If We Could Read the Secret History of Our Enemies, We Should Find in Each Man’s Life Sorrow and Suffering Enough To Disarm All Hostility

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Ann Landers? Mary A. McIver? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Feeling empathy for an adversary is difficult to achieve when one’s mind is filled with indignation. The following intriguing statement claims that comprehensive knowledge of the past of one’s foe would yield a startling insight:

If we could read the secret history of those we would like to punish, we would find in each life enough grief and suffering to make us stop wishing anything more on them.

Apparently, the famous U.S. poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or the advice columnist Ann Landers said something like this. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1857 the two volume collection titled “Prose Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow” appeared. The second volume included a section called “Table-Talk” listing bright remarks spoken by Longfellow. Here is a sampling of three items. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Every great poem is in itself limited by necessity,—but in its suggestions unlimited and infinite.

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

As turning the logs will make a dull fire burn, so change of studies a dull brain.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Longfellow was grief stricken when his first wife died at age 23 after a miscarriage. The author discussed the theme of a secret history of sorrow in an 1839 work titled “Hyperion: A Romance”. The primary semi-autobiographical character Paul Flemming said the following: 2

In the lives of the saddest of us, there are bright days like this, when we feel as if we could take the great world in our arms and kiss it. Then come the gloomy hours, when the fire will neither burn on our hearths nor in our hearts; and all without and within is dismal, cold, and dark. Believe me, every heart has its secret sorrows, which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.

The quotation under analysis attracted the interest of contemporaries after it appeared in 1857. The “Saturday Evening Gazette” of Boston, Massachusetts reprinted excerpts from the “Prose Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow” in March 1857, and the quotation was included. 3

Over the years the quotation has been altered in various ways. For example, the “Orleans Independent Standard” of Irasburgh, Vermont added the word “our” when it printed the quotation as a filler item in August 1857. Interestingly, Longfellow was not mentioned, and the statement was anonymous: 4

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all our hostility.

In October 1857 “The Compiler: A Democratic and Family Journal” of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania printed another version as an anonymous filler item. The phrase “disarm all our enmity” occurred instead of “disarm all hostility”: 5

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all our enmity.

In 1869 the poet Mary A. McIver used the saying as an epigraph for one of her poems. She placed the words between quotation marks, but she did not present an attribution. This version used “one’s” instead of “man’s”. It also included the additional word “our”: 6

“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each one’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all our hostility.”

In 1897 an instance appeared in a collection called “Gems” compiled by Mary E. Vibbert. The word “would” appeared instead of “should”, and the word “our” was included: 7

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all our hostility.
LONGFELLOW.

In 1982 the widely-distributed advice columnist Ann Landers printed a statement that employed a different phrasing to make a very similar point. Instead of an “enemy” the expression referred to “those we would like to punish”. Landers did not mention Longfellow: 8

CONFIDENTIAL to Need to Get Even: Give some thought to this bit of philosophy expressed by a Hebrew scholar: “If we could read the secret history of those we would like to punish, we would find in each life enough grief and suffering to make us stop wishing anything more on them.”

In 1990 “Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations” edited by Sy Safransky included an instance with “punish”: 9

If we could read the secret history of those we would like to punish, we would find in each life enough grief and suffering to make us stop wishing anything more on them.
—Source unknown

In 2010 author and management consultant Margaret J. Wheatley published “Perseverance”, and she included a hybrid variant of the saying with “punish” and “hostility” which she attributed to Longfellow: 10

If we could read the secret history of those we would like to punish, we would find in each life a sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all our hostility.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Writer, poet

In conclusion, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow should receive credit for the statement he wrote in 1857. Altered versions of his heartfelt remark appeared during subsequent months and years. In modern times several inaccurate versions have continued to circulate.

Image Notes: Illustration showing a rose and a timepiece against a black background from annca at Pixabay. This illustration has only a tenuous symbolic connection to the quotation.

(Great thanks to Andy Stewart whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Stewart pointed to instances in 2010 and 1857.)

Notes:

  1. 1857, Prose Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Volume 1 of 2, Chapter: Drift Wood: A Collection of Essays, Section: Table-Talk, Quote Page 452, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1839, Hyperion: A Romance by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Volume 2, Book III, Chapter IV, Quote Page 38 and 39, Samuel Colman, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1857 March 28, Saturday Evening Gazette, New Things from Longfellow (continuation), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1857 August 28, Orleans Independent Standard, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Irasburgh, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1857 October 19, The Compiler: A Democratic and Family Journal (Gettysburg Compiler), (Filler item), Quote Page ??, Column 5, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1869, Poems by Mary A. McIver (Mary Anne McIver), (Epigraph for poem Forbearance), Quote Page 58, Published by I. B. Taylor at “The Ottawa Citizen” Office, Ottawa, Canada. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  7. 1897 Copyright, Gems, Compiled by Mary E. Vibbert, Quote Page 166, J. Stilman Smith & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  8. 1982 November 6, The Gazette, She won’t go without beloved pet by Ann Landers, Quote Page C3, Column 1, Montreal, Quebec, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1990, Sunbeams: A Book of Quotations, Edited by Sy Safransky, Quote Page 96, Column 2, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California. (Verified with scans)
  10. 2010 Copyright, Perseverance by Margaret J. Wheatley, Quote Page 72, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Preview)