sir, that, while, doubtless, Heaven has the best climate, Hell has the best society.”
Between May 1889 and August 1890 Mark Twain wrote the witticism in one of his notebooks. A footnote to Twain’s entry states “Clemens included this anecdote in a political speech of 1901.” So Twain did use the remark before an audience. The entry is close to another entry dated February 1, 1890 [MTN3]:
Dying man couldn’t make up his mind which place to go to—both have their advantages, “heaven for climate, hell for company!”
In 1891 J. M. Barrie used a version of the jape in a story called “The Little Minister” as mentioned earlier. The tale is written using a dialect that alters the spelling of some words [GWJB]:
“Maybe you’ve ower keen an interest in the devil, Tammas,” retorted the atheist, “but, ony way, if it’s heaven for climate, it’s hell for company.”
In July of 1908 the humor magazine Life printed a cartoon depicting a devil sentinel watching some of the denizens of hell. Beneath the figures was the following caption [MTLF]:
“HEAVEN FOR CLIMATE – HELL FOR COMPANY.” – MARK TWAIN
The Boston Evening Transcript drew attention to the cartoon and attempted to provide a full listing of the prominent figures who the Life cartoonist felt might be present in Twain’s version of hell [BTTH]:
Life’s special eschatologist, Mr. Young, has committed a cartoon illustrating Mark Twain’s maxim, “Heaven for climate—hell for company.” It gives one a glimpse of the infernal regions with a parade of notables filing by. Partly by their versimilitude, partly by their initials, I recognize Napoleon, Goethe, Charles Darwin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Ingersoll, P. T. Barnum, Robert Burns, Benjamin Franklin, Brigham Young, Tom Paine and Voltaire. George Sand, Mme. Pompadour and la Du Barry are labelled more clearly. And this is what Life calls “company.”
Below is the cartoon published in Life magazine in 1908 with identifying initials on each figure. Click on the image to view a larger size.
In conclusion, James M. Barrie and Mark Twain both wrote down a version of this humorous expression around 1890. But there are two earlier citations, and currently Ben Wade takes precedence with an attribution in 1885. Thanks for your question.
Update history: On July 24, 2011 the July 30, 1908 citation for Life magazine was added, and the image of the cartoon was added.
[MTN3] 1979, Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, Volume III (1883-1891), edited by Frederick Anderson, Robert Pack Browning, Michael B. Frank, and Lin Salamo, Pages 538, University of California Press, Berkeley, California. (Google Books limited view; Verified on paper) link
[AMBW] 1885, Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, Twelfth Annual Session Held in Washington, D.C., June 4-10, 1885, Judge MacArthur speaking on June 10, 1885, Page 500, National Conference of Charities and Correction, Press of Geo. H. Ellis, Boston. (Google Books full view) link
[IAES] 1886, Life of Emery A. Storrs: His Wit and Eloquence by Isaac E. Adams, Page 795, [G.L. Howe, Chicago], Hubbard Brothers, Philadelphia. (Google Books full view) link
[MTLF] 1908 July 30, Life, Cartoon by Mr Young, Page 114 [bottom], Volume LII, Number 1344, Life Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[BTTH] 1908 July 31, Boston Evening Transcript, Page 8, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google News Archive)