Ralph Waldo Emerson? Muriel Strode? Fred V. Hawley? Andrew Taylor Still? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A powerful inspirational quote about choosing your own destiny is often attributed to the notable philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. Here are two versions:
Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
I am confused because I cannot find these words in any of the famous essays by Emerson. The words are occasionally ascribed to others such as George Eliot, Robert Frost, and George Bernard Shaw. Could you tell me who should be credited?
Quote Investigator: Expert Ralph Keyes in the “The Quote Verifier” noted that the expression was commonly attributed to Emerson. Yet, Keyes declared that “No source of this quotation has ever been found in his works”. 1 QI concurs that there is no substantive linkage of this saying to Emerson.
The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a poem published in August 1903 titled “Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers” by Muriel Strode. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.
Infinitely will I trust nature’s instincts and promptings, but I will not call my own perversions nature.
Each receives but that which is his own returning.
Each hears but that which is the echo of his own call.
Each feels but that which has eaten into his own heart.
I do not bemoan misfortune. To me there is no misfortune. I welcome whatever comes; I go out gladly to meet it.
It is no stigma to wear rags; the disgrace is in continuing to wear them.
The above citation and some others in this article were located by top researcher Barry Popik. 3
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Muriel Strode’s statement was metaphorical, but an entertaining literal example of this advice appeared in a book titled “Picturesque Canada: The Country As It Was and Is” in 1882. When traveling with horses and wagons it was best to avoid the primary trail whenever rains fell: 4
There is no road but the trail. Hard, black and glittering in dry weather, only let the least shower fall, and the black loam sticks in a wonderful way to the wheels and the horses’ hoofs. The best course then is to turn aside to the grass on either hand, and make a new trail for yourself, and pray for dry weather. A furious storm of rain or perhaps hail will come with little notice, accompanied with thunder and lightning absolutely terrific to those who have experienced only the mild electric disturbances of the eastern provinces.
In 1901 a religious journal printed a passage showing that the basic metaphor employing a “beaten or an untrodden path” was already in use in the spiritual domain. However, the statement and intention of the following passage was different: 5
Even the desire to be novel, and leave the beaten path, may lead to a kind of imitation originality or eccentricity. But he whom the Spirit really guides cares nothing whether he is in a beaten or an untrodden path. Patiently and fearlessly, wherever it may lead him, in the broad highway or across the dangerous ravine, he follows his own star…
In August 1903 a poem by Muriel Strode was printed in the journal “The Open Court”. It began with the following memorable line as mentioned previously:
I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.
In September 1903 a national conference of Unitarian Churches was held in Atlantic City, New Jersey. A speaker named Reverend Fred V. Hawley referred to exuberantly singing a version of the saying: 6
In the minute that is left let me say that what we need most on those great Western prairies is not primarily more money or more meeting-houses, but a love and a fidelity enthusiastic enough to find a way or make one,—men who are not hunting for a place or a pulpit, but who, in a splendid enthusiasm, can sing:—
“I need not follow the beaten path;
I do not hunt for any path;
I will go where there is no path,
And leave a trail.”
In 1905 Strode released “My Little Book of Prayer” which included the first line of her poem and several additional lines: 7
I WILL not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.
INFINITELY will I trust nature’s instincts and promptings, but I will not call my own perversions nature.
In August 1905 the Annual Meeting of the American Osteopathic Association was held in Colorado, and an instance of the saying similar to that used at the 1903 church conference was spoken during an address of welcome by an osteopath named Paul M. Peck. The expression was credited to Andrew Taylor Still who was the founder of osteopathy: 8
When our revered founder Dr. Still, first gave birth to the thought—
I need not follow the beaten path,
I do not hunt for any path,
I will go where there is no path
And leave a trail,
the firm belief that he was right must have sustained him throughout the period of martyrdom and oppression.
In July 1906 an instance of the saying was printed in the “New York State Journal of Medicine” with credit given to Muriel Strode: 9
I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.—Strode.
In 1914 the prominent inventor Alexander Graham Bell delivered a speech that contained a thematically related suggestion for his listeners. More information about Bell’s quotation is available here: 10
Don’t keep forever on the public road, going only where others have gone and following one after the other like a flock of sheep. Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do so you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before.
In 1983 an instance matching the popular modern version was printed in a yearbook of the University of Michigan Medical School. The expression appeared on the page of a student and was probably selected by that student. No ascription was given: 11
Do not follow where the path may lead. Go, instead, where there is no path and leave a trail.
In 1984 a newswire article about a country singer-songwriter named Bill Anderson described a picture displaying a shortened instance of the expression: 12
One picture over his desk shows two skiers taking different runs down a snow-covered mountain. Its message sums up Anderson’s 30-year career in show business: “Don’t follow where the path may lead. Instead, go where there is no path.”
In January 1992 an academic periodical called the “Middle School Journal” printed the saying with an attribution to Ralph Waldo Emerson. This was the earliest linkage to the luminary seen by QI: 13
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
In September 1992 a large sign in a school in Pennsylvania presented the adage credited to Emerson: 14
In foot-high red cursive letters, a new sign above the Martin Meylin Middle School office in Lampeter bears these words from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
In 1999 the syndicated newspaper feature “Cryptoquote” printed a solution that was ascribed to Emerson: 15
Saturday’s Cryptoquote: DO NOT GO WHERE THE PATH MAY LEAD. GO INSTEAD WHERE THERE IS NO PATH, AND LEAVE A TRAIL — RALPH WALDO EMERSON
The connection to Muriel Strode has not been forgotten. For example, in 2006 a real estate advertisement in a Chicago, Illinois newspaper credited an instance of the expression to Strode: 16
“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”
In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit Muriel Strode with the originating the statement published in August 1903. In September 1903 Fred V. Hawley spoke a different version of the saying, but it is possible that he had already encountered Strode’s version. Perhaps future research will clarify the provenance. It is clear that the linkage of the saying to Ralph Waldo Emerson occurred many years after his death and is not substantive.
Image Notes: Ski trail from charbonnelbruno at Pixabay. Image has been cropped.
(Great thanks to Sam LoPresto whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Wikicitas for the query about a thematically related quotation.)
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 56, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1903 August, The Open Court: Devoted to the Science of Religion, the Religion of Science, and the Extension of the Religious Parliament Idea, Volume 17, Number 8, Section: Miscellaneous, Wind-Wafted Wild Flowers by Muriel Strode, Start Page 505, Quote Page 505, The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”, Date on website: November 02, 2010, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik com on June 18, 2014) link ↩
- 1882, Picturesque Canada: The Country As It Was and Is, Edited by George Monro Grant (Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario), Volume 1, Chapter: The North-West: Winnipeg to Rocky Mountains by Principal Grant, Quote Page 328 and 329, Published by Belden Bros., Toronto, Canada. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1901, Present Day Papers: A Monthly Review for the discussion of Modern Thought and its application to Christian faith and practice, Edited by J. Wilhelm Rowntree, Volume 4, The Work of the Spirit by May Kendall, Start Page 4, Quote Page 12, Published by Headley Brothers, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1903, Official Report of the Proceedings of the Twentieth Meeting of the National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches, Held at Atlantic City, New Jersey, September 21-24, 1903, Missionary Addressees: Address of Rev. Fred V. Hawley, Start Page 178, Quote Page 182, Geo. H. Ellis Company, Printers, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1905 (Copyright 1904), My Little Book of Prayer by Muriel Strode, Unnumbered Page, (Page 6 after copyright page), The Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1905 October, The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, Volume 5, Number 2, (Official Report of the Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Meeting of the American Osteopathic Association, Denver, Colorado, August 14-18, 1905), (Remarks of Paul M. Peck, San Antonio, Texas), Start Page 46, Quote Page 47, Published by The American Osteopathic Association, Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1906 July, New York State Journal of Medicine, Volume 6, Number 7, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 293, Column 2, Published by the Medical Society of the State of New York, Brooklyn, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1914 June, The National Geographic Magazine, Volume 25, Number 6, Discovery and Invention by Alexander Graham Bell, (Address to the graduating class of the Friends’ School in Washington D.C. by Alexander Graham Bell on May 22, 1914), Start Page 649, Quote Page 650, Published by National Geographic Society. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1983, Aequanimitas (The University of Michigan Medical School Yearbook), Page for Barbara N. Wynn M.D., (Quotation without ascription), Unnumbered Page (Quote Page 171 by GB), University of Michigan Medical and Nursing Schools, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1984 December 2, The Philadelphia Inquirer, He’s a Country-Music Star Who Has Always Followed His Own Path by Mark Schwed (United Press International), Quote Page H18, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1992 January, Middle School Journal, Volume 23, Number 3, Theme Issue: Middle School Curriculum, (Picture caption), Quote Page 42, Published by: Association for Middle Level Education AMLE. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1992 September 1, Lancaster New Era, Section: NEWS, Article: L-S board hears many arguments against year-round school plan, Author: Joe Byrne, Quote Page A01, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1999 March 8, The Rockford Register Star, Cryptoquote by King Features, Quote Page 11D, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 2006 January 27, Daily Herald, Section 7, (Century 21 Real Estate Advertisement for Christine Klein), Quote Page 8, Chicago, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive) ↩