Dorothy Parker? James Webb Young? Owen H. Hott? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A friend and I recently wondered about the origin of the following poem. We did not have much luck tracking it:
See the happy moron,
He doesn’t give a damn,
I wish I were a moron,
My God! perhaps I am!
There is a web page crediting Dorothy Parker. Do you think that ascription is accurate?
Quote Investigator: This quatrain has had an oddly eventful history. It has appeared in some of the most prestigious reference works in the English language, e.g., The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. In the OED the verse was originally used to help explicate the word “moron”, but it was subsequently removed by an unsympathetic editor. The poem was re-inserted by a third editorial action as an example for the word “damn”, and that is where it is found today.
The earliest citation located by QI occurred in an April 1927 speech at a meeting of college Alumni Secretaries. Morse A. Cartwright, Director of the American Association for Adult Education, read the poem without attribution during a talk given to fellow convention attendees [AACR]:
There is a little poem I saw recently which I should like to recite to you. It goes as follows:
“Oh, see the happy moron;
He doesn’t give a damn.
I wish I were a moron;
Indeed, perhaps I am.”
In November of 1927 the poem was repeated at a gathering of the Ohio Newspaper Women’s Association as reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper [CPDH]. Again, no attribution was given. In 1928 the verse was printed in a Decatur, Illinois newspaper without ascription [DHIH].
In March of 1929 a question about the poem was sent to the “Queries and Answers” columnist of the New York Times [NYP1]:
M. S. H.–Desired, the poem written by Dorothy Parker which begins somewhat at follows: “I wish I were a moron” … and ends, “My God, perhaps I am!”
This is the first time, known to QI, that a name was attached to the poem. In April of 1929 an answer from a reader was published in the “Queries and Answers” column that supplied a full version of the quatrain, and the attribution to Parker was not challenged by the newspaper [NYP2]. However, no evidence was provided that Parker actually composed or published the verse, and QI has not found it in her writings. Parker did craft a 1922 poem that used the word “moron” to refer to a character described as the “gladdest of the glad”, but the eighteen line work was rather different in tone and intent.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.