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.
Life magazine published “The Glad Girl” by Parker in April 1922 as part of a series of verses about “Figures in Popular Literature” [GGDP]. The illustration suggested that the fictional character “Pollyanna” was the target of Parker’s satire because that character also experienced an automobile accident. Although the points of similarity between this work and the poem under investigation are not striking, its existence may have influenced the ready acceptance of the attribution to Parker. The word “pelf” refers to money with a connotation of unprincipled acquisition.
The first citation for the quatrain occurred in a conference of academics in April 1927 as discussed above. The second cite in November 1927 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer appeared with the following context [CPDH]:
There was a “stunt session,” when each visitor was obliged to rise and relate a joke on herself; something that had occurred since her entry into newspaper work, and which had made her feel like the proverbial plugged nickel. Prizes were handed out for these stories, and one young woman gave us all something quotable by repeating a verse which expressed her state of mind on being called upon:
“Oh, see the happy moron;
He does not give a damn.
I wish I were a moron—
My God! perhaps I am!”
The third cite in January 1928 used the format of an informal ungrammatical letter. The poem was tracked through intermediate locales [DHIH]. No author was credited in any of these initial citations:
“One of the fraters heards this masterpiece on the Wisconsin campus last year. Thence it traveled to Boston and it has just hit Millikin on the return trip. Fran suggests that it be used as the pass word Thursday evening:
Oh see the happy moron,
He does not give a damn.
I wish I were a moron;
Migawd, perhaps I am!
As noted above the poem was referenced in the “Queries and Answers” column of the New York Times in March and April of 1929. Also in April the verse was presented in an Ohio newspaper column and Parker was credited [PODP]. In June of 1929 The Hartford Courant of Connecticut reprinted the poem without listing an author under the title “Shocking!” and appended the following comment concerning Massachusetts and the word “damn” [HCBG]:
The Boston Globe reprints the above, swear word and all. So it becomes our duty to call the attention of all Massachusetts librarians to the terrible language. If bound copies of the Globe file are not barred in the Bay State, what good is the book ban law, anyway?
In July of 1929 the verse appeared in the London publication “The Eugenics Review” with the following preface [ERES]:
The following expression of the conscientious eugenist’s thoughts at 2.0 in the morning has just reached us from America.
This 1929 citation for the verse was placed into the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the largest and most important dictionary of the English language. English scholar Charlotte Brewer wrote about the development of the OED in her 2007 book “Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED”. She discussed the conflicts between editors during the process of updating and enlarging the OED. Brewer suggested that the poem under review was placed into the OED because its jocularity helped preserve the spirit of the team performing the arduous effort of compiling the immense reference. The following excerpt mentions the editors William Craigie, C.T. Onions, and Robert Burchfield [THSH]:
‘It cannot be denied,’ Craigie is reported to have said of the kind of work to which he devoted so much of his life, ‘that dictionary work for the most part is very dull and boring.’ Descriptions of this sort — emphasizing laborious process rather than the delights of scholarly discovery — indicate that Onions must often have felt it so.
Craigie himself approved various methods of cheering the discipline up, and was ‘very pleased with the now famous last quotation for the word moron, when he saw it in the first proof of the Supplement. . . “I have always maintained,” he said, “that there is far too little of this kind of thing in the dictionary.”‘ This quotation, subsequently excised from the Dictionary in Burchfield’s second Supplement, read, ‘See the happy moron. He doesn’t give a damn. I wish I were a moron. My god! Perhaps I am!'”
Skipping forward over several appearances of the compact ode to 1932, Harper’s magazine published an entertaining variant [HMHM]:
The park benches in our industrial cities at all times of day were crowded with able-bodied men of working age. Many of them looked bedraggled enough, and some would have been readily classed as morons by those who had not learned caution from the salutary bit of doggerel:
I don’t know what a moron is,
And I don’t give a damn.
I’m thankful that I am not one-
My God! perhaps I am.
In 1933 the poem was embedded in a thirty-two line masterwork titled “Oh! Sylvia” by Owen H. Hott which was printed in the Nevada State Journal. The surrounding poem began with the lines shown below and ended with the quatrain credited to “unknown” [NSJH]:
That lady from Deeth
With her satire
On edge has set my teeth.
In 1961 a newspaper columnist reminisced about using Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to settle arguments at the family dinner table. He said he was still a fan of the reference [HCBQ]:
The other day I started looking up that old doggerel about “Monday’s child is full of grace.” Before I knew it I was skimming through the section of “Unknown Authorship,” and found it as usual delightful. For example, here is one attributed to Dorothy Parker, though actually the author is unknown: “See the happy moron. He doesn’t give a damn. I wish I were a moron—My God, perhaps I am.”
The rhyme also appeared in later editions, e.g., the Fourteenth in 1968 where the lines were still in the Anonymous section with no date or citation given [BFQH].
In 1998 the poem was attributed to James Webb Young who was a prominent figure in the advertising industry in the U.S. and who became a professor at the University of Chicago. The variant credited to Young is distinctive because it uses a female pronoun to refer to the moron figure [SBAJ]:
Oh see the little moron;
She doesn’t give a damn.
I wish I were a moron!
My g-d, perhaps I am!
—James Webb Young, 1928
The earliest cite discovered by QI is dated 1927 and that predates the 1928 figure given for the ascription to Young. QI has not yet located additional support for the Young claim.
The poem can be found today in the online database of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations where it is ensconced in the Anonymous section with a pointer to the 1929 Eugenics Review appearance mentioned above [ODQH].
In conclusion, the poem was attached to Dorothy Parker relatively quickly after its first known appearance, but QI is unconvinced that she crafted the verse. For now the author remains unknown. Thanks for your intelligent question.
(Many thanks to Graeme F St. Clair whose email provided the inspiration for the construction of this question and the performance of this investigation.)
[AACR] 1927, Report of the Fourteenth Annual Conference: The American Alumni Council, Convention Held at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, April 28-30, 1927, [Speech delivered Thursday Morning Session, April 28, 1927], Page 15, Published by the American Alumni Council, Ithaca, New York. (Verified with page scans; Great thanks to an Information Assistant at the Firestone Library of Princeton University)
[CPDH] 1927 November 09, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Main Street Meditations by Eleanor Clarage, GBank Page 19, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
[DHIH] 1928 January 30, 1928, Decatur Herald, As I View the Thing by S.A. Tucker, [A Pass Word for the Elect by Millikin Bill], Page 6, Column 3, Decatur, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive)
[NYP1] 1929 March 17, New York Times, Queries and Answers, “I Wish I Were A Moron”, Page BR23, New York. (ProQuest)
[NYP2] 1929 April 21, New York Times, Queries and Answers, “I Wish I Were A Moron”, Response: Dr. William C. Sandy, Page 73 start, Page 74 quote, New York. (ProQuest)
[GGDP] 1922 April 13, Life, “Figures in Popular Literature: The Glad Girl” by Dorothy Parker, Page 24, Volume 79, Life magazine, Inc., New York. (HathiTrust; Multiple pages are missing from the HathiTrust/Google scans and the exact date is not clear; Date given is from “Not Much Fun” by Stuart Y. Silverstein, 1996, Page 246, Scribner) link
[PODP] 1929 April 29, Piqua Daily Call, Piqua-Isms by Lola Hill, Page 4, Column 8, Piqua, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
[HCBG] 1929 June 13, Hartford Courant, The Lighter Side by H.I.H., Page 8, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
[ERES] 1929 July, The Eugenics Review, Notes of the Quarter, Page 86, Column 2, Volume 21, Eugenics Society, London, England. (Full view; PubMed Central Journals) link
[THSH] 2007, “Treasure-House of the Language: The Living OED” by Charlotte Brewer, Page 42, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut. (Verified on paper)
[HMHM] 1932 May, Harper’s magazine, The Great Economic Paradox by Henry Pratt Fairchild, Page 644, Harper’s Magazine Company. (Online Harper’s magazine archive)
[NSJH] 1933 June 18, Nevada State Journal, Poetic Nevadans, Oh! Sylvia by Owen H. Hott, Page 4, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (NewspaperArchive)
[HCBQ] 1961 May 11, Hartford Courant, Of Many Things: Bartlett by Thomas E. Murphy, Page 18, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
[BFQH] 1968, Familiar Quotations [by John Bartlett] edited by Emily Morison Beck, Fourteenth edition revised and enlarged, Page 1103, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company. (Verified with scans)
[SBAJ] Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima by M. M. Manring, [Free standing quotation at the beginning of chapter 4], Page 79, University Press of Virginia. (Google Books preview) link
[ODQH] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Anonymous: See the Happy Moron”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press.(Accessed 2011 April 29)