Pogo? Porky Pine? Walt Kelly? Timothy Ferris? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The comic strip “Pogo” by Walt Kelly combined beautiful artwork with entertaining wordplay and satire. Kelly also expressed a delightful sense of wonder as in the following supposed remark about the possibility of extraterrestrial life:
Thar’s only two possibilities: Thar is life out there in the universe which is smarter than we are, or we’re the most intelligent life in the universe. Either way, it’s a mighty sobering thought.
I have been unable to find a strip containing this text. The word “thar” does not accord with the speech patterns of the denizens of Okefenokee Swamp. Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: This was a difficult question because QI knows of no comprehensive databases containing the text of Walt Kelly’s oeuvre. Also, the computer algorithms that convert the dialog in daily comic strip bubbles into searchable text do not work well. Nevertheless, QI has located the most likely origin of this quotation.
On June 20, 1959 the syndicated “Pogo” strip published three panels showing the characters Porky Pine and Pogo the Possum. Porky Pine speculated about beings on other planets: 1
Porky Pine: I BEEN READIN’ ‘BOUT HOW MAYBE THEY IS PLANETS PEOPLED BY FOLKS WITH AD-VANCED BRAINS.
Porky Pine: ON THE OTHER HAND, MAYBE WE GOT THE MOST BRAINS…MAYBE OUR INTELLECTS IS THE UNIVERSE’S MOST AD-VANCED.
Porky Pine: EITHER WAY, IT’S A MIGHTY SOBERIN’ THOUGHT.
The overall semantics and the punchline matched the modern statement, and QI conjectures that a flawed memory of Porky Pine’s monologue led to the creation of a misquotation.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
“Pogo” was an impressively long-lived comic strip, and the artwork and text of June 20, 1959 was reprinted in multiple newspapers on July 28, 1973. 2
In February 1974 the author of a letter published in “The Ithaca Journal” of Ithaca, New York attempted to reconstruct the words of the strip, and the result was a paraphrase. In addition, the remark was incorrectly ascribed to the character Pogo instead of Porky Pine. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 3
I want to share my recollection of a Walt Kelly cartoon, in which Pogo is sitting and mulling “life out there.” He says something like this: “You know, some people say that there are other folks out there. Other people say that we’re the only ones. Either way, it’s a mighty sobering thought.”
An instance of the modern statement appears on the website halexandria.org, and a copyright notice at the bottom of the page names Dan Sewell Ward. A Wayback Machine snapshot indicates that the statement was present in June 2003: 4
An additional famous quote from Kelly was Porky Porcupine — in commenting on the possibilities/probabilities of extraterrestrials — said, “Thar’s only two possibilities: Thar is life out there in the universe which is smarter than we are, or we’re the most intelligent life in the universe. Either way, it’s a mighty sobering thought.”
In 2004 best-selling science writer Timothy Ferris published an article about the space shuttle program titled “Stumbling into Space” in “The New York Review of Books”. One of the footnotes contained the correct text of the 1959 “Pogo” comic strip. Interestingly, the footnote pointed to the 1973 reprint instead of the original strip: 5
Porkypine: “I been readin’ ’bout how maybe they is planets peopled by folks with advanced brains. On the other hand, maybe we got the most brains… maybe our intellects is the universe’s most advanced. Either way, it’s a mighty soberin’ thought.” Pogo, July 28, 1973.
In conclusion, Walt Kelly should be credited with the words he wrote for the character Porky Pine in the Pogo comic strip in 1959. In later years paraphrases were constructed and improperly assigned to Kelly and his characters.
Image Notes: Flying saucer depicted by MasterTux at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe and Fred R. Shapiro whose inquiries about different Pogo quotations led QI to explore the Wikiquote webpage for Walt Kelly which in the past listed the quotation presented in the question section at the start of this article. This incorrect quotation inspired QI’s discovery of the correct quotation. Special thanks to discussants John Baker, George Thompson, Robin Hamilton, Wilson Gray, Bill Mullins, Jeff Prucher, Mark Mandel, S. M. Colowick, Anton Sherwood, and Todd Mason.)
- 1959 June 20, The Honolulu Advertiser, Pogo Comic Strip by Walt Kelly, Quote Page B3, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1973 July 28, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Pogo Comic Strip, Quote Page 3B, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1974 February 11, The Ithaca Journal, ‘Either Way, a Sobering Thought’, (Letter to the editor from R. Wade Schuette, Ithaca, New York), Quote Page 11, Column 2, Ithaca, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- Internet Archive: Way Back Machine, Web capture date: June 4, 2003, Archive download URL: www.halexandria.org/dward370.htm, Title: Pogo Possum. (Accessed at web.archive.org on February 18, 2017) link ↩
- 2004 April 29, The New York Review of Books, Stumbling into Space by Timothy Ferris, (Book Review of “Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report” and “Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age” by Greg Klerkx), Published by The New York Review of Books, New York. (Online archive at nybooks.com; accessed February 18, 2017) link ↩