Sometimes You Eat the Bear, and Sometimes the Bear Eats You

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Sam Elliott? Ethan Coen? Joel Coen? Bertrand W. Sinclair? Carl O. Sauer? Roger Penske? Jim Croce? Preacher Roe? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of ursine sayings about the topsy-turvy vicissitudes of life:

1) Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.
2) Sometimes you hunt the bear, and sometimes the bear hunts you.
3) Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you.

A version of the first statement was spoken during the 1998 movie “The Big Lebowski” whose screenplay was written by the Coen brothers. Would you please examine the provenance of this family?

Dear Quote Investigator: An interesting precursor was included in an essay titled “Farming” published in an 1870 collection by the influential transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson. The early human diet included foods derived from plants and animals, but hunting megafauna was a dangerous endeavor. Emerson described a beleaguered primal figure. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

He is a poor creature; he scratches with a sharp stick, lives in a cave or a hutch, has no road but the trail of the moose or bear; he lives on their flesh when he can kill one, on roots and fruits when he cannot. He falls, and is lame; he coughs, he has a stitch in his side, he has a fever and chills: when he is hungry, he cannot always kill and eat a bear;—chances of war,—sometimes the bear eats him.

Emerson’s essays were reprinted in many editions during the ensuing decades, and QI believes the passage above probably facilitated the emergence of the modern adage.

Another precursor appeared in an item printed in an Alexandria, Louisiana newspaper in 1894. The two-fold contingent nature of encounters with bears was highlighted: 2

The farmers of this community are about done gathering their crops, and many of them are now in the woods gathering up their hogs. Some of them so engaged a few days ago ran across a bear in Calcasieu swamp so the first question asked now when they return from the swamp is, “Did you get the bear, or did the bear get you?”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Sometimes You Eat the Bear, and Sometimes the Bear Eats You

Notes:

  1. 1870, Society and Solitude: Twelve Chapters by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay: Farming, Start Page 115, Quote Page 128, Sampson Low, Son, & Marston, London, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1894 December 15, The Weekly Town Talk, Shady Grove Items, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Alexandria, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)