Puritanism — The Haunting Fear That Someone, Somewhere, May Be Happy

H. L. Mencken? George Jean Nathan? Nellie McClung? Beverly Gray? John Cleese? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Here are four versions of a mordant definition of puritanism:

  1. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
  2. The lurking fear that someone somewhere is happy.
  3. The gnawing worry that someone somewhere might be happy.
  4. The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.

This quip has been attributed to the prominent journalist Henry Louis Mencken. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In January 1925 “The American Mercury” published a collection of items under the title “Clinical Notes” by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. The following remark appeared as a freestanding item. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1925 January, The American Mercury, Volume 4, Number 13, Clinical Notes by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, Start Page 56, Quote Page 59, Column 1, The American Mercury, New York. (Unz) [/ref]

Puritanism.—The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

The proper ascription to Mencken was clarified when the quotation appeared in his 1949 collection “A Mencken Chrestomathy”. The details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1915 pioneering Canadian social activist Nellie L. McClung published “In Times Like These” which included a sardonic comment about the “haunting fear of mankind” although the topic was not puritanism:[ref] 1915, In Times Like These by Nellie L. McClung, Chapter 4: Should Women Think?, Quote Page 40, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Internet Archive Full View) link [/ref]

If women learned to read there seemed to be a possibility that some day some good man might come home and find his wife reading, and the dinner not ready — and nothing could be imagined more horrible than that! That seems to be the haunting fear of mankind — that the advancement of women will sometime, someway, someplace, interfere with some man’s comfort.

In 1925 “The American Mercury” published the quotation under examination as shown previously.

Also, in 1925 U.S. philosopher Ralph Barton Perry delivered the Howison Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley. The following year the speech was published under the title “A Modernist View of National Ideals”. Perry included an instance of the quip together with an acknowledgement to “The American Mercury”:[ref] 1926, University of California Publications in Philosophy, Volume 6, Number 2, Howison Lecture for 1925, A Modernist View of National Ideals by Ralph Barton Perry, Issue Date: August 19, 1926, Start Page 183, Quote Page 199, University of California Press, Berkeley, California. (HathiTrust Full View) link [/ref]

From this it is easy to pass to Macaulay’s jibe that the puritans “hated bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators”; or to The American Mercury’s “clinical note” that puritanism is “the haunting fear that some one, somewhere, may be happy” . . .

In 1929 “The Pittsburgh Press” of Pennsylvania printed a letter to the editor from B. J. Cannon discussing his unhappiness with blue laws and contemporary puritanism. An instance of the saying occurred in the letter without attribution:[ref] 1929 March 27, The Pittsburgh Press, Section: Letters from Readers, (Letter to the editor from B. J. Cannon), Quote Page 12, Column 3, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

What concern is it of theirs if I wish to attend a movie on Sunday, and thus go dashing pell mell to damnation? What care they if I enjoy myself while I may? Yet they do. They are obsessed by the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. After all, more than half of us have little belief in hell. Surely we have some rights and privileges.

In 1946 “The Calgary Herald” of Alberta, Canada published a column called “The Scrap Book” by Beverly Gray which included a variant without attribution using the phrase “may be having a good time” instead of “may be happy”:[ref] 1946 July 5, The Calgary Herald, The Scrap Book by Beverly Gray, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Puritanism: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be having a good time.

In 1949 H. L. Mencken published “A Mencken Chrestomathy” which included a section called “Arcana Coelestia” which contained the following four caustic items on the theme of religion:[ref] 1949 (Reprinted 1967), A Mencken Chrestomathy, Edited and Annotated by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Chapter 30: Sententiae, Section: Arcana Coelestia, Quote Page 624, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

Theology —An effort to explain the unknowable by putting it into terms of the not worth knowing.

The delusion of immortality is what ruined Egypt.

Puritanism —The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

I read the other day a book defending the Ten Commandments. The best of all arguments for them, however, was omitted. It is that there are not forty of them.

In 1963 “The Saturday Review” of New York printed a column with quizzes titled “Your Literary I.Q.” One challenge involved connecting six quotations about puritans to six authors. The reader was required to link the first quotation to Mencken:[ref] 1963 July 6, The Saturday Review, Your Literary I.Q., Conducted by John T. Winterich, Start Page 29, Quote Page 29, The Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) [/ref]

Puritanism—the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
H. L. Mencken

In 1970 the U.S. political theorist John H. Schaar published an article in “The Virginia Quarterly Review” containing a variant expression with the phrase “gnawing worry” instead of “haunting fear”:[ref] 1970 Winter, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Volume 46, Number 1, Article: … And The Pursuit of Happiness by John H. Schaar, Start Page 1, Quote Page 7, Published by University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

H.L. Mencken’s caustic remark, that Puritanism was the gnawing worry that someone somewhere might be happy, was about as right and as wrong as such deft comments usually are. The early years were a time of severe trials in which the very life of the Puritans was under peril. The pursuit of happiness is irrelevant when the pursuit of mere life is the pressing business.

In 1991 “Bloomsbury Dictionary of Quotations” included the following entry for the quotation:[ref] 1991, Bloomsbury Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by John Daintith et al, Entry: Henry Louis Mencken, Quote Page 258, Column 1, Bloomsbury Publishing Limited, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Mencken, H(enry) L(ouis) (1880-1956) US journalist and editor . . .

Puritanism — The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
A Book of Burlesques

QI obtained scans of the 1928 third printing of Mencken’s “A Book of Burlesques” with a copyright date of 1920. QI was unable to find the quotation within the book. Perhaps it is present in some other edition. Alternatively, the above citation is inaccurate.[ref] 1920 Copyright, A Book of Burlesques by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), (Quotation not located), Borzoi Book: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) [/ref]

In 1993 “The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations” included the following entry for the quotation:[ref] 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, Edited by Robert Andrews, Topic: Puritans, Quote Page 755, Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
H. L. MENCKEN (1880-1956), U.S. journalist. A Book of Burlesques, “Sententiae” (1920).

QI was unable to find the section “Sententiae” in the 1928 third printing of “A Book of Burlesques” with copyright date 1920. The 1949 book “A Mencken Chrestomathy” does contain a chapter titled “Sententiae”, and the quotation dies appear in that chapter. The above citation seems to be inaccurate.

In 1996 “The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women” compiled by Rosalie Maggio included the 1915 quotation and citation for Nellie L. McClung presented previously in this article.[ref] 1996 Copyright, The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women, Compiled by Rosalie Maggio, Topic: Sexism, Quote Page 623, Column 2, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

In 2020 “The Telegraph” of London printed remarks from English actor and comedian John Cleese who had learned that an episode of a popular television series he had created was being withdrawn for review from a streaming service because it was deemed offensive. The episode was later reinstated with a prefatory content warning. Cleese employed a variant of the barb that was aimed at Scottish Presbyterians instead of Puritans:[ref] 2020 June 12, The Telegraph (Telegraph.co.uk), Article: If ‘Ze Germans’ can see the joke in Fawlty Towers, why on earth can’t we?, Author: Michael Hogan, Section: TV, (No page number specified), London, England. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Perhaps the last word should do to Cleese himself. “Fawlty Towers has given a large number of people a great deal of happiness,” he says. “Why would you want to stop that? It reminds me of the definition of a Scottish Presbyterian as someone who has a nasty, sneaking feeling that someone, somewhere, is having a good time.”

In conclusion, the combination of the 1925 and 1949 citations show that H. L. Mencken deserves credit for this remark. Alternative phrasings evolved over time.

Image Notes: Illustration of Puritans in Massachusetts from the book “American History” (1913) by Arthur C. Perry. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person in 2016 whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The person asked QI whether “A Mencken Chrestomathy” was the earliest citation.)

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