Ralph Waldo Emerson? Bessie A. Stanley? Albert Edward Wiggam? Harry Emerson Fosdick? Ann Landers? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: In church this morning I listened to a short discourse on the definition of success. It began:
To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends,…
The speaker credited the words to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I am confident this ascription is inaccurate. Can you find the real source of this quotation?
Quote Investigator: Your skepticism is well founded. Many of the words you heard were derived from an essay written by Bessie A. Stanley of Lincoln, Kansas. Here is an article about her essay that was published in the Emporia Gazette of Emporia, Kansas on December 11, 1905 [BSEK]:
A Boston firm recently offered several prizes for the best essay on the subject. “What Constitutes Success?” It was stipulated that the essay must be under one hundred words in length.
A Kansas woman, Mrs. A. J. Stanley of Lincoln, submitted a definition of success in the contest. Mrs. Stanley is the wife of the county superintendent of schools in Lincoln county. Her husband also represented his county in the legislature of 1899. It was considered in competition with several hundred others from all parts of the country, and a few days ago Mrs. Stanley received a draft for two hundred and fifty dollars, with the information that she had won the first prize. Her definition was as follows:
“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.”
There are multiple versions of this essay with relatively small differences that are all attributed to Bessie A. Stanley. For example, in 1906 a version was printed in a Springfield, Illinois newspaper that replaced the line immediately below with the next line [ILBS]:
… who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
… who has gained the trust of pure women and the love of little children;
A considerably altered version of the piece was published in a syndicated newspaper column by Albert Edward Wiggam in 1951. When asked the question “What is success?” Wiggam decided to answer by presenting what he claimed was an abridged version of statements that he credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson [AWRE]:
Listen to Emerson (abridged): “To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty.
“To find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.”
This is the earliest evidence of an association to Emerson located by QI. The beginning of this piece was quite similar to Stanley’s work, and it was thematically congruent, but the latter part of the text diverged significantly. QI has not yet located comparable passages in Emerson’s corpus.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.