America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between

Ogden Nash? George Bernard Shaw? James Agate? La Liberté? Winston Churchill? Henry James? Oscar Wilde? Georges Clemenceau?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous humorous saying about the United States that has been credited to four celebrated wits: George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, and Georges Clemenceau:

America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilization.

Could you reduce the uncertainty and determine who coined this acerbic comment?

Quote Investigator: A thematic match occurred in 1841 within the book “Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe” (“History of the Progress of Civilization in Europe”) by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand. The following statement was about the ruler of Russia and not the United States. The original French is followed by an English rendering:[1] 1841, Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, Volume 6, Quote Page 72, Chez L. Hachette. (Google Books full view) link

… il fit passer son pays sans transition de la barbarie à la décadence, de l’enfance à la caducité.

… he made his country pass without transition from barbarism to decadence, from childhood to decay.

In 1878 the prominent writer Henry James published a short story with a German character who remarked on the cultural evolution of the United States using a figure of speech based on the maturation of fruit. The following passage is conceptually similar to the quotation, but the vocabulary is different. Thanks to correspondent Rand Careaga for this citation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[2]1881, Washington Square; The Pension Beaurepas; A Bundle of Letters by Henry James, Volume 2, (A Bundle of Letters; short story reprinted from The Parisian, 1878), Start Page 198, Quote Page 266, … Continue reading

… unprecedented and unique in the history of mankind; the arrival of a nation at an ultimate stage of evolution without having passed through the mediate one; the passage of the fruit, in other words, from crudity to rottenness, without the interposition of a period of useful (and ornamental) ripeness. With the Americans, indeed, the crudity and the rottenness are identical and simultaneous;…

The earliest evidence known to QI of a close match for this expression was published in 1926 in The Sunday Times of London. Interestingly, the country being lacerated was Russia and not the United States. In addition, none of the four gentlemen mentioned by the questioner was credited with the words.

The theatre reviewer, James Agate, saw a production of the work “Katerina” by Andreyev,[3]1944, Red Letter Nights by James Agate, (Review by James Agate of the play Katerina by Leonid Andreyev; starring John Gielgud and Frances Carson; Review is dated April 3, 1926 in book), Start Page … Continue reading and he was deeply unsympathetic to the behaviors displayed by the characters.:[4]1926 April 4, The Sunday Times (UK), The Dramatic World: Those Russians Again by James Agate, (Review of the play Katerina by Andreyev performed on March 31), Quote Page 4, London, England. … Continue reading

Everything that happens to Andreyev’s characters is repugnant to the English sense of what would, should, or could happen to people laying claim to ordinary, i.e. English sanity. This being so, the temptation is to cast about for excuses, to pity Russia for having been left out of the Roman march, and so passing from barbarism to decadence without knowing civilisation, or to talk about “retrogressive metamorphism” and the way this country has been steadily breaking Europe down ever since, in the time of Peter the Great, she first began to absorb European culture.

Special thanks to correspondent Robert Rosenberg who identified this pivotal early instance.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading America Is the Only Country That Went from Barbarism to Decadence Without Civilization In Between

References

References
1 1841, Histoire des Progrès de la Civilisation en Europe by Hippolyte Roux-Ferrand, Volume 6, Quote Page 72, Chez L. Hachette. (Google Books full view) link
2 1881, Washington Square; The Pension Beaurepas; A Bundle of Letters by Henry James, Volume 2, (A Bundle of Letters; short story reprinted from The Parisian, 1878), Start Page 198, Quote Page 266, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
3 1944, Red Letter Nights by James Agate, (Review by James Agate of the play Katerina by Leonid Andreyev; starring John Gielgud and Frances Carson; Review is dated April 3, 1926 in book), Start Page 112, Quote Page 113, Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, UK. (Internet Archive) link
4 1926 April 4, The Sunday Times (UK), The Dramatic World: Those Russians Again by James Agate, (Review of the play Katerina by Andreyev performed on March 31), Quote Page 4, London, England. (Gale’s Sunday Times Digital Archive; thanks to Fred Shapiro and Dan J. Bye for accessing this database)

The Play Was a Great Success, But the Audience Was a Total Failure

Oscar Wilde? William Collier? Daniel Frohman? George Bernard Shaw? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been involved in several theatrical productions and sometimes the response of an audience to a show is mystifying. A colleague told me that Oscar Wilde watched an early performance of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the reception was unenthusiastic. Later when he was asked about that night’s presentation he said:

The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.

I can easily envision Wilde uttering this response. When I used Google I found another version of the line:

The play was a great success, but the audience was a disaster

Do you think this anecdote is true, and do you think either of these lines is accurate?

Quote Investigator: This is an entertaining quip that appeals to people who depend on the fickle reactions of audiences. However, there is little evidence that Wilde ever spoke this quotation. Lady Windermere’s Fan was a highly-successful and lucrative comedy for Wilde.  The earliest attribution to Wilde that QI has located appeared in the 1937 book “Encore” by the theatrical impresario Daniel Frohman who does not identify a specific play [OWDF]:

Oscar Wilde arrived at his club one evening, after witnessing a first production of a play that was a complete failure.

A friend said, “Oscar, how did your play go tonight?”

“Oh,” was the lofty response, “the play was a great success but the audience was a failure.”

In fact, the core of this joke was employed by another legendary Irish wit, George Bernard Shaw, in a review he wrote in 1892. Shaw’s commentary was published in “The World”, and recorded his unhappiness with his fellow viewers who reacted negatively to a dancer whose performance was deemed too provocative and suggestive [GBSD] [BSTD]:

Take notice, oh Senorita C. de Otero, Spanish dancer and singer, that I wash my hands of the national crime of failing to appreciate you. You were a perfect success: the audience was a dismal failure. I really cannot conceive a man being such a dull dog as to hold out against that dance.

Lady Windermere’s Fan premiered in 1892 and Oscar Wilde did directly address the audience from the stage after the initial performance. However, the production was a success and not a failure, and his words were precisely the opposite of those listed above.

Continue reading The Play Was a Great Success, But the Audience Was a Total Failure

A Single Death Is a Tragedy; A Million Deaths Is a Statistic

Joseph Stalin? Leonard Lyons? Beilby Porteus? Kurt Tucholsky? Erich Maria Remarque?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a vivid statement that typifies a heartless attitude toward human mortality:

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

These words are often attributed to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, but I have not found a precise citation for this harsh expression. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI linking this saying to Joseph Stalin was published in 1947 by the popular syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Lyons in “The Washington Post”. The ellipsis in the following passage was in the original text. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[1] 1947 January 30, Washington Post, Loose-Leaf Notebook by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

In the days when Stalin was Commissar of Munitions, a meeting was held of the highest ranking Commissars, and the principal matter for discussion was the famine then prevalent in the Ukraine. One official arose and made a speech about this tragedy — the tragedy of having millions of people dying of hunger. He began to enumerate death figures … Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

QI does not know what source Lyons used to obtain the details of this noteworthy scene and quotation. Without additional corroborative evidence or an explanation QI believes that this citation provides weak support for the ascription to Stalin. Perhaps future researchers will locate further relevant evidence.

There are several interesting precursors that illustrate the possible evolution of this expression, and additional selected citations are presented below in chronological order. The family of sayings examined here is variegated, and the denotations are often distinct, but QI believes that grouping them together is illuminating.

Continue reading A Single Death Is a Tragedy; A Million Deaths Is a Statistic

References

References
1 1947 January 30, Washington Post, Loose-Leaf Notebook by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)