If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again. Then Quit. There’s No Use Being a Damn Fool About It

W. C. Fields? Stephen Leacock? Justin J. Burns? Henry Morgan? George Burns? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A well-known saying about persistence has become an energyless cliché:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The following parody version is usually attributed to the famous comedian W. C. Fields:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.

Did Fields create this twisted proverb?

Quote Investigator: Based on current evidence QI believes that it is unlikely W. C. Fields wrote or said the statement above. He died in 1946, and the earliest known instance of the quotation attributed to him was published in September 1949. An anonymous version of the saying was already in circulation by 1946. Details are given further below.

A very similar joke was crafted by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and published in 1917. QI hypothesizes that the 1940s quip evolved from Leacock’s words. Here is an excerpt from his comical essay “Simple Stories of Success or How to Succeed in Life”: 1

According to all the legends and story books the principal factor in success is perseverance. Personally, I think there is nothing in it. If anything, the truth lies the other way.

There is an old motto that runs, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This is nonsense. It ought to read—”If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit at once.”

If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it. Try something else while there is yet time.

In September 1917 a Flint, Michigan newspaper printed a short filler item with a parody saying: 2

Motto of the Russian army: If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit again.

In 1925 the Buffalo Evening News of Buffalo, New York reprinted Stephen Leacock’s essay which included the excerpt given previously. The following title was bannered across the top of the page: 3

“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Quit, Quit at Once”

In April 1946 a version of the saying under investigation was printed in a trade magazine called Commercial Car Journal. A page titled “Laugh It Off” presented a collection of jokes compiled by Skag Shannon. This instance used the word “silly” instead of “damn fool” and the words were attributed to an anonymous “Fireman”: 4

Our Fireman says, “If you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then stop. No use being silly about it.”

The day after the death of W. C. Fields in December 1946 the Associated Press news service released an obituary that included a discussion of lawsuits that were filed by Fields and his physician over compensation. Fields lost the lawsuit, and he appealed the decision. Interestingly, Fields was quoted using a simple instance of the cliché maxim. He did not employ the derisive quotation that has been attributed to him in modern times: 5

“I struck out this time,” Fields told reporters, “but next time I’ll hit a home run. Onward and upward’s my motto. Try, try again.” He appealed and the judgment was pared to $2000.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In July 1948 a real estate company published an advertisement in a New York newspaper that included an instance of the quip. This version also used the word “silly” instead of “damn fool”. The last phrase “BUZZ BURNS” was a directive to call Justin J. Burns, the proprietor of the real estate company: 6

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Then stop. There’s no use being silly about it!
Especially if it’s trying to sell your own real estate, because your best bet is to BUZZ BURNS.

In September 1948 the comical adage was printed in an Oakland, California newspaper as a filler item with an acknowledgment to a magazine but without an attribution: 7

OLD SAW RESHARPENED
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then stop. There’s no use being silly about it.—Magazine Digest.

In September 1949 a newspaper journalist named Ernest Dewey published a version of the humorous saying and attributed the words to W. C. Fields. This is the earliest instance located by QI linking the expression to Fields: 8

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try—and then quit! No use being a fool about it.”—W. C. Fields.

In October 1949 the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest printed an instance of the saying in a feature called “Quotable Quotes” and credited W. C. Fields: 9

W. C. Fields: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.

Issues of Reader’s Digest were distributed in advance of the cover date; hence, the October 1949 issue was available in the latter part of September. It is possible that the September 25, 1949 citation was influenced by the Reader’s Digest quotation though the wording was different.

In 1952 Bennett Cerf, the prodigious collector of anecdotes and quotations, presented a version of the saying in his syndicated newspaper column: 10

The late W.C. Fields, asked to speak at a public school graduation ceremony, told the little tykes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try again. Then give the whole thing up. There’s no use being a fool about it!”

In 1954 the jape was credited to the comedian Henry Morgan who appeared on the television show “I’ve Got a Secret”: 11

Henry Morgan of I’ve Got a Secret says that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then stop. After all, there’s no use being silly about it!

In April 1955 a variant of the expression was printed as a filler item in a North Carolina newspaper under the title “When To Quit”: 12

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Then quit. There’s no use getting obstinate about it.—Dorchester (Wis.) Clarion.

In May 1955 another variant of the joke without attribution was used in a front page feature called “Today’s Chuckle” in a New York newspaper: 13

If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Then quit. There’s no use being mule-headed about it.

In 1956 an article in the Sunday newspaper magazine “The American Weekly” attributed an instance of the remark to the comedian George Burns: 14

“If at first you don’t succeed,” says George Burns, “try, try again. Then stop—there’s no use being silly about it”

In conclusion, QI believes that Stephen Leacock should be credited with a precursor version of this saying. The expressions using the words “silly” or “fool” were constructed later, and no particular person stands out as the originator. The quotation ascribed to W. C. Fields was assigned to him after his death, and based on current evidence the linkage is very weak.

(Great thanks to the librarian at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado for help with the 1946 Commercial Car Journal citation.)

Update on August 12, 2013: The citation dated April 1946 was added.

Notes:

  1. 1917 Copyright, Frenzied Fiction by Stephen Leacock, Simple Stories of Success or How to Succeed in Life, Start Page 243, Quote Page 245, John Lane Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1917 September 13, Flint Journal, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Flint, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1925 December 5, Buffalo Evening News, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Quit, Quit at Once” by Stephen Leacock, Quote Page 6, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1946 April, Commercial Car Journal, Volume 71, “Laugh It Off” with Skag Shannon, Start Page 102, Quote Page 102, Column 2, Chilton Class Journal Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans from the University of Denver library system; great thanks to the helpful librarian)
  5. 1946 December 26, Boston Daily Globe (Boston Globe), “W. C. Fields Dies at 66; Famous for Nose, Quips”, (Associated Press), Start Page 1, Quote Page 10, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  6. 1948 July 31, Lockport Union Sun, Section: Classified Advertising, (Advertisement for Real Estate Company: Justin J. Burns), Quote Page 9, Column 7, Lockport, New York. (Old Fulton)
  7. 1948 September 30, Oakland Tribune, [Freestanding Saying], Quote Page 40, Column 8, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1949 September 25, Hutchinson News Herald, Mona’s A Mite Malicious With Hucksters Of Shattered Dreams by Ernest Dewey, Quote Page 16 (NArch Page 18), Column 1, Hutchinson, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1949 October, Reader’s Digest, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 52, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper)
  10. 1952 October 22, Aberdeen Daily News, Bennett Cerf (Syndicated Column), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1954 October 11, Times-Picayune, “The Column On the Square: ‘Man Who Came to Dinner’ Next CBS-TV Colorcast” by Ed Brooks, Quote Page 44, Column 8, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1955 April 1, Greensboro Record, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page A-14, Column 7, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  13. 1955 May 20, Long Island Star-Journal, Today’s Chuckle, Page 1, Column 8, Long Island City, New York. (Old Fulton)
  14. 1956 April 1, Plain Dealer, Section: The American Weekly, The Wit Parade by E. E. Kenyon, Quote Page 13, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)