All You Need In This Life Is Ignorance and Confidence; Then Success Is Sure

Mark Twain? Benjamin De Casseres? Richard Grant White? Mary Hallock Foote? Cordelia Foote? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain once joked that the key to success was a combination of ignorance and confidence. I do not know the precise phrasing. Would you please help me to find the exact quotation and a citation?

Quote Investigator: Mark Twain penned this amusing remark in a letter dated December 2, 1887 which he sent to “Mrs. Foote”. The letter was reprinted in the “Los Angeles Times” on March 16, 1930. 1 Also, in 1934 a facsimile of the missive appeared in the book “When Huck Finn Went Highbrow” by Benjamin De Casseres, a limited edition with 125 copies.

There was a long delay between the letter’s composition and its publication, but Twain scholars believe that it is authentic. The famed humorist discussed leading a study group who were exploring the poetry of Robert Browning. 2 The quotation reflected Twain’s comical reaction to holding a position of leadership: 3

Now when you come to think of it, wasn’t it a curious idea—I mean for a dozen ladies of (apparently) high intelligence to elect me their Browning reader? Of course you think I declined at first; but I didn’t. I’m not the declining sort. I would take charge of the constellations if I were asked to do it. All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The phrase “ignorance and self-confidence” was employed by other writers prior to Twain. For example, in 1867 the prominent literary and music critic Richard Grant White wrote a piece in “The Galaxy” magazine of New York containing the following comment: 4

The country swarms with men who have this advertiser’s ignorance and self-confidence; and it would seem that not a few of them, failing in trade, in real-estate agency and in other departments of human endeavor, become journalists.

As mentioned previously the text of Twain’s letter appeared in a newspaper in 1930, and a facsimile appeared in a book in 1934. The facsimile clearly revealed that Twain placed a semicolon after the word “confidence”; however, many publications subsequently used a comma including the “Los Angeles Times”:

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.

The letter begins with “My Dear Mrs. Foote” and the full name of the recipient has been a subject of controversy. The “Los Angeles Times” specified Cornelia Welsh Foote. Benjamin De Casseres in “When Huck Finn Went Highbrow” specified Mary Hallock Foote. The database of letter information maintained by The Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley specified the name Cordelia Welsh Foote. 5 Mark Twain quotation expert Barbara Schmidt who operates the website TwainQuotes.com specified Cordelia Welch Foote. 6 This final name is based on the most up-to-date collection of evidence.

Twain’s remark caught the eye of H. L. Mencken who included it in his massive 1942 reference “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”: 7

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.
S. L. CLEMENS (MARK TWAIN ): Letter to Mrs. Foote, Dec. 2, 1887

In 1948 an excerpt containing the quotation appeared in the collection “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. The source was “When Huck Finn Went Highbrow”: 8

Of course you think I declined at first; but I didn’t. I’m not the declining sort. I would take charge of the constellations if I were asked to do it. All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence; then success is sure.

Harnsberger’s 1972 collection “Everyone’s Mark Twain” also included the quotation. 9

In 2001 “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” contained the following entry: 10

All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, then success is sure.
MARK TWAIN (1835-1910). Letter to Mary Hallock Foote, 2 December 1887. In Benjamin DeCasseres, When Huck Finn Went Highbrow, p. 7, 1934

In conclusion, Mark Twain deserves credit for the words he penned in the December 2, 1887 letter sent to Mrs. Foote. The letter was reprinted in the “Los Angeles Times” in 1930, and a facsimile was included in a 1934 book by Benjamin De Casseres.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration depicting Mark Twain with birds from the 1897 edition of “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World” by Mark Twain. Image from page 355 has been cropped, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to James C. Coyne and Andrew Munro whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Many thanks to Barbara Schmidt who operates the wonderful “Twain Quotes” website for sharing information about her careful exploration of this topic. She told QI about the “Los Angeles Times” citation. She also supplied helpful scans from her copy of “When Huck Finn Went Highbrow”. Additional thanks to Kevin Mac Donnell of  Mac Donnell Rare Books who supplied a key scan of the facsimile letter. Special thanks to S. M. Colowick for pointing to the 1978 scholarly article about Twain’s interest in Robert Browning’s poems.)

Notes:

  1. 1930 March 16, Los Angeles Times, Twain Letter Unearthed by Neeta Marquis, Section 3, Quote Page 22, Column 1 and 2, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) link
  2. 1978, Browning Institute Studies, Volume 6, Article: “A Splendor of Stars & Suns”: Twain as a Reader of Browning’s Poems by Alan Gribben, Start Page 87, End Page 107, Published by Cambridge University Press. (JSTOR; Accessed September 5, 2021) link
  3. 1934, When Huck Finn Went Highbrow by Benjamin De Casseres, Limited edition with 125 copies, (Book includes facsimile of letter sent from Mark Twain to Mrs. Foote dated December 2, 1887), Quote Page 7, Thomas F. Madigan, New York. (Verified with page scans; thanks to Barbara Schmidt and Kevin Mac Donnell)
  4. 1867 April 15, The Galaxy: A Magazine of Entertaining Reading, Words and Their Uses: Number III by Richard Grant White, Start Page 901, Quote Page 905, W. C. & F. P. Church, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. Mark Twain Project Letters Database, ID: UCCL 03672, Writer: Samuel L. Clemens, Addressee: Cordelia Welsh Foote, Date: 2 Dec 1887, Place of Origin: Hartford, Connecticut, Repository: MS, CLjC (The James S. Copley Library, La Jolla, California. The collection of the Copley Library was sold in a series of auctions at Sotheby’s, New York, in 2010 and 2011) (Accessed marktwainproject.org on September 5, 2021) link
  6. Personal Communication, Emails from Barbara Schmidt to Garson O’Toole (Quote Investigator) dated August 16, 2021 and August 28, 2021
  7. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Success, Quote Page 1158, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  8. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Topic: Reader, (Letter excerpt from Mark Twain to Mary Hallock Foote), Quote Page 396, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1972, Everyone’s Mark Twain, Compiled by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Topic: Reader, Quote Page 515, A. S. Barnes and Company, South Brunswick and New York. (Verified on paper)
  10. 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Topic: Success, Quote Page 837, Column 2, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified with hardcopy)