Anton Chekhov? Clifford Odets? Bing Crosby? George Seaton? Jean Webster? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Anton Chekhov, the brilliant Russian writer of stories and plays, reportedly said the following:
Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.
I have been unable to locate a source for this statement. I even asked my Slavicist friend to look for it in the original Russian works, and she was unable to find it. Would you please examine its provenance?
Quote Investigator: QI believes that this quotation and ascription are incorrect. The statement entered circulation because of a sequence of at least two errors.
The first appearance of a partial match for the quotation was a line spoken by Bing Crosby during the 1954 film “The Country Girl”. Crosby played a character named Frank Elgin who was an alcoholic attempting to return to show business. A self-destructive episode of drinking in Boston nearly derailed the comeback attempt, and near the end of the film the character discussed his probability of achieving success. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
I faced a crisis up there in Boston, and I got away with it. Just about anybody can face a crisis. It’s that everyday living that’s rough.
I’m not sure I can lick it, but I think I got a chance.
“The Country Girl” movie was based on a play written by Clifford Odets which was adapted to film by George Seaton. Thus, the line above was connected to Odets, and this was a key step in the multistep process of misattribution as shown by the next citation.
In 1971 a textbook titled “The Tradition of the Theatre” which was edited by the educators Peter Bauland and William Ingram was published. This volume was an anthology of plays, and it included a translation of Anton Chekhov’s famous drama “The Cherry Orchard”. The textbook authors wrote an introduction to the play, and the quotation under investigation was printed in this preparative text. The words were ascribed to the American dramatist Clifford Odets and not to Anton Chekhov: 2
A character in a Hollywood film of the 1950’s casually drops this line: “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” The screenplay was by Clifford Odets, America’s chief inheritor of the dramatic tradition of Anton Chekhov, and in that one line, he epitomized the lesson of his master.
QI conjectures that the quotation above was constructed from a flawed memory of the line in “The Country Girl” film. The textbook referred to a screenplay by Odets, but as noted previously the screenplay was by Seaton, and the play by Odets. QI has examined the edition of the play published in 1951, and the film line was absent. In addition, the modern quotation was absent; hence, QI would credit Seaton with the line. 3
Another error contributed to the creation of the misquotation. A confused or inattentive reader assigned the quotation above to Chekhov instead of Odets. This combination of faults produced the expression and ascription presented by the questioner.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
An interesting precursor appeared in the 1912 epistolary novel “Daddy-Long-Legs” by U.S. writer Jean Webster. The following words were from the main character Jerusha ‘Judy’ Abbott: 4
Anybody can rise to a crisis and face a crushing tragedy with courage, but to meet the petty hazards of the day with a laugh—I really think that requires spirit.
It’s the kind of character that I am going to develop. I am going to pretend that all life is just a game which I must play as skillfully and fairly as I can. If I lose, I am going to shrug my shoulders and laugh—also if I win.
The first instance of the misattribution to Chekhov that QI has found was printed in a 1981 compilation called “The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations”. No citation was specified for the quotation: 5
Any idiot can face a crisis — it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.
This influential reference work has been released in many editions and revised several times. The same quote is present in the 1986 enlarged edition of “The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations” 6 and in the renamed 1987 edition of the “Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations”. 7 These volumes act as powerful vectors for transmission of the statement coupled with the Chekhov ascription.
In 1985 the quote was used as an epigraph in a syndicated newspaper column covering the game of bridge called “The Aces” by Bobby Wolff: 8
Any idiot can face a crisis it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.
— Anton Chekhov
In 1990 the syndicated columnist Molly Ivins employed the quotation and credited Chekhov in the pages of Mother Jones magazine: 9
“Wait until we see him face a real crisis,” they say in D.C. But as Chekhov once observed, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
In 1999 the New York Times published a short profile of an advertising executive who recited the quote during his interview: 10
Peter G. Krivkovich finds a small slip of paper on his desk—wedged somewhere between the advertising memorabilia and the Asian artifacts—with a few lines scribbled in red ink. The phrase, he says, comes from Chekhov, and it may be a kind of Dilbertian take on the pressures of everyday business life.
“Any idiot can face a crisis,” Mr. Krivkovich, 52, the president and chief executive at the Cramer-Krasselt advertising agency in Chicago, reads aloud. “It’s the day-to-day living that can wear you out.”
In conclusion, there is no substantive evidence that Chekhov wrote or said the quotation under examination. One mechanism for generating misquotations is based on paraphrasing: a quotation is replaced by a different expression that is roughly similar in meaning. QI believes that this occurred to the line in “The Country Girl”.
Another mechanism is based on the misreading of a passage that contains two names adjacent to a quotation. Sometimes the wrong name is chosen, and an incorrect ascription is created and propagated. QI believes that this also occurred here.
(Great thanks to Michael Singer who emailed a query on this topic which caused QI to construct this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Frank Daniels who told QI about the important partial match in the script of the movie “The Country Girl”. Daniels also listened to the LA Theatre Works production of the play and examined an online copy of the script of the play. The play scene corresponding to the movie scene did not contain a match for the quotation. Also, special thanks to the St Augustine’s Seminary Library in Toronto, Ontario and the kind librarian who verified the 1981 cite. In addition, thanks to Professor Corey Robin who used this quotation as an example in his intriguing essay titled “Who Really Said That?” at “The Chronicle Review” of “The Chronicle of Higher Education”. Further thanks to Kate Vinée who told QI about the 1912 citation.)
Update History: On May 2, 2016 the citation for “The Country Girl” was added, and some sections of the article were rewritten including the conclusion. On May 29, 2016 the 1951 citation to the play text of “The Country Girl” was added together with the fact that QI was unable to find the film line in the play. On November 15, 2016 the introductory section was rewritten for stylistic reasons. On November 21, 2020 the 1912 citation was added.
- 1954 Copyright (Released 1955), The Country Girl, Movie from Paramount Pictures, Based on a play by Clifford Odets, Written for the screen by George Seaton, Character Frank Elgin played by Bing Crosby, Time Location: 1 hour 37 mins of 1 hour 44 mins total. (Verified with Amazon Video Streaming) ↩
- 1971 (Copyright), The Tradition of the Theatre, Edited by Peter Bauland and William Ingram, (Introduction to “The Cherry Orchard”), Start Page 405, Quote Page 405, Allyn and Bacon, Inc., Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1951, The Country Girl: A Play in Three Acts, Clifford Odets, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1912, Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, Quote Page 78 and 79, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1981 (Copyright), The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Bores and Boredom, Quote Page 39, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto, Canada. (Thanks to the librarian at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto, Ontario who visually verified this citation) ↩
- 1986 (Copyright), The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations, Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Bores and Boredom, Quote Page 54, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1987, Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations: Revised and Enlarged, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Bores and Boredom, Quote Page 54, Barnes & Noble Books, Division of Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1985 July 15, Gettysburg Times, The Aces by Bobby Wolff, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1990 February-March, Mother Jones Magazine, Impolitic: Mimic Men by Molly Ivins, Start Page 8, Quote Page 57, Foundation for National Progress, San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1999 September 5, New York Times, “On My … Desk” by David Barboza, (Profile of Peter G. Krivkovich), Quote Page BU2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩