Finish Every Day and Be Done With It. . . . Some Blunders and Absurdities No Doubt Crept In; Forget Them As Soon As You Can

Ralph Waldo Emerson? James Elliot Cabot? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Each day should be greeted with our optimism and aspirations. We should forgive ourselves for yesterday’s missteps. The transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson apparently made this point in a passage that begins with one of the following two phrases:

  • Finish every day and be done with it.
  • Finish each day and be done with it.

Would you please help me to determine precisely what Emerson said and where he said it?

Quote Investigator: After the death of Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1882 his letters and notebooks were carefully preserved. Decades later, Columbia University Press released a six volume collection of his letters. The quotation appeared in volume four which was published in 1939 under the editorship of Ralph L. Rusk.

On April 8, 1854 Emerson sent a missive to his daughter Ellen with guidance about maintaining a positive attitude toward each new day. The informally punctuated letter included run-on sentences. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

You must finish a term & finish every day, & be done with it. For manners, & for wise living, it is a vice to remember. You have done what you could — some blunders & absurdities no doubt crept in forget them as fast as you can tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it well & serenely, & with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day for all that is good & fair. It is too dear with its hopes & invitations to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

After Emerson’s death, James Elliot Cabot became his literary executor and family-approved biographer. 2 In 1887 Cabot’s biography of Emerson was published as two volumes under the title “A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson”. A section of chapter 13 described Emerson’s methods of childrearing. The letter to Ellen Emerson was reprinted with additional punctuation: 3

To one of his daughters who was away from home, at school, he writes:—

Finish every day and be done with it. For manners and for wise living it is a vice to remember. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. To-morrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense. This day for all that is good and fair. It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations, to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.”

In 1943 the reference work “Thesaurus of Epigrams” edited by Edmund Fuller included a shortened version of the passage: 4

Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. —Emerson

In 1959 “Dale Carnegie’s Scrapbook: A Treasury of the Wisdom of the Ages” edited by Dorothy Carnegie printed another shortened instance attributed to Emerson: 5

FINISH EACH DAY and be done with it. . . You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely.

In 1982 “Good Advice” compiled by Leonard Safir and William Safire included a version that began with “Finish each day” instead of “Finish every day”: 6

The Past

Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

In conclusion, Ralph Waldo Emerson should receive credit for the letter he wrote on April 8, 1854 which was reprinted in volume four of “The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson”. In subsequent years, shortened and altered versions of the pertinent passage have proliferated.

Image Notes: Picture of a woman greeting the sunrise from jill111 (Jill Wellington) at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Mario DeStefano whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to the volunteer editors of Wikiquote who pointed to Cabot’s biography. Special thanks to Lea Williamson who found the letter dated April 8, 1854 in “The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson” and notified QI of its location.)

Update History: On September 25, 2019 the citation for the letter dated April 8, 1854 was added to the article.

Notes:

  1. 1939, The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson in Six Volumes, Edited by Ralph L. Rusk (Professor of English at Columbia University), Volume 4, Letter from: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letter to: Ellen Emerson, Letter date: April 8, 1854, Letter location: Concord, Start Page 438, Quote Page 439, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1983, Studies in the American Renaissance, Arranging the Sibylline Leaves: James Elliot Cabot’s Work as Emerson’s Literary Executor by Nancy Craig Simmon, Start Page 335, End Page 389, Published by Joel Myerson. (JSTOR) link
  3. 1887, A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson by James Elliot Cabot, Volume 2 of 2, Chapter 13: His Ways With His Children, Quote Page 106 and 107, Macmillan and Company, London and New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1943 Copyright, Thesaurus of Epigrams, Edited by Edmund Fuller, Topic: Day, Quote Page 74, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1959, Dale Carnegie’s Scrapbook: A Treasury of the Wisdom of the Ages, Edited by Dorothy Carnegie with writings by Dale Carnegie, Quote Page 79, Published by Dale Carnegie & Associates, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1982, Good Advice, Compiled by Leonard Safir and William Safire, Topic: The Past, Quote Page 245, Published by NYT Times Books, New York. (Verified on paper)