Fame Is a Vapor; Popularity an Accident; Riches Take Wings

Mark Twain? Horace Greeley? N. D. Hillis?

Dear Quote Investigator: Two interesting quotations begin with the same phrases but diverge to emphasize different ideas of impermanence:

Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.

Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wings, those who cheer today will curse tomorrow, only one thing endures–character.

These remarks have been credited to the well-known humorist Mark Twain and the prominent newspaper editor Horace Greeley. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Horace Greeley achieved his greatest fame as the founder and editor of the popular “New-York Tribune” of New York City. In his later years he published an autobiography titled “Recollections of a Busy Life” which was serialized in several newspapers. On December 4, 1867 the “Nashville Union and Dispatch” of Tennessee printed a section of Greeley’s book about the founding of the “Tribune” which included a discussion of the evanescence of fame. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; riches take wings; the only earthly certainty is oblivion—no man can foresee what a day may bring forth; and those who cheer to-day will often curse to-morrow; and yet I cherish the hope that the journal I projected and established will live and flourish long after I shall have moldered into forgotten dust, being guided by a larger wisdom, a more unerring sagacity to discern the right, though not by a more unfaltering readiness to embrace and defend it at whatever personal cost; and that the stone which covers my ashes may bear to future eyes the still intelligible inscription, “Founder of The New York Tribune.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Fame Is a Vapor; Popularity an Accident; Riches Take Wings


  1. 1867 December 4, Nashville Union and Dispatch, Horace Greeley and His Paper: Recollections of a Busy Life, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)

“He Is a Self-Made Man.” “Yes, And He Worships His Creator.”

Speaker: William Allen Butler? Henry Clapp? John Bright? Junius Henri Browne? Howard Crosby? Henry Armitt Brown? Benjamin Disraeli? William Cowper?

Topic: Horace Greeley? Benjamin Disraeli? George Law? David Davies?

Dear Quote Investigator: Whenever I hear the claim that an individual who has excelled in life is a self-made man or a self-made woman I think of a well-known clever riposte:

Person A: He is a self-made man.
Person B: Yes, I have heard him say that many times, and he certainly worships his creator.

This quip is based on a comical form of self-reference. The definition of “self-made” implies that the man’s creator is the man himself. Hence, when he worships his creator he is worshiping himself. Do you know who originated this joke and who was being criticized?

Quote Investigator: A precursor that expressed the core of the joke appeared in a satirical poem composed in 1858 titled “Two Millions” by William Allen Butler. The work described a millionaire who obeyed the following “higher law” with “all his heart and soul and mind and strength”: 1

To love his maker, for he was SELF-MADE!
Self-made, self-trained, self-willed, self-satisfied,
He was himself, his daily boast and pride.

Thanks to Professor Ian Preston who located the above citation and shared it with QI. The entire poem was reprinted in the magazine “Titan” in London. 2 Also, sections of the work were reprinted by reviewers in periodicals such as “The Knickerbocker” in New York. 3 Thus, the jest was further disseminated.

A close match to the popular form of the joke appeared in March 1868 in multiple newspapers such as “The Stillwater Messenger” of Minnesota and the “Burlington Hawk Eye” of Iowa. In the following statement “The World” was a reference to a New York newspaper. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4 5

The World says Horace Greeley is “a self-made man who worships his Creator.”

Also in March 1868 the “Springfield Republican” of Massachusetts and the “Utica Daily Observer” of New York identified the originator of the jibe as Henry Clapp who was the editor of a New York literary newspaper called “The Saturday Press”: 6 7

Henry Clapp says that Horace Greeley is a self made man, and worships his creator.

In July 1868 “Harper’s Magazine” published a version of the remark and suggested that Greeley would probably respond with good humor: 8

We take it that no man laughed more heartily than Mr. Greeley did when he was told what Henry Clapp had said about him. Said Clapp: “Horace Greeley is emphatically a self-made man, and he worships his Creator!”

In 1869 a non-fiction volume titled “The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York” by Junius Henri Browne was published, and the author applied the joke to a New Yorker named George Law: 9

He is frequently to be seen walking and driving about on his private business; occasionally appears at Fulton Market in quest of oysters, which he swallows voraciously as if he were more savage than hungry; and now and then figures as a vice-president of some public meeting, which he never attends. Such is Live-Oak George, who, as has been said, is a self-made man, and worships his creator.

By June 1870 a different version of the joke was circulating in England. The phrase “adores his maker” replaced the phrase “worships his creator”. A short item published in newspapers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Leicester claimed that the politician John Bright had aimed the barb at the politician Benjamin Disraeli: 10 11

One of Mr. Disraeli’s admirers, in speaking about him to John Bright, said, “You ought to give him credit for what he has accomplished, as he is a self- made man.” “I know he is,” retorted Mr. Bright, “and he adores his maker.” -Court Journal.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “He Is a Self-Made Man.” “Yes, And He Worships His Creator.”


  1. 1858, Two Millions by William Allen Butler, (Dedication: To The Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale College, this poem, written at their request, and delivered before them, July 28, 1858, is dedicated), Quote Page 9, Published by D. Appleton & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1858 November, Titan: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 27, “Two Millions” by William Allen Butler, Start Page 605, Quote Page 606, Published by James Hogg & Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1858 September, “The Knickerbocker, Or, New-York Monthly Magazine”, Volume 52, Literary Notices, (Review of William Allan Butler’s “Two Millions” with extensive excerpts), Start Page 291, Quote Page 291, Published by John A. Gray, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1868 March 11, The Stillwater Messenger, Clippings and Drippings: Personal and Literary, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Stillwater, Minnesota. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1868 March 11, Burlington Hawk Eye, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Burlington, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1868 March 12, Springfield Republican, Gleanings and Gossip, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Genealogybank)
  7. 1868 March 16, Utica Daily Observer, Tea Table Gossip, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Utica, New York. (Old Fulton)
  8. 1868 July, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine [Harper’s Magazine], Editor’s Drawer, Start Page 281, Quote Page 283, Column 1, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  9. 1869 (Copyright 1868), The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York by Junius Henri Browne, Chapter LXXX: George Law, Start Page 642, Quote Page 644, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1870 June 3, Newcastle Courant, MULTUM IN PARVO, [Humor paragraph with acknowledgement to Court Journal], Quote Page 3, Column 4, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. (19th Century British Library Newspapers)
  11. 1870 June 18, Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury, Varieties, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Leicester, England. (This newspaper used the phrase “speaking of him” instead of “speaking about him”)(19th Century British Library Newspapers)

‘Dog Bites a Man’ Is Not News. ‘Man Bites a Dog’ Is News

John B. Bogart? Charles A. Dana? Amos Cummings? Horace Greeley? Jesse Lynch Williams? Billy Woods? Doc Wood? Alfred Harmsworth? Lord Northcliffe? Joseph Pulitzer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore one of the most famous maxims in the news business? Legend states that a neophyte reporter asked a sage editor to define “news”, and he received this reply:

When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.

This saying has been credited to several newspaper people including: John B. Bogart, Amos Cummings, and Charles A. Dana who all worked at the New York Sun. The British press baron Alfred Harmsworth who became Lord Northcliffe has also been named as the originator.

Quote Investigator: The earliest written evidence located by QI appeared in a book titled “The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories” by Jesse Lynch Williams in 1899. The adage was spoken by a fictional character named “Billy Woods” in a chapter called “The Old Reporter”. Woods was considered a repository of knowledge and wisdom by fellow reporters though his lack of a college education sometimes made him self-conscious. In the following passage Woods entertained young reporters and explained his concept of newsworthiness. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Then he would open up, put them at their ease, discourse interestingly about the traditions of the office, and fascinate them, as he could anyone, man or woman, who came in his way.

“No wonder Senators at the Fifth Avenue Hotel like to have Mr. Woods come up and slap them on the back!” “No wonder he can make anybody talk about everything,” thought the new reporters, while the old one went on in his rapid style, “You’ll soon assimilate the idea. Now, for instance, ‘A dog bites a man’—that’s a story; ‘A man bites a dog’—that’s a good story,” etc., until in a lull there came the question—inevitable from very recent graduates:

“What college are you from Mr. Woods?”
Billy always felt better when this was over.

The author Jesse Lynch Williams went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. QI speculates that Williams was trying to achieve verisimilitude in his novel by relaying an anonymous witty remark he had heard from within the newspaper business.

By August 1902 a version of the adage was being credited to the prominent newspaper editor Charles Anderson Dana. Here is a short item from a paper in Omaha, Nebraska that reprinted information from a paper in Buffalo, New York: 2

The Buffalo Commercial relates that Richard Harding Davis once asked Charles A. Dana: “What constitutes news?” “If you should see a dog biting a man,” replied Dana, “don’t write it up. But if you should see a man biting a dog, spare not money, men nor telegraph tolls to get the details to the Sun office.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading ‘Dog Bites a Man’ Is Not News. ‘Man Bites a Dog’ Is News


  1. 1899, The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories by Jesse Lynch Williams, Chapter: The Old Reporter, Start Page 215, Quote Page 223, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1902 August 3, Omaha Daily Bee, Personal and General, (Paragraph size news item), Quote Page 14, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (Chronicling America)