W. C. Fields? Stephen Leacock? Justin J. Burns? Henry Morgan? George Burns? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A well-known saying about persistence has become an energyless cliché:
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
The following parody version is usually attributed to the famous comedian W. C. Fields:
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.
Did Fields create this twisted proverb?
Quote Investigator: Based on current evidence QI believes that it is unlikely W. C. Fields wrote or said the statement above. He died in 1946, and the earliest known instance of the quotation attributed to him was published in September 1949. An anonymous version of the saying was already in circulation by 1946. Details are given further below.
A very similar joke was crafted by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and published in 1917. QI hypothesizes that the 1940s quip evolved from Leacock’s words. Here is an excerpt from his comical essay “Simple Stories of Success or How to Succeed in Life”: 1
According to all the legends and story books the principal factor in success is perseverance. Personally, I think there is nothing in it. If anything, the truth lies the other way.
There is an old motto that runs, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This is nonsense. It ought to read—”If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit at once.”
If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it. Try something else while there is yet time.
In September 1917 a Flint, Michigan newspaper printed a short filler item with a parody saying: 2
Motto of the Russian army: If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit again.
In 1925 the Buffalo Evening News of Buffalo, New York reprinted Stephen Leacock’s essay which included the excerpt given previously. The following title was bannered across the top of the page: 3
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Quit, Quit at Once”
In April 1946 a version of the saying under investigation was printed in a trade magazine called Commercial Car Journal. A page titled “Laugh It Off” presented a collection of jokes compiled by Skag Shannon. This instance used the word “silly” instead of “damn fool” and the words were attributed to an anonymous “Fireman”: 4
Our Fireman says, “If you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then stop. No use being silly about it.”
The day after the death of W. C. Fields in December 1946 the Associated Press news service released an obituary that included a discussion of lawsuits that were filed by Fields and his physician over compensation. Fields lost the lawsuit, and he appealed the decision. Interestingly, Fields was quoted using a simple instance of the cliché maxim. He did not employ the derisive quotation that has been attributed to him in modern times: 5
“I struck out this time,” Fields told reporters, “but next time I’ll hit a home run. Onward and upward’s my motto. Try, try again.” He appealed and the judgment was pared to $2000.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1917 Copyright, Frenzied Fiction by Stephen Leacock, Simple Stories of Success or How to Succeed in Life, Start Page 243, Quote Page 245, John Lane Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1917 September 13, Flint Journal, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Flint, Michigan. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1925 December 5, Buffalo Evening News, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Quit, Quit at Once” by Stephen Leacock, Quote Page 6, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1946 April, Commercial Car Journal, Volume 71, “Laugh It Off” with Skag Shannon, Start Page 102, Quote Page 102, Column 2, Chilton Class Journal Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans from the University of Denver library system; great thanks to the helpful librarian) ↩
- 1946 December 26, Boston Daily Globe (Boston Globe), “W. C. Fields Dies at 66; Famous for Nose, Quips”, (Associated Press), Start Page 1, Quote Page 10, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩