Albert Jay Nock? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Henry David Thoreau? Henry Stanley Haskins? William Morrow? Expelled Wall Street Stock Trader?
Dear Quote Investigator: I attended a graduation ceremony last year and was genuinely impressed by a quotation used in the keynote address:
What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
The speaker credited Ralph Waldo Emerson and that sounded plausible to me, but when I searched on the internet to find a specific reference I was surprised to discover substantial disagreement. Some websites do attribute the words to Emerson, but other websites favor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and yet others credit Henry David Thoreau. Also, I found the wording varies somewhat. Not one of the attributions has a strong justification. Too many websites simply copy information from other repositories of unconfirmed data. Could you overcome this confusion?
Quote Investigator: This popular motivational saying has been ascribed to a diverse collection of individuals. Expert Ralph Keyes wrote in the Quote Verifier: 1
This quotation is especially beloved by coaches, valedictorians, eulogists, and Oprah Winfrey. It usually gets attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. No evidence can be found that Emerson said or wrote these words.
The earliest appearance of this adage located by QI is in a book titled “Meditations in Wall Street” that was produced in 1940 by the publishing house William Morrow & Company with an introduction by economics writer Albert Jay Nock. The word “before” is used instead of “ahead” in this initial saying: 2
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
When the book was originally released the name of the author was kept a mystery although the wordsmith was described as a Wall Street financier. However, that did not prevent eager quotation propagators from fabricating attributions. The maxim has been assigned to the introduction writer, Nock, and it has even been credited to the head of the publishing house, William Morrow.
In 1947 the New York Times printed the author’s identity: Henry S. Haskins, a man with a colorful and controversial background as a securities trader. QI believes that Haskins originated this popular saying which has in modern times been reassigned to more famous individuals.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading What Lies Behind Us and What Lies Before Us are Tiny Matters Compared to What Lies Within Us
- 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 253-254, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1940, Meditations in Wall Street by Anonymous, With an Introduction by Albert Jay Nock, (“Anonymous” was Henry Stanley Haskins), Quote Page 131, William Morrow & Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) ↩