Keep Your Face Always Towards the Sunshine, and the Shadows Will Fall Behind You

Helen Keller? Walt Whitman? Charles Swain? Celia Burleigh? Lydia G. Worth? Edmund Cooke? M. B. Whitman? Maori Proverb?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular metaphorical framework equates sunlight to positive situations and shadow to unfavorable conditions. Here are two instances of an adage about maintaining an optimistic perspective:

  • Turn your face to the sunshine and the shadows fall behind.
  • Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.

This notion has been credited to prominent poet Walt Whitman and to blind social activist Helen Keller. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the ascription to Walt Whitman occurred because of a naming confusion error. First, a remark in this family was ascribed to M. B. Whitman by 1903. Second, by 1910 the remark was attributed to the single name Whitman without the initials. Third, Walt Whitman received credit by 1919.

A report in 1927 asserted that Helen Keller wrote an instance in an autograph album, but the saying was already in circulation. See detailed citations given further below.

QI conjectures that the saying evolved over time, and a significant nascency occurred in a verse by English poet Charles Swain published in “The Literary Gazette” of London in 1850. The poem “Youth and Age” employed the framework of sunlight and shadows mentioned above. The second verse which referred to youthful exuberance transitioning toward harsher maturity contained the core ideas of the saying under analysis in the two highlighted lines. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

Thus, in the morn of life, our feet
Would distant pathways find;
The sun still face to face we meet—
The shadow falls behind!
But when the morn of life is o’er,
And nature grows less kind;
The length’ning shadow creeps before—
The sunlight falls behind!

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Keep Your Face Always Towards the Sunshine, and the Shadows Will Fall Behind You


  1. 1850 March 16, The Literary Gazette, Original Poetry: Youth and Age by Charles Swain, Quote Page 205, Column 1, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link

The Dirtiest Book in All the World Is the Expurgated Book

Walt Whitman? Horace Traubel? Morris L. Ernst? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Walt Whitman’s landmark poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” was shocking to some of his contemporaries, and he was told by publishers, critics, and attorneys that his work required expurgation. Whitman consented to this censorship initially, but he became increasingly unhappy and angry with this interference over time. The following statement has been attributed to Whitman:

Damn all expurgated books, the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book.

I have not been able to determine where or when Whitman wrote or said these words. Would you please help me?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Walt Whitman made a statement very similar to the one above. Whitman died in 1892, and the earliest citation located by QI was published in 1906 by Horace Traubel who was a friend of the famous poet and his literary executor. Traubel published a volume about his experiences visiting Whitman a few years before the poet’s death titled “With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 — July 14, 1888)”. The book format was a series of dated journal entries, and the entry of Wednesday, May 9, 1888 recounted Whitman’s vivid remark about censorship. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Damn the expurgated books! I say damn ’em! The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book. Rossetti expurgated—avowed it in his preface: a sort of nod to Mrs. Grundy…

The phrasing reported by Traubel differed somewhat from the most common modern quotation, but QI hypothesizes that the modern statement was derived from this journal entry. The name “Rossetti” in the remark referred to William Rossetti who published an early expurgated edition of “Leaves of Grass”. The name “Mrs. Grundy” referred to an archetypal figure embodying prudish, priggish, and narrow-minded attitudes.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Dirtiest Book in All the World Is the Expurgated Book


  1. 1906, With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 — July 14, 1888), by Horace Traubel, Journal Date: May 9, 1888, Quote Page 124, Published by Small, Maynard & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link