Just Walk Beside Me and Be My Friend

Albert Camus? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

albert07Dear Quote Investigator: The French writer and philosopher Albert Camus was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1957. His influential works have been called absurdist and existentialist although he personally rejected the label existentialist. The following lines have been widely attributed to him:

Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.

I have tried unsuccessfully to find a citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to locate this quotation in the writings of Albert Camus who died in 1960. Currently, the ascription to Camus has no substantive support.

The earliest strong match found by QI appeared in the “Quincy Sun” newspaper of Quincy, Massachusetts in December 1971. A columnist named Dr. William F. Knox who was identified as a “Personal Counselor” wrote about being a good father to a child in grade school. Knox learned about the saying from a fellow counselor, and no attribution was specified. Ellipses were present in the original text. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Another counselor handed me recently a great little thought…

“Don’t walk in front of me…I may not follow.
Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Walk beside me…just be my friend.”

Maybe that’s what “being a father” is all about…just being a friend.

Less than a week later “The Evening Times” of Trenton, New Jersey published an article about a residential drug treatment facility. The saying was printed on a sign, and the words were attributed to Albert Camus: 2

There are many signs throughout the center. One from Camus reads: “Don’t walk in front of me — I may not follow; don’t walk behind — I may not lead; walk beside me and just be my friend.”

During the ensuing decades the phrasing has varied, and sometimes the first two clauses have been re-ordered. By the 1990s a French version of the passage was circulating, but QI conjectures that the text was derived from the English version and not vice versa.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1910 a novel titled “The Doctor’s Christmas Eve” by James Lane Allen was published, and it included a scene with elements that matched the theme of the quotation under investigation: 3

Her bulging hips overreached the borders of the narrow path so that the boy was crowded out upon the rough ground as he struggled forward close beside her. She would not allow him to walk in front of her and he disdained to walk behind.

“Then walk beside me or go back!” she had said to him, laughing carelessly.

In December 1971 the instructive admonition was presented in a Massachusetts newspaper with no attribution and in a New Jersey newspaper with an ascription to Camus as mentioned previously in this article.

In May 1972 a newspaper in Guthrie Center, Iowa indicated that the local high school had selected the words as a class motto without an ascription: 4

Don’t walk in front of me — I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me — I may not lead; Walk beside me — And just be my friend.

In January 1973 a “Los Angeles Times” journalist was taken on a tour of a “Resource Center” for troubled teens in Fullerton, California by the director David Hull. The saying was credited to “a quiet teenage girl”: 5

On the second floor, Hull unlocked a classroom door. The teenagers had been given a free hand in creating murals and poetry on the walls. A poem by a quiet teenage girl reads:

“Don’t walk in front of me
I may not follow
Don’t walk behind me
I may not lead
Walk beside me, and
just be my friend.”

“I think that poem reflects the attitudes and the outlook on life held by many of the kids that come here,” Hull said. “It’s a good thought.”

Also in January 1973 the “Chicago Tribune” published an article about folk dancing that described a monthly newsletter called “Folktivities” with reportage on cultural activities: 6

The Pamphlet (at 25 cents per copy from Frank and Dee Alsberg, 1331 Washington St., Evanston) also includes such inspirational sayings as “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” (Helen Keller); “Don’t walk in front of me—I may not follow. Don’t walk behind me—I may not lead. Walk beside me—and just be my friend.” (Camus); and “The greatest unexplored area lies under your hat.” (Anon.)

In 1975 the widely-distributed syndicated column “Dear Abby” printed a letter from a woman who credited an instance of the saying to a young girl: 7

My friends and I have adopted a poem as our slogan. It was written by a 12-year-old girl:
Please don’t walk in front of me. I may not want to follow. Don’t walk behind me. I may not want to lead. Please, walk beside me and be my friend.

In 1998 a collection titled “Femmes d’Afrique” included a French version of the expression credited to Albert Camus: 8

“Ne marche pas devant moi, je ne te suivrai peut-être pas. Ne marche pas derrière moi, je ne te guiderai peut-être pas. Marche à côté de moi et sois simplement mon ami!”.

In 2013 a writer at the “Tablet” website stated that he was skeptical of the linkage to Camus because he had heard the words while attending a summer camp. The article did not specify a time period: 9

Anyway, despite the internet’s love of this alleged Camus quote, no one is able to cite the book or letter from which it came. Chances are though, if you went to a Jewish summer camp, you’ve heard the quote in song form, probably at a Havdallah ceremony or a really intense campfire. The summer camp version of the song has one more crucial line.

Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Just walk beside me and be my friend
And together we will walk in the ways of Hashem.

Something makes me think this isn’t the work of Camus.

In conclusion, this saying was credited to Albert Camus in one of its earliest known appearances in December 1971. Oddly, the earliest instances were presented in English and not French. Camus died in 1960; hence, the evidence linking Camus to the expression was very weak. Other candidates for authorship have been proposed, e.g., a poem crafter in youth center and an unnamed 12-year-old, but the supporting evidence was even weaker. At his time, QI suggests employing the designation anonymous. Perhaps other researchers will discover more in the future.

Image Notes: Couple walking from Antranias at Pixabay. Portrait of Albert Camus from the Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Jonas Vils, Randolph Wagner, Neil Fleischmann, Barry Gremillion, and Lee Randall whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1971 December 2, Quincy Sun, Living Today by Dr. William F Knox (Personal Counselor), Quote Page 11, Column 1, Quincy, Massachusetts. (Internet Archive and Old Fulton)
  2. 1971 December 8, Trenton Evening Times, TODAY Is For Dropping Back In: A Resident Center For Addicts by James Labig, Subsection: The Discipline, Quote Page 49, Column 2, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1910, The Doctor’s Christmas Eve by James Lane Allen, Quote Page 4, The Macmillan Company, New York.(Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1972 May 22, The Guthrian, Class Motto, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Guthrie Center, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1973 January 1, Los Angeles Times, HELP FOR TEEN-AGERS: Center Reaches Out to Troubled by Jack Boettner, Start Page E11, Quote Page E12, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  6. 1973 January 14, Chicago Tribune, Let’s face the Dabkeh and dance by Linda Winer, Start Page I19, Quote Page I21, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  7. 1975 June 27, Centre Daily Times, Answers from Abby by Abigail Van Buren, (Letter from Coleen in Calgary to Dear Abby), Quote Page 3, Column 1, State College, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1998, Femmes d’Afrique, Series: Afrique politique, Patrice Bigombe Logo, Start Page 255, Quote Page 266, Publisher: Éd. Karthala, Paris, France. (Google Books Preview)
  9. 2013 November 8, Tablet: The Scroll, Article title: Did Camus Write a Jewish Summer Camp Song? Article subtitle: Probably not, but the Huffington Post seems to think so, Author: Adam Chandler Website description: Tablet is a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture. (Accessed tabletmag.com on August 23, 2015) link