Edna St. Vincent Millay? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A recent controversial article about critics and criticism in the New York Times contained a refreshingly blunt two-part quotation [DGNY]:
To writers, Edna St. Vincent Millay offered the wisest counsel. It rings down the decades. “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down,” she said. “If it is a good book, nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him.”
Did Millay, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, write this in an essay or letter? Did she say it as an impromptu remark? I have not been able to find a precise reference.
Quote Investigator: These two statements can be traced back to a letter that Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote to her mother, Cora B. Millay, in 1927. However, the second statement has been modified in an interesting way.
In 1927 Kathleen Millay, the sister of Edna and daughter of Cora, was planning to publish a book of poetry titled “The Evergreen Tree”. Her mother was anxious about this event, and she wrote a letter to Edna who responded. Bold type has been added [ESVM]:
Kathleen is about to publish a book, as thousands have done before her. A person who publishes a book wilfully appears before the populace with his pants down. And there’s nothing you can do about that.
Note that Edna used “his”, a male possessive adjective, even though the topic of the letter was her sister. Edna was constructing an adage that applied to any person, and she followed the convention of using male pronouns and adjectives to designate persons of unspecified gender. Edna continued her letter by emphasizing the maturity of her sister:
Kathleen is not a baby. She is a grown-up person quite able to take care of herself. And she has been struggling for years to be allowed to manage her own affairs. If she knew the kind of letter you wrote me in her behalf, she’d froth at the mouth & spit brimstone.
The next section of the letter contained the second sentence that is often quoted. This time Edna used the female pronoun “her”. This is understandable because she was discussing her sister:
Kathleen is about to publish a book. If it’s a good book, nothing can harm her. If it’s a bad book, nothing can help her. And all your stewing & fretting will accomplish just one end: it will make you very sick, & a nuisance to yourself …
So the second sentence in the widely distributed quotation has been modified. The word “harm” has been changed to “hurt”. Also, the pronoun “her” has been replaced by “him” in two places. Summarizing, the quotation was written by one female writer about another female writer, but the most common version in circulation uses the words “his” and “him”.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading A Person Who Publishes a Book Willfully Appears Before the Populace with His Pants Down