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.
Genealogists based in Lincoln County, Kansas have created a webpage about Bessie A. Stanley’s essay, and they have posted a version that was printed in the Lincoln Sentinel newspaper on November 30, 1905. The December 11 instance given previously was nearly identical. In fact, the two texts differed by a single word. The phrase “given them the best he had” in November was “given the best he had” in December [KSBS].
On October 18, 1906 an article in an Illinois newspaper about the essay included a picture Bessie A. Stanley, and that image was used to provide part of the illustration at the top of this article. This instance of the essay contained the following alternate line as mentioned previously [ILBS]:
… who has gained the trust of pure women and the love of little children;
By 1908 there was some confusion about the authorship of the piece. A “Queries” article in the New York Times ran a letter in the “Appeals to Readers” section asking about the work. The full text given was nearly identical to the 1905 versions [NYAN]:
R. H. W. — Can any of your readers tell me who wrote the following lines: “He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; …
Bessie A. Stanley’s piece gained fame because it was selected as a contest winner. Many of the prize-winning entries were published in a book called “Heart Throbs”. But Stanley’s essay appeared in a later sequel titled “More Heart Throbs: Volume 2” published in 1911. This version was very similar to those printed in 1905. But one phrase was omitted: “who has left the world better than he found it” [HTBS].
In 1951 the syndicated columnist by Albert Edward Wiggam published a significantly altered version of the essay and attributed the words to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although Wiggam also claimed that the passage was abridged he presented no source. The details were presented previously in this post [AWRE].
In 1966 the very popular advice columnist Ann Landers printed a short piece that was very similar to the one presented by Wiggam in 1951. She ascribed the words to Emerson but mentioned neither Wiggam nor abridgement [ALRE]:
Many years ago I ran across a definition of success that so closely reflected my thinking I have made it my own — with appropriate credit, of course. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote it and here it is:
“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; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.”
In 1980 Ann Landers printed the essay again, but she did not credit Emerson this time. Instead, she attributed the piece to an influential American pastor. Here is Lander’s introduction [ALHF]:
Dear Ann Landers: You once printed a definition of success. I carried it so long it fell apart. Will you please run it again? —Petaluma Fan
Dear Pet: With pleasure. The author is Harry Emerson Fosdick.
In 1984 the essay was printed yet again by Ann Landers. This time she credited Bessie A. Stanley, but even this ascription was dubious because the version she gave was very similar to Wiggam’s 1951 text and not Stanley’s early century essay. Here is Landers’ introductory remark [ALBS]:
The clipping your father carried came from this column. Here it is, along with my thanks for asking. It is one of my favorites. The author is Bessie Anderson Stanley.
In conclusion, there are really two different overlapping essays. The first essay was created by Bessie A. Stanley and appeared in 1905. The origin of the second essay remains less certain. The earliest known appearance was dated 1951, and part of its text was clearly derived from Stanley’s essay. Wiggam claimed that the piece was an abridgement of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but QI has not yet found any support for this assertion.
(Thanks to Lynn Hughes whose inquiry led to the construction of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace.)
[BSEK] 1905 December 11, Emporia Gazette, Success Is Service, Page 2, Column 1, Emporia, Kansas. (GenealogyBank)
[ILBS] 1906 October 18, The Illinois State Journal, Feminine and Juvenile: It’s Worth the Money, Page 4, Column 4-5, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
[AWRE] 1951 October 30, San Diego Union, Let’s Explore Your Mind by Albert Edward Wiggam, D. Sc., Page a-4, Column 3, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)
[KSBS] Webpage Title: “Bessie Stanley’s Famous Poem”, [Text from: Lincoln Sentinel, Nov. 30, 1905], Lincoln County Kansas History & Genealogy, Website Coordinators: Tracee Hamilton, Bill and Diana Sowers, KSGenWeb Project, Blue Skyways: A Service of the State Library of Kansas. (Accessed skyways.lib.ks.us on June 26, 2012) link
[NYAN] 1908 May 23, New York Times, QUERIES, Page BR299, New York. (ProQuest)
[HTBS] 1911, More Heart Throbs, Volume 2, “What is Success” by Bessie A. Stanley, Page 1 and 2, Chapple Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts, [Page images are displayed on the blog CoolSpark, Webpage title: “Success: Finding a Gem among the Litter in the Literature”, Webpage date: February 24, 2007, Webpage author: Chuck Anastasia] (Accessed icoolspark.blogspot.com on June 26, 2012) link
[ALRE] 1966 April 16, The Hartford Courant, Ann Landers’ Advice: Wedlock Deadlock – Love Or Money, Page 8, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
[ALHF] 1980 January 3, The Washington Post, Ann Landers, page B6, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
[ALBS] 1984 September 15, Washington Post, Ann Landers, Page C2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)