Ogden Nash? George Bernard Shaw? James Agate? La Liberté? Winston Churchill? Henry James? Oscar Wilde? Georges Clemenceau?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous humorous saying about the United States that has been credited to four celebrated wits: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and Georges Clemenceau:
America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.
Could you reduce the uncertainty and determine who coined this acerbic comment?
Quote Investigator: A thematic match occurred in 1841 within the book “Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe” (“History of the Progress of Civilization in Europe”) by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand. The following statement was about the ruler of Russia and not the United States. The original French is followed by an English rendering: 1
… il fit passer son pays sans transition de la barbarie à la décadence, de l’enfance à la caducité.
… he made his country pass without transition from barbarism to decadence, from childhood to decay.
In 1878 the prominent writer Henry James published a short story with a German character who remarked on the cultural evolution of the United States using a figure of speech based on the maturation of fruit. The following passage is conceptually similar to the quotation, but the vocabulary is different. Thanks to correspondent Rand Careaga for this citation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2
… unprecedented and unique in the history of mankind; the arrival of a nation at an ultimate stage of evolution without having passed through the mediate one; the passage of the fruit, in other words, from crudity to rottenness, without the interposition of a period of useful (and ornamental) ripeness. With the Americans, indeed, the crudity and the rottenness are identical and simultaneous;…
The earliest evidence known to QI of a close match for this expression was published in 1926 in The Sunday Times of London. Interestingly, the country being lacerated was Russia and not the United States. In addition, none of the four gentlemen mentioned by the questioner was credited with the words.
Everything that happens to Andreyev’s characters is repugnant to the English sense of what would, should, or could happen to people laying claim to ordinary, i.e. English sanity. This being so, the temptation is to cast about for excuses, to pity Russia for having been left out of the Roman march, and so passing from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilisation, or to talk about “retrogressive metamorphism” and the way this country has been steadily breaking Europe down ever since, in the time of Peter the Great, she first began to absorb European culture.
Special thanks to correspondent Robert Rosenberg who identified this pivotal early instance.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
On June 23, 1932 a Connecticut newspaper printed a letter sent from an English couple to an American couple. Part of the idea expressed by the saying under investigation was alluded to in the body of the letter, but the intermediate stage of civilization was not mentioned: 5
We all of us agree in loving your people when we meet you personally, but when we read, day after day, of your kidnappings and honour slayings and racketeering, bootlegging and graft, we get a distorted picture that makes us laugh with the cynic that described you as having stepped straight out of barbarism into decadence.
In July 1932 a version of the saying was printed in several U.S. newspapers which were reacting to commentary in a French periodical. The Washington Post of July 16, 1932 included the following English translation of a passage that appeared originally in the French newspaper La Liberté. The French paper was unhappy with statements made by the American President Herbert Hoover: 6
Does this government, which obeys gangsters, which capitulates helplessly before thieves and assassins of babies in the cradle, dare to assume such a height of moral authority that it thinks it can dictate to Europe and France?
Americans are the only race which passed directly from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.
The name of the French author was not specified in the Washington Post or in other publications that reprinted the words of La Liberté. The remark may have appeared as an unsigned editorial comment in the pages of La Liberté.
For more than a decade the ascription usually given for versions of this phrase was to La Liberté or to an anonymous figure labeled: “a French journalist,” “a foreign wit,” “an overseas critic,” or “one of those witty Frenchmen.”
On July 25, 1932 Time magazine published the translated passage from the French periodical La Liberté. The Time editors prefaced the commentary with a statement about the precipitating event: 7
Because President Hoover protested the new Franco-British agreement to stand together on War Debt, he was flayed last week by the entire conservative Press of France. The palm for wanton insult and abuse went easily to La Liberte, organ of the Bonapartists who would like to see again a French Empire.
“Verily, Pontius Pilate was not more cynical or more odious,” said La Liberte, referring to the President’s protest. “What was the Lausanne Conference if not a direct and logical consequence of the Hoover Moratorium? Does this government, which obeys gangsters, which capitulates helpless before thieves and assassins of babies in the cradle, dare to assume such a height of moral authority that it thinks it can dictate to Europe and France? Americans are the only race which passed directly from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.”
On July 30, 1932 The Literary Digest periodical also printed the words of La Liberté. The prefatory remark given below indicated that the quotation was based on a cable from the newspaper wire service United Press: 8
Editorial “bad manners” are not restricted to this country, it seems. Mr. Hoover’s letter, accepted as the United States’s warning to Europe, is like a red rag to many French papers. Typical is this comment from La Liberte, a powerful, conservative, nationalistic Paris daily. As cabled by the United Press, La Liberté rages …
In January 1933 an editor in the business publication Barron’s wrote a piece denouncing the cultural developments in the U.S. that elevated the importance of “self-expression”. He included a version of the phrase with the word “decay” instead of “decadence” and credited an unknown Frenchman: 9
From it sprang the monstrosities in art, literature, music, and morals, which have been rammed down our throats in such volume from so many quarters, and have drawn from a Frenchman the biting comment that America is the only instance in history of a nation which has passed from barbarism to decay without passing through the stage of civilization.
In March 1934 a book review in Saturday Review of Literature reprinted a version of the remark with an ascription to an “unnamed French journalist”: 10
The most piquant condemnation of our sad state occurs in a quotation from an unnamed French journalist: “Americans are the only people who have passed directly from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.”
In October 1934 a modified version of the saying was assigned to the prominent literary figure John O’Hara in the magazine The Golden Book. Thanks to sharp researcher Victor Steinbok for pointing out this citation: 11
John O’Hara: sees us hurdling through
“America has leapt from barbarism to decadence without touching civilization.”
Also in October 1934 the popular humorist and poet Ogden Nash incorporated the saying in a poem called “Civilization Is Constant Vexation”. Here are the first few lines: 12
Once there was one of those witty Frenchmen whose name I cannot for the moment recall,
Who wittily remarked that America is the only country in history that has passed directly from barbarism to decadence without passing through civilization at all,
A remark which is wittily repeated with enthusiasm frantic
In the lands on the other side of the Atlantic,
And is, I suppose, more or less true,
Depending on the point of view.
In 1936 an article in The American Historical Review contained an instance of the expression credited to “a foreign wit”. The accompanying footnote cited the Saturday Evening Post issue with the Ogden Nash poem: 13
A foreign wit has been quoted as saying that America is the only nation that has passed from barbarism to decadence without ever passing through civilization.
In 1941 a writer in the Music Educators Journal presented a statement similar to the words attributed to John O’Hara, but the saying was ascribed to “an overseas critic”. The article author also offered a sobering riposte as World War II began to engulf Europe: 14
An overseas critic taunts America with being the one nation that leaped from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization. It could be easily taunted back that if what is going on now in Europe is civilization, then America can congratulate herself on having skipped the middle step. Anyhow, as a midwestern daily boasts, “a less athletic people would have had to make it in two jumps.”
In 1945 Hans Bendix, a noted Danish illustrator and cartoonist, wrote an essay in the Saturday Review of Literature about his sojourn in the United States. Bendix presented a variant of the remark using the word “degeneration” instead of “decadence”. The phrase was actually pronounced by his cantankerous aunt who did not want him to go to the United States, and the saying was attributed to the French statesmen Georges Clemenceau: 15
… when I had decided to go to America, my aunt went to work on me. I would lose my shirt, she insisted, in a country where drink, gambling, adultery, and gangsterism flourished. Most of 5,000,000 Ku Kluxers would meet the “furriner” at the dock, with a noose. She reminded me of Clemenceau’s saying, “America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.”
The above citation is well-known, and it has been used to rationalize the attachment of the quotation to Clemenceau, but this text was printed many years after the appearance of the saying, and the evidence provided is rather weak. QI has not located any direct evidence for assigning the words to Clemenceau at this time.
In 1946 the newspaperman Vincent Starrett reported in the Chicago Tribune on his efforts to identify the creator of the expression. He was given leads to Clemenceau and La Liberté: 16
My thanks to Roy Massena and Eileen Dowd for supplying the French comment on American culture that I asked for recently. “The man who made the statement was Clemenceau,” writes Mr. Massena. “He said: ‘America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.” Miss Dowd finds a similar assertion in Thomas A. Bailey’s “Diplomatic History of the United States,” where it is quoted from a Parisian journal, La Liberte, as of 1932.
In April 1947 the popular syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons printed an anecdote about Churchill in the Washington Post: 17
From the man who brought him the offer, Winston Churchill exacted a promise that this story would not be printed until he no longer was Prime Minister: At the height of Churchill’s popularity he received an offer of $5000 a lecture for a Nation-wide tour of America. “That’s an unbelievable figure,” said Churchill … “In that case,” said Churchill, “it would prove that America is the first country which went from Barbarism to Decadence, without a certain intervening period of civilization.”
In December 1947 the monthly “Nation’s Business” printed a version of the adage and credited Clemenceau: 18
The late Georges Clemenceau, a man of venomous wit, is reported to have observed that Americans afford the unique historical example of a people which has passed directly from a condition of barbarism to one of decadence without an intervening period of civilization.
Over the years the words were reassigned to other famous individuals noted for making clever and pungent remarks. In 1967 the Boston Globe published an interview with H. Rap Brown. A version of the saying was ascribed to George Bernard Shaw by Brown: 19
You know what George Bernard Shaw said about America? He said it’s the only country in history that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization and, baby, he was talking about you.
In 1979 in Esquire magazine the writer Taki Theodoracopulos used a variant of the saying to comment about Hollywood: 20
No one has ever accused Hollywood of having any style. In fact, it is the only society that went from primitive to decadent without ever reaching a civilized level.
In 1980 a letter writer to Esquire criticized the author Theodoracopulos for not providing proper credit for the phrase about decadence. But his missive and the “Editor’s note” response revealed great confusion over the correct ascription: 21
As I recall, it was not Taki but George Bernard Shaw who first described a society (America as a whole, not Hollywood) as having progressed from barbarism to decadence without the intervening stage of civilization. …
Editor’s note: Although others attributed the epigram to H. L. Mencken, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, the real author appears to be Georges Clemenceau. According to Bartlett’s…
In 1986 an entry in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations recalled an attribution from the 1930s: 22
America – a country that has leapt from barbarism to decadence without touching civilization.
In 2008 The Times newspaper of London, England presented the “Top Ten Quotes of Oscar Wilde” and number four was the following: 23
America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilisation in between.
In conclusion, the earliest evidence of a strong match for this expression known to QI was written by James Agate in 1926. QI would tentatively credit Agate with coinage of this turn of phrase. The country being criticized was Russia. By 1932 the expression appeared in French and was used to criticize the United States. It is possible that this can be antedated, and there is a partial match in 1841. QI has not performed searches in French language newspaper databases.
By 1934 the saying was attached to John O’Hara. But QI believes it is unlikely that O’Hara originated the phrase, and whether he spoke or wrote this variant is not clear. Each of the numerous later attributions appeared many years after the remark entered circulation. None of these attributions provides substantive evidence of coinage.
Oscar Wilde died in 1900 before the first evidence of the expression in English emerged. However, it is possible that Winston Churchill repeated a variant of the remark as suggested by the 1947 citation.
(Great thanks to Dan J. Bye and the volunteer editors of Wikiquote for the 1841 citation. Additional thanks to Victor Steinbok, Rand Careaga, Fred Shapiro, and Robert Rosenberg.)
Update: On June 6, 2013 the citation dated April 4, 1926 was added. Parts of the essay were rewritten. The footnote style was changed to numerical. On June 7, 2013 the 1878 cite to Henry James was added, and the 1841 French citation was added. On August 23, 2021 the beginning of the article was rewritten.
- 1841, Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, Volume 6, Quote Page 72, Chez L. Hachette. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1881, Washington Square; The Pension Beaurepas; A Bundle of Letters by Henry James, Volume 2, (A Bundle of Letters; short story reprinted from The Parisian, 1878), Start Page 198, Quote Page 266, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1944, Red Letter Nights by James Agate, (Review by James Agate of the play Katerina by Leonid Andreyev; starring John Gielgud and Frances Carson; Review is dated April 3, 1926 in book), Start Page 112, Quote Page 113, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, UK. (Internet Archive) link ↩
- 1926 April 4, The Sunday Times (UK), The Dramatic World: Those Russians Again by James Agate, (Review of the play Katerina by Andreyev performed on March 31), Quote Page 4, London, England. (Gale’s Sunday Times Digital Archive; thanks to Fred Shapiro and Dan J. Bye for accessing this database) ↩
- 1932 June 23, Hartford Courant, “The Lighter Side: A Problem” by W.J.F., Page 10, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1932 July 16, Washington Post, Herriot Admits Pact Not Aimed at Debt to U.S., Page 1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1932 July 25, Time, “FRANCE: Hoover, Napoleon & Hearst”, Time Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; Accessed 2011 December 7) ↩
- 1932 July 30, The Literary Digest, Mr. Hoover Tells Europe, Start Page 7, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Literary Digest, New York. (Unz database) ↩
- 1933 January 16, Barron’s, With the Editor: Character and Humility, Page 14, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest; ABI/INFORM) ↩
- 1934 March 17, The Saturday Review of Literature, Book Review: As Mr. Nock Sees It: A Journal of These Days by Albert Jay Knock: Reviewed by Royal J. Davis, Page 555, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates Inc., New York. (Unz database) ↩
- 1934 October, The Golden Book Magazine, So They Say, Page 405, The Review of Reviews Corporation, New York. [Many thanks to Victor Steinbok for mentioning this match in the Google Books database] (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1934 October 20, Saturday Evening Post, Civilization Is Constant Vexation by Ogden Nash, Page 30, Volume 207, Issue 16, Saturday Evening Post Co., Indianapolis, Indiana. (EBSCO) ↩
- 1936 January, The American Historical Review, “Has the Lincoln Theme been Exhausted?” by J. G. Randall, Volume 41, Number 2, Start Page 270, Quote Page 270, Published by: The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the American Historical Association. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1941 February, Music Educators Journal, Ad Libitum by E.S.B., Page 76, Column 3, Volume 27, Number 4, Published by: MENC: The National Association for Music Education. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1945 December 1, Saturday Review of Literature, “Merry Christmas, America!” by Hans Bendix, Start Page 9, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1946 June 30, Chicago Daily Tribune, Magazine of Books: Books Alive by Vincent Starrett, Page C4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1947 April 29, Washington Post, Broadway Gazette by Leonard Lyons, Page 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1947 December, Nation’s Business, A Question 2,000 Years Old by J. M. Lalley, Page 33, Volume 35, Issue 12, Chamber of Commerce of the United States, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest; ABI/INFORM) ↩
- 1967 August 6, Boston Globe, SNCC’s Brown: Democracy Not Answer by John Mathews, Page 15, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1979 November, Esquire, “High Life: What, Then, Is Style?” by Taki Theodoracopulos, Page 21, Column 3, Volume 92, Esquire Publishing, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1980 January, Esquire, Letters: The Sound and the Fury, [Letter: Returning What He Borrowed from Leslie Finer], Page 7, Column 2, Volume 93, Esquire Publishing, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1986, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations compiled by Fred Metcalf, Section: America and Americans, Page 14, Column 1, Viking Penguin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2008 July 7, The Times, “Top Ten Quotes of Oscar Wilde; The Daily Universal Register”, Page 27, London, England. (Academic OneFile; GaleGroup) ↩