Progress May Have Been All Right Once, But It Went On Too Long

Ogden Nash? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Jeopardy is my favorite game show, and I recently watched in amazement as an IBM computer named Watson beat the two best human players in the history of the trivia tournament. I was reminded of the classic one-line observation made by the brilliantly humorous poet Ogden Nash:

Progress might have been all right once, but it has gone on too long.

This epigram is listed in the Wikipedia entry for Ogden Nash, and I found it in some quotation references, but no one seems to know where it appeared initially. I searched the archive of The New Yorker because that magazine published many of his poems, but I could not find the phrase. Could you determine its origin?

Quote Investigator: The primary obstacle to tracing this saying is the inaccuracy of its wording. The phrasing specified in your question, which is common online and appears in many books, differs from the original text used by Ogden Nash when he published the line as part of the poem “Come, Come, Kerouac! My Generation is Beater Than Yours” in the 1950s. This is a common problem in quotation research that complicates database searches. Even when the phrasing is very similar and the semantics are nearly equivalent the rigorous word-for-word and letter-for-letter matching may fail.

Your idea to search the New Yorker database was an excellent one. The poem appeared in the April 4, 1959 issue of that magazine, but you may have missed it because your search query was based on the incorrect wording. The fourteen-line composition begins as follows [NYCK]:

My dictionary defines progress as an advance toward perfection.

There has been lots of progress during my lifetime, but I’m afraid it’s been heading in the wrong direction.

The poem ends with the following two lines:

Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long;

I think progress began to retrogress when Wilbur and Orville started tinkering around in Dayton and at Kitty Hawk, because I believe that two Wrights made a wrong.

This saying is a favorite of the prominent political pundit George Will who first used a version of it in his doctoral thesis. Here are some additional citations in chronological order.

The title of Nash’s verse plays on label “Beat Generation” that was applied to the writer Jack Kerouac and a group of artists that emerged in the 1950s. After the 1959 appearance the poem was published in the 1962 Nash collection called “Everyone But Thee and Me” [EBTM].

In December of 1962 the line was extracted from the poem and published in Forbes magazine. The phrase appeared on a page titled “Thoughts on the Business of Life”. This section is a long-running feature of the periodical that lists sayings gathered by the editors. The wording and attribution given were accurate but the name and location of the source poem were not specified.

In 1968 a thesis titled “Beyond the Reach of Majorities: Closed Questions in the Open Society” was accepted by Princeton. A Ph.D. in Political Science was granted to the future newspaper columnist George Will who included Nash’s maxim in his work. The phrase was not placed in quotation marks, and the wording differed slightly from the original [GWPG]:

Real believers in optimistic theories of progress will have nothing to do with Ogden Nash’s theory that progress was all right once, but it went on too long.

In 1971 Ogden Nash died, and the page one obituary in the New York Times included the last line from his poem: “Come, Come, Kerouac! My Generation is Beater Than Yours”. That line expressed hostility toward aircraft when it jocularly stated “two Wrights made a wrong.” The article offered this insight into Nash’s behavior and attitude toward technology [NYON]:

He scheduled his lecture dates so he could travel by train. He hated airplanes,…

In 1974 a version of the epigram appeared in an article titled “Quotations Old and New” in a Pennsylvanian newspaper. The wording of the statement is slightly altered from the original, and this form with “might” instead of “may” and “gone” instead of “went” is now one of the most popular variants [RPON]:

Progress might have been all right once, but it’s gone on too long. Ogden Nash

In 1977 a variant of the saying was credited to a venerable family member in a West Virginian newspaper [CGON]:

READER says his grandfather, a very elderly gentleman, was grumbling the other day about all the changes the interstate construction has made around town. “Progress was all right for a while,” he muttered, “but I think it’s gone on long enough.”

In 1978 George Will employed the expression again in one of his syndicated columns. This time he used an anonymous attribution [TEON]:

As has been said, progress was all right once, but it went on too long.

In 1988 a version of the quote was listed in a compilation titled “1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” by Robert Byrne [BTON]:

Progress might have been all right once but it has gone on too long.

Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

In 1996 George Will used the phrase ascribed to an anonymous wit while describing the author of a book he was reviewing [NWON]:

Tenner, a visiting scholar at Princeton, is not one of those neo-Luddites who believe, as a wit said, that progress was all right once, but it went on too long.

In 2005 the futurist Ray Kurzweil included the saying in his book “The Singularity is Near”. The words were credited to Nash and appeared freestanding at the beginning of chapter eight. The form was the same as that specified in the citation above [RKON].

In 2007 Forbes published the maxim again, but the wording was altered. Back in 1962 Forbes magazine printed an accurate version of the adage, but in “The Forbes Book of Business Quotations” the following version was given [FBON]:

Progress might have been all right once, but it’s gone on too long.

The online Oxford Reference database contains the expression attributed to Ogden Nash in the reference “The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotation”. The version given is the popular one used by Byrne and Kurzweil [OAON].

In conclusion, Ogden Nash published his popular observation as part of a poem in The New Yorker in 1959. It is difficult for the users of Nash’s adage to remember his exact wording, so variants proliferate. Thank you for your question.

[NYCK] 1959 April 4, The New Yorker, “Come, Come, Kerouac! My Generation is Beater Than Yours” by Ogden Nash, Page 45, F-R Pub. Corp., New York. (Online New Yorker archive; Accessed 2011 April 02)

[EBTM] 1962, Everyone But Thee and Me by Ogden Nash, [Poem starts on page 11; quote is on page 12], Little, Brown, Boston. (Match in HathiTrust; Thanks to the public library of Daytona Beach, Florida for verification)

[GWPG] 1968 June, Beyond the Reach of Majorities: Closed Questions in the Open Society, Page 280, Ph.D. Dissertation, Political Science, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey. (Google snippet; Verified via the Duggan Library of Hanover College, Thanks to the librarian)

[NYON] 1971 May 20, Ogden Nash, Master of Light Verse, Dies by Albin Krebs, Page 1 start of article, Page 44 quotation, New York. (ProQuest)

[CGON] 1977 December 8, Charleston Gazette, The Gazetteer by James Dent, Page 1B (NA Page 17), Column 5, Charleston, West Virginia. (NewspaperArchive)

[TEON] 1978 August 10, Trenton Evening Times, A Street of Vilest Progress by George F. Will, Page A10, Column 5, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)

[BTON] 1988, 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne Page 105, A Fawcett Book, Random House Digital, New York. (Google Books preview) link

[NWON] 1996 July 22, Newsweek, A New Level Of Worrying by George F. Will, Newsweek, Inc.  (Newsweek online website accessed 2001 April 2) link

[FBON] 2006, The Forbes Book of Business Quotations: 90th Anniversary Edition edited by Ted Goodman, Ogden Nash quotation, Page 517, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, New York. (Google Books preview)

[OAON] Oxford Reference Online, “Nash, Ogden”, The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotation edited by Hugh Rawson and Margaret Miner. Oxford University Press 2008.  (Accessed 2011 March 29)