Mark Twain? Lilian Bell? Elbert Hubbard? Frank Ward O’Malley? Bruce Calvert? H. L. Mencken? Charles Dickens? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement of exasperation and resignation has been attributed to the luminary Mark Twain, the aphorist Elbert Hubbard, and the journalist Frank Ward O’Malley:
Life is just one damn thing after another.
This situation is confusing. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong evidence appeared in 1909 when several instances were published in periodicals. In addition, a book titled “The Concentrations of Bee” by Lilian Bell included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1909, The Concentrations of Bee by Lilian Bell, Quote Page 241, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
“Bob has a motto on his wall which says ‘Life is just one damned thing after another!'” said Jimmie. But I refused to smile. I was too distinctly annoyed.
The lead time for publishing a book has traditionally been lengthy; hence, Lilian Bell may have written her novel before 1909. Bell stated within the text that the adage was already being posted on walls.
On March 5, 1909 “The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader” of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania printed the small filler item shown below.[ref] 1909 March 5, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)[/ref] This was the earliest instance known to QI with a complete date; it was located by top researcher Bill Mullins, and it was included in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”:[ref] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 144, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [/ref]
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1839 the major literary figure Charles Dickens released “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”. A character named Mr. Mantalini employed vivid figurative language to describe his unhappy life. The thematically marching expression emphasized repetition and used a form of the word “damn”:[ref] 1839, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, Quote Page 616, Chapman and Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
“I am always turning, I am perpetually turning, like a demd old horse in a demnition mill. My life is one demd horrid grind!”
In 1884 an author using the single name Rita stated that burden of life was “one weight after another” though she fastened blame on the individual and not on external forces:[ref] 1884 January 26, Household Words: A Weekly Journal, My Lord Conceit ( A Serial Story) by Rita, Start Page 246, Quote Page 248, Column 2, Published by Charles Dickens & Evans, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
Human lives are full of such errors, so full that one can but hope for more pitiful judgment hereafter than ever we meet from our fellow-men below; so full that the burden of life is but one weight after another of the foolish, impulsive, shortsighted actions that make up the sum-total of that life’s arithmetic; so full that the only wonder is we glean even a little glimpse of happiness here and there, a something to cheer us with hope, or sweeten our days with sunshine, lest indeed we grow quite desperate, or quite evil, or quite mad.
In 1901 a book titled “Practical and Scientific Self-Culture” by Dr. G. B. Moore included a partial match for the expression. The author criticized pleasure-seekers and asserted that they would tire of “one thing after another”. But Moore’s statement did not use the intensifier “damn”:[ref] 1901, Practical and Scientific Self-Culture by Dr. G. B. Moore, Quote Page 35, Published by The Self-Culture Society, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
Seeking only his own pleasure, he finds that joy is ever on the wing, and his life becomes a perpetual chase after vanity. The true happiness of life which lies all around him he passes heedlessly by; it has no exclusive connection with himself, and, therefore, is outside his range of vision. He tires of one thing after another, and long before he reaches old age has exhausted the interest of life.
The heartfelt statement of Mr. Mantalini in the novel by Charles Dickens was not forgotten. In 1903 a newspaper advertisement in Winnipeg, Manitoba presented a concise version although the spelling of Mantalini’s name was inaccurate:[ref] 1903 February 9, The Winnipeg Daily Tribune, (Advertisement by S. Harvey & Son), Quote Page 10, Column 5, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]
“Life is just one dimnition grind”
Said poor Mantininl. That’s what a good many people think to-day. How they would be cheered up if they would only drink BROWNIE TEA.
In 1909 a character in a novel by Lilian Bell saw the following words as a motto on a wall as noted previously:
Life is just one damned thing after another!
On March 5, 1909 the following appeared in a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania newspaper.[ref] 1909 March 5, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)[/ref] The same item was printed in a Globe, Arizona newspaper on March 14, 1909:[ref] 1909 March 14, Daily Arizona Silver Belt, Shifting Slugs, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Globe, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]
(A new definition.)
One damn thing after another.
On May 19, 1909 a coal company advertisement used an instance with “darn” instead of “damn”:[ref] 1909 May 19, St. Albans (Daily) Messenger, (Advertisement from W. B. Fonda Co.), Quote Page 2, Column 4, St. Albans, Vermont. (Genealogybank)[/ref]
LIFE IS JUST ONE DARN THING AFTER ANOTHER
A successful Coal business is just one good square ton of Coal after another. Price is the lowest just now. May we enter your order?
In August 1909 “The Topeka Daily Capital” of Topeka, Kansas printed a variant in the sports section of the paper:[ref] 1909 August 12, The Topeka Daily Capital, Baseball News and Gossip, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Topeka, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]
According to the Lincoln News the ball team up there has adopted the following motto: “Baseball is just one damn thing after another.” The motto has been hung on the wall at the baseball headquarters as a reminder for the players.
In December 1909 “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest” edited by Elbert Hubbard printed the following item without ascription:[ref] 1909 December, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Edited by Elbert Hubbard, Volume 30, Number 1, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 32, Published by The Roycrofters, East Aurora, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
Life is just one damn thing after another.
In March 1910 an article in “Wood Craft” magazine by James F. Hobart credited the saying to a man named Bruce Calvert:[ref] 1910 March, Wood Craft, Surenow’s Accident at the Circular Saw by James F Hobart, Start Page 165, Quote Page 167, Column 2, The Gardner Publishing Co., Cleveland. (HathiTrust Full View) link link [/ref]
“I would like to have my shop free from accident of every kind, both to operators and to stock, but I don’t suppose that state of things will be actually brought to pass. It’s too much like a dream of the next world to find something in this one which is not like Bruce Calvert’s idea of life which he says is: ‘Just one damned thing after another.'”
In October 1910 a trade journal called “The National Provisioner” printed a verbally ornate instance of the adage:[ref] 1910 October 15, The National Provisioner, Volume 43, Chicago Section, Start Page 34, Quote Page 34, Column 1, Food Trade Publishing Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
It is better to be a “has been” than a “never was,” says Uncle Joseph, and adds “What is life, anyway, but one doggoned, golbinged, dodrotted thing after another !!!***???!!!???!! anyhow?”
In 1919 the commentator and scholar H. L. Mencken published “The American Language: A Preliminary Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States”, and Mencken implausibly attributed the remark to Mark Twain:[ref] 1919, The American Language: A Preliminary Inquiry Into the Development of English in the United States by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: IX – Miscellanea, Start Page 301, Quote Page 303, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
Bret Harte, I believe, was the author of “No check-ee, no shirt-ee,” General W. T. Sherman is commonly credited with “War is hell,” and Mark Twain with “Life is one damn thing after another.”
In 1926 a novel called “ODTAA” by John Masefield was published. The acronym “One Damn Thing after Another” was not directly specified within the text, but contemporary book reviewers were aware of the explanation for the title.[ref] 1926, ODTAA by John Masefield, Published by The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]
In 1930 the noteworthy poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a letter that included an entertaining reaction to the adage:[ref] 1972 (Copyright 1952), Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edited by Allan Ross Macdougall, (Letter to Arthur Davison Ficke dated October 24, 1930), Quote Page 240, Published by Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut. (Verified on paper)[/ref]
It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another—it’s one damn thing over & over—there’s the rub—first you get sick—then you get sicker. . .
In 1932 after the death of the journalist Frank Ward O’Malley some newspaper articles attributed the saying to him:[ref] 1932 October 20, Riverside Daily Press, Frank Ward O’Malley Dies in Tours, France, Quote Page 15, Column 8, Riverside, California. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]
O’Malley was credited with authorship of the famous phrase, “Life is just one damned thing after another.”
In 1942 H. L. Mencken released his massive reference “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. He re-examined the origin of the saying and linked an instance containing the word “simply” to O’Malley and Hubbard:[ref] 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken [Henry Louis Mencken], Section: Life, Quote Page 694, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]
Life is simply one damned thing after another.
Ascribed to FRANK WARD O’MALLEY (1876-1932); also to ELBERT HUBBARD (1859-1915)
In 1943 “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” by Evan Esar presented some humorous variations:[ref] 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 40 and 110, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]
Camp life is just one canned thing after another.
Life is just one fool thing after another;
love is just two fool things after each other.
In conclusion, the saying emerged in print in multiple places in 1909. The author Lilian Bell placed it in a novel, but the adage was displayed on a wall sign without ascription. The earliest newspaper appearances in March 1909 printed the words without attribution. Based on current information QI would label the saying anonymous.
The saying was popularized by Lilian Bell, Elbert Hubbard, and H. L. Mencken. Also, Edna St. Vincent Millay constructed a variant. The ascription to Mark Twain was not substantive.
(Great thanks to the discussants Bill Mullins, Dan Goncharoff, Charles Doyle, Alison Murie, and Victor Steinbok. Special thanks to Mullins for locating the Wilkes-Barre citation.)