It’s a Great Life If You Don’t Weaken

John Buchan? Elizabeth Murray? Graham Greene? Dorothy Parker? Thomas Carter? H. L. Mencken? Sime Silverman? Karl Braun? Gene Byrnes? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: When you face a series of obstacles and successfully persevere you might employ the following saying. Here are three versions:

It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.
It’s a grand life if you don’t weaken.
It’s a joyful life if you don’t weaken.

Over time the meaning has shifted, and it has become ironic. The Scottish novelist and politician John Buchan often receives credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: John Buchan did use the expression in a 1919 novel. Details are given further below. But Buchan was not the originator.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1908 within an article published in “The Evening Telegram” of Salt Lake City, Utah. Police picked up a man who was acting like a hobo in Provo, Utah. He revealed to the officers that he was a wealthy individual named Thomas Carter, and he told them to contact his banker in Salt Lake City to verify his identity. In the following passage the word “jungle” is slang for a hobo encampment. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 1908 November 19, The Salt Lake Evening Telegram, Provo Tramp Turns Out To Be Wealthy Salt Lake Man, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Salt Lake City, Utah. (GenealogyBank)

“You see,” he said, “this jungle life is a grand one if you don’t weaken. Talk about experience, why when I get back to the folks I will have had enough experience to fill a molasses barrel. When I get home I will sure have a bigger heart for these fellows you officers term tramps.”

A journalist heard this odd tale and asked Carter about his motivation:

“Well, I’ll tell you I am just paying an election bet. I bet that “Uncle Joe” Cannon would not be re-elected to the house and now I must make good as a hobo for sixty days or forfeit $5000. It’s a grand life if you don’t weaken.”

QI tentatively credits Thomas Carter with the saying although there is a substantial probability that the phrase was already in circulation, and future researchers may learn more.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It’s a Great Life If You Don’t Weaken

References

References
1 1908 November 19, The Salt Lake Evening Telegram, Provo Tramp Turns Out To Be Wealthy Salt Lake Man, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Salt Lake City, Utah. (GenealogyBank)

A Reputation Is Like a Death Mask. I Wanted To Smash the Mask

Graham Greene? Doris Lessing? Erica Jong?

Dear Quote Investigator: An artist who has achieved a distinctive reputation with critics and the general public is placed into a metaphorical strait jacket. Newly fashioned artworks are expected to be similar to previous artworks. Change and innovation are frowned upon. This notion can be expressed using a harsher analogue:

A reputation is a death mask.

A death mask is a rigidly fixed depiction of an impassive human face obtained via a wax or plaster mold after death. This vivid phrase about reputation has been attributed to three literary figures: Doris Lessing, Graham Greene, and Erica Jong. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Graham Greene acquired a strong literary standing with works such as “Brighton Rock”, “The Power and the Glory”, and “The End of the Affair”. Yet, he did not want his creativity to be constrained by this series of successes. So he changed his style and released a light-hearted work titled “Loser Takes All” in 1955. He described this pivotal episode in his autobiography “Ways of Escape” in 1980. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[1] 1980, Ways of Escape: An Autobiography by Graham Greene, Chapter 7, Quote Page 224, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)

The mood of escape . . . took me . . . to Monte Carlo . . . to write what I hoped would prove an amusing, agreeably sentimental novella—something which neither my friends nor my enemies would expect. It was to be called Loser Takes All. A reputation is like a death mask. I wanted to smash the mask.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Reputation Is Like a Death Mask. I Wanted To Smash the Mask

References

References
1 1980, Ways of Escape: An Autobiography by Graham Greene, Chapter 7, Quote Page 224, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)