Three Things in Human Life Are Important. The First Is To Be Kind. The Second Is To Be Kind. And the Third Is To Be Kind

Henry James? Fred Rogers? Billy James? Leon Edel? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent American literary figure Henry James apparently crafted an expression with a three-fold repetition of the phrase “be kind”. The influential children’s television personality Fred Rogers has been credited with a similar statement. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A landmark biography of Henry James provides substantive evidence that he did construct this saying. There is also evidence that Fred Rogers employed an instance of this remark; however, Rogers credited James. See the 2003 citation given further below for details.

Henry James died in 1916, and in 1953 Leon Edel released the first installment of his monumental five volume biography of James. The final book titled “Henry James: The Master: 1901-1916” appeared in 1972. One chapter discussed Billy James who was the second son of William James; thus, Billy was the nephew of Henry James. Billy came to England to visit with his uncle in October 1902. Years later Billy spoke directly to Leon Edel while he was composing the biography; hence, the following passage about the visit was probably based on the testimony Billy gave to Edel. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

His vision was of a short, rotund man, with a quick sensibility and a boundless capacity for affection. What he carried away from his elderly uncle was the memory of hearing him say, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In February 1972 the “Chicago Tribune” published an evaluation of the fifth biographical volume. The reviewer reprinted the remark ascribed to Henry James but also highlighted the complexity of the author’s behavior: 2

When his nephew Billy, William James’s son, came for a visit in 1902, James told him: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

James’s kindness was limited in only one respect. Concerning the fiction produced by even the dearest of his friends he was the all-out professional; when people sent him their novels he assumed they did not want banal compliments in place of criticism.

The reviewer asserted that the harsh critical words directed at H. G. Wells by James eventually led to the rupture of their friendship and a counterattack. Wells published a novel titled “Boon” which caricatured Henry James. The two famously feuded about the purpose and nature of literature and the arts.

In 1987 the remark appeared in a collection called “Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations from All Ages”. Henry James received credit, but the editors did not provide a citation: 3

Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.
Henry James

In 1988 a columnist in “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut shared a slightly altered instance: 4

Writer Henry James said there were three things that were very important in life: “The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

In 2003 a collection of pieces under the title “Shakespeare Plays the Classroom” appeared. The television personality Fred Rogers received credit for a chapter called “Prologue: At Play in the Neighborhood”. The note at the beginning of the chapter explained how it was formed: 5

The piece has been edited from a conversation Mr. Rogers had with Stuart Omans and Alan Nordstrom, which turned out to be his last interview and thus perhaps his last words on play.

Fred Rogers did employ an instance of the saying, but he disclaimed credit:

When Henry James’s nephew was about to go off to school for the first time, he came to his uncle and asked, “Do you have any advice for me?” Henry James answered, “I have three pieces of advice. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” What memorable advice!

In February 2013 “The Chapel Hill News” of North Carolina attributed an instance to Rogers: 6

A great spiritual teacher once said: There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for reminding us.

In September 2013 a tweet from the PBS Parents account attributed the saying to Rogers. PBS is the Public Broadcasting Service in the U.S.: 7

There are three ways to ultimate success: The 1st way is to be kind. The 2nd way is to be kind. The 3rd way is to be kind.” –Mr. Rogers

In conclusion, QI believes that Henry James who died in 1916 should be credited with the quotation in the biographical volume published in 1972. The long delay does reduce the certainty of the ascription, but the biographer spoke with Billy James who heard the statement directly from Henry James. Fred Rogers employed a version of the saying shortly before he died according to the 2003 citation, but Rogers credited Henry James.

Image Notes: Illustration of handshake with words signifying cooperation, support, and help from johnhain at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Rachel Amaru whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Amaru noted that the saying had been attributed to both Henry James and Fred Rogers.)

Notes:

  1. 1978 (1972 Copyright), Henry James: The Master: 1901-1916 by Leon Edel, Book Two: The Beast in the Jungle, Chapter: Billy, Quote Page 124, A Discus Book: Avon Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1972 February 6, Chicago Tribune, Section: Book World, The greatest biography of the century by Joseph Epstein, (Book review of “Henry James: The Master: 1901-1916” by Leon Edel), Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1987 Copyright, Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations from All Ages Compiled by Jerome Agel and Walter D. Glanze, Quote Page 143, Perennial Library: Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1988 November 15, The Hartford Courant, Weatherwords: Kindly November making up for record chilly start to fall by Dr. Mel Goldstein, Quote Page C10, Column 4, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  5. 2003, Shakespeare Plays the Classroom, Edited by Stuart E. Omans and Maurice J. O’Sullivan, Prologue: At Play in the Neighborhood by Fred Rogers (“Mr. Rogers”), Start Page 13, Quote Page 20, Pineapple Press Inc., Sarasota, Florida. (Google Books Preview)
  6. 2013 February 17, The Chapel Hill News, Section: Chapel Hill News, Column: My View: Kindness makes a community by Lynden Harris (Correspondent), Quote Page 1A, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (NewsBank Access World News)
  7. Tweet, From: PBS Parents @pbsparents, Time: 12:45 PM, Date: September 5, 2013, Text: There are three ways to ultimate success: The 1st way is to be kind. The 2nd way is to be kind. The 3rd way is to be kind.” –Mr. Rogers (Accessed on twitter.com on September 20, 2018) link