Edna St. Vincent Millay? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A recent controversial article about critics and criticism in the New York Times contained a refreshingly blunt two-part quotation [DGNY]:
To writers, Edna St. Vincent Millay offered the wisest counsel. It rings down the decades. “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down,” she said. “If it is a good book, nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.”
Did Millay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, write this in an essay or letter? Did she say it as an impromptu remark? I have not been able to find a precise reference.
Quote Investigator: These two statements can be traced back to a letter that Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote to her mother, Cora B. Millay, in 1927. However, the second statement has been modified in an interesting way.
In 1927 Kathleen Millay, the sister of Edna and daughter of Cora, was planning to publish a book of poetry titled “The Evergreen Tree”. Her mother was anxious about this event, and she wrote a letter to Edna who responded. Bold type has been added [ESVM]:
Kathleen is about to publish a book, as thousands have done before her. A person who publishes a book wilfully appears before the populace with his pants down. And there’s nothing you can do about that.
Note that Edna used “his”, a male possessive adjective, even though the topic of the letter was her sister. Edna was constructing an adage that applied to any person, and she followed the convention of using male pronouns and adjectives to designate persons of unspecified gender. Edna continued her letter by emphasizing the maturity of her sister:
Kathleen is not a baby. She is a grown-up person quite able to take care of herself. And she has been struggling for years to be allowed to manage her own affairs. If she knew the kind of letter you wrote me in her behalf, she’d froth at the mouth & spit brimstone.
The next section of the letter contained the second sentence that is often quoted. This time Edna used the female pronoun “her”. This is understandable because she was discussing her sister:
Kathleen is about to publish a book. If it’s a good book, nothing can harm her. If it’s a bad book, nothing can help her. And all your stewing & fretting will accomplish just one end: it will make you very sick, & a nuisance to yourself …
So the second sentence in the widely distributed quotation has been modified. The word “harm” has been changed to “hurt”. Also, the pronoun “her” has been replaced by “him” in two places. Summarizing, the quotation was written by one female writer about another female writer, but the most common version in circulation uses the words “his” and “him”.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Millay’s missive was written in 1927, and it was published in a collection of her letters by 1952. In 1968 a newspaper in Omaha, Nebraska printed the first part of the quotation and credited her [VMOW]:
“A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”—Edna St. Vincent Millay
In 1979 a newspaper columnist in Florida replied to a correspondent who had a question about libel. The reply included a reformulated version of Millay’s quote using male referents [PFSF]:
In the long run — with apologies to Edna St. Vincent Millay — a person who produces or performs willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If he is good, nothing can hurt him. If he is bad, nothing can help him.
In 1980 a version of the saying with male referents was published in a popular collection called “The Writer’s Quotation Book” [WQJC]:
A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. . . . If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.
EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
In 2001 a biography titled “Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay” was released, and it included the text of the letter containing the quote. This text was the same as the one published in 1952 and reprinted in 1972 [VNNM] [ESVM].
In 2012 the New York Times printed the version of the quotation given by the questioner at the top of this article [DGNY].
In conclusion, the two parts of this quotation were written by Millay in a letter to her mother in 1927. However, the common modern version of the second part does differ somewhat from the original text. The word “hurt” has replaced “harm”, and masculine pronouns have replaced feminine pronouns.
(Thanks to Stephen whose query inspired the formulation of this question and motivated this exploration.)
[DGNY] 2012 August 15, New York Times, A Critic’s Case for Critics Who Are Actually Critical by Dwight Garner, New York. (Online at nytimes.com; Accessed August 27, 2012) [Note from NYT: A version of this article appeared in print on August 19, 2012, on page MM42 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: ‘Not Everyone Gets, or Deserves, a Gold Star’] link
[ESVM] 1972, Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edited by Allan Ross Macdougall, [Letter from Edna St. Vincent Millay to Mrs. Cora B. Millay; Date: May 25, 1927; Location: Steepletop, Austerlitz, New York] Quote Page 220, Greenwood Press, Publishers, Westport, Connecticut. [Originally Published in 1952 by Harper & Row, New York] (Verified on paper)
[VMOW] 1968 December 8, Omaha World Herald, [Freestanding quotation], Quote Page 38, Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
[PFSF] 1979 May 8, Evening Independent [St. Petersburg Independent], Independent Action by Pat C. Fenner: Reader Services Editor, Page 19-A, Column 5, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive)
[WQJC] 1980, The Writer’s Quotation Book, Edited by James Charlton, Quote Page 61, [Third printing August 1981: Gift copy from Blackwell North America], Pushcart Press, Yonkers, New York. (Verified on paper)
[VMNM] 2001, Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford, Quote Page 295, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)