Al Capp? Li’l Abner Yokum? Mammy Yokum?
Dear Quote Investigator: The comic strip “Li’l Abner” created by Al Capp achieved great popularity in the 1940s and 1950s. The setting was the fictional village of Dogpatch in the Southern United States. Al Capp employed an exaggerated Southern dialect which he spelled phonetically. Teenager Li’l Abner Yokum was the primary character, and his forceful mother was called Mammy Yokum. A homespun motto within the strip contended that good would prevail over evil because it was nicer. Would you please help me to find a citation?
Quote Investigator: The saying appeared in the strip published on March 2, 1950. Li’l Abner was attacked during a battle by an opponent who stared at him malevolently, i.e., employed the “evil eye”. Abner fought back by returning the stare with the “good eye”. The first line below was expressed by Li’l Abner, and the second line was spoken by Mammy Yokum during a flashback scene. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
AH IS G-GITTIN’ TH’ EVIL EYE—BUT GOOD!! WHUT WAS IT MAH MAMMY DONE TOLE ME?
SON!! TH’ ONLY WAY YO’ KIN LICK TH’ EVIL EYE IS WIF TH’ GOOD EYE!! GOOD IS BETTER THAN EVIL, BECAUSE IT’S NICER!!
Here is a version using standard spelling:
Ah is getting the evil eye—but good!! What was it my Mammy done told me?
Son!! The only way you can lick the evil eye is with the good eye!! Good is better than evil, because it’s nicer!!
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1948 a New York newspaper reported the words of the impresario of a puppet show who presented a different reason for the success of good versus evil: 2
“We try,” says puppeteer Al Wallace, “to prove that good is better than evil because it’s more fun.“
On March 5, 1950, three days after the crucial “Li’s Abner” strip, a New Jersey newspaper repeated a slightly garbled version of the saying and ascribed the words to “Granny Yokum” instead of “Mammy Yokum”: 3
. . . why not follow Granny Yokum’s advice and stare right back at it. Remember, “a good eye is better than evil because it’s nicer.”
In 1952 a columnist in “The Dayton Daily News” of Ohio printed the saying, but misspelled the comic strip name as “L’il Abner” instead of Li’l Abner”: 4
. . . as L’il Abner says, good’s better than evil because it’s nicer.
On July 2, 1955 a close variant expression using the word “goodniss” instead of “good” appeared in the “Li’l Abner” strip. Abner delivered the line instead of Mammy: 5
WRINKLED AN’ RICKETY THO’ SHE IS, MAH LI’L MAMMY IS CHOCK-FULL O’ PURE GOODNISS!!—AN GOODNISS IS BETTER THAN EVIL, BECUZ IT’S NICER!!
Wrinkled and rickety though she is, my little Mammy is chock-full of pure goodness!! And goodness is better than evil, because it’s nicer!!
On July 12, 1955 the expression reappeared in the “Li’l Abner” strip; Mammy was placed in the center of a panel after she triumphed during a battle, and the adage was communicated via a narrative voice: 6
BUT MAMMY STILL STANDS!!—ONCE MORE PROVING THAT GOOD IS BETTER THAN EVIL, BECAUSE IT’S NICER!!
In conclusion, Al Capp should receive credit for this saying. He put the expression into the mouth of his character Mammy Yokum by 1950. Over the years multiple instances occurred in the strip “Li’l Abner”, and it was further propagated by newspaper columnists.
(Great thanks to Michael J. Lowrey and Dennis Lien whose comments led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Both knew that the saying appeared in Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” and was attributed to Mammy Yokum.)
- 1950 March 2, The Taylor Daily Press, Comic Strip: Li’l Abner by Al Capp, (First line is spoken by the character Li’l Abner; the second line is spoken by the character Mammy Yokum within the memory bubble of Li’l Abner), Quote Page 9, Column 5, Taylor, Texas. (Newspapers_com) link ↩
- 1948 December 26, Sunday News (Daily News), Section 2: Sunday News, Theatre Treat for Kids–and Parents by Robert Wahls, Quote Page 4, Column 1, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1950 March 5, The Sunday Times (The Central New Jersey Home News), Out on the Limb by Pete O’Rourke, Quote Page 11, Column 1, New Brunswick, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1952 November 16, The Dayton Daily News, County Teen Tales: Book Worm Takes Over; Teens Attracted To Science Fiction by Phyl Schneider, Section 2, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1955 July 2, Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Comic Strip: Li’l Abner by Al Capp, (Lines spoken by character L’il Abner in second and third panel), Section II, Quote Page 11, Lubbock, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1955 July 12, St. Petersburg Times, Comic Strip: Li’l Abner by Al Capp, (Caption of second panel which is centered on the character Mammy Yokum), Quote Page 28, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩