(1803 - 1882)
The above is quite a well-known verse on success often attributed to Emerson and a few years ago I got quite a few inquiries about its source. In requesting information about this on this website, I received numerous replies. None of these made any claims to Emerson’s authorship, and most note its similarity to a poem entitled "Success" by Bessie Stanley, and consider her to be the original author. This poem has a number of variations in the different texts I’ve seen, but what follows is the one most quoted.
One of the first responses I received, stated that according to Anthony W. Shipps in Notes and Queries for July, 1976, it was written in 1905 by Bessie A. Stanley and was the first-prize winner in a contest sponsored by the magazine Modern Women.
Then, thanks to another reply, I learned from another source, that a woman named Bethanne Larson, who claims to be Bessie Anderson Stanley’s great-granddaughter, has the same story, but with different details. She states that the above poem "was written as the winning entry in a contest run by Brown Book Magazine in 1904."
What I found interesting, and somewhat confusing, was to compare Bessie Stanley’s poem with a version of "Success" supposedly written by Robert Louis Stevenson. This version of the poem follows:
That Man is a Success
As you can readily tell, these two versions are almost identical to each other. But if Stevenson died in 1894, and Bessie Stanley’s poem didn’t emerge until 1904 or 5, this made it rather evident, at least to me, that Stevenson’s version is the earlier or original one. What was puzzling was that his name is only rarely mentioned in connection with this poem. I decided to do a little research. It seemed to me that everything hinged on whether Robert Louis Stevenson did actually write the above. I made some enquiries, and the feedback I received from my local reference librarian as well as the Robert Louis Stevenson Society indicates that he is not the author. Based on this evidence it appears that Bessie Stanley is in fact the original author of this poem.
In what appears to confirm this, I received an email from Lyn Suchan, one of Bessie Stanley's great grand-daughters, that the "Success" poem appeared in the Lincoln Sentinel, Nov. 30, 1905 as the one that won the first prize of $250 in a contest for the best essay on "What constitutes success". According to the Lincoln Sentinel,
"It was required that the essay should be confined to 100 words and should be the best definition of what constituted success, neatness and several of the requirements being taken into consideration. The essay was entered in competition with hundreds of others from all parts of the country."
Last of all, I received an email message message which included a photograph of the monument at the grave of Bessie A. Stanley in Lincoln Kansas. To my surprise, I discovered that the complete "Success" poem is inscribed on that monument.
All this has convinced me that Bessie Stanley is definitely the author of the "Success" poem. If I am missing something here, or if anyone has another piece to this puzzle, please let me know.
1. According to one response, the January 1989 "Wellness Letter" (U. C. Berkeley) printed the version normally attributed to Emerson, giving the author as Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969). Perhaps the "Emerson" in this name got someone confused.
2. The Random House Webster's Quotationary, Leonard Roy Frank, Editor (1999) attributes the line "He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much." to Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915).
3. In the Spring 2000 edition of the Emerson Society Papers is an article "Emerson's 'Success' – Actually, It Is Not", written by Joel Myerson. Regarding this article, I was offered the following review by another detective in search of the secret of "Success":
It's short but interesting, as Joel Myerson tracks down the 2nd volume of a book called, Heart Throbs, published in 1911, which contains the Stanley quote, and then a few pages later, a piece by Emerson titled, "Good-Bye." He concludes that "the proximity of Stanley's work to Emerson's suggests that someone might have made the initial misattribution by copying Stanley's work, then returning to seek the author and mistakenly using Emerson's name from three leaves later; Stanley's name appears on the third line of a verso page, Emerson's on the fifth of a verso page, making such an eyeskip possible." He doesn't address how Robert Louis Stevenson might have gotten connected with the quote, however.
4. Still another respondent felt the poem to be so far beneath the quality of Emerson that this was proof enough that its author was definitely not Emerson. According to this person, this poem is
"trite and prosaic to an embarassing degree. If one is willing to attribute these grotesque lines to such a lofty writer as Emerson, one would have to account for this tremendous decline in his literary gifts and inspiration. Just to illustrate: Emerson could never have indulged in such a clumsy verse as: "to leave the world a bit better." One does not have to be a T.S. Eliot to realize that the poem is ... not by Emerson."
5. Finally, there was one interesting reply from Leland Bond-Upson who offered the following quote:
To live content with small means;This was written by William Henry Channing (1810-1884) who, like Emerson, was also a Transcendentalist. Although it is very different from "Success", Leland's reply offered that "this has the same pedantic feel and plodding meter of 'Success,' and WHC's dates are close to Emerson's. It appears that this type of writing was in vogue in the 2nd half of the 19th C. Even if 'Success' can't be found in WHC's writings, I think a search of the writings of Unitarians of that period are likely to bear fruit." Perhaps someone will be motivated to take an interest and follow this up.
What we are witnessing here is similar to something I witnessed a few years ago having to do with a quote that supposedly came from Nelson Mandela’s inauguration speech on May 10, 1994. I found this quote a number of times on the internet, and it also has to do in part with a fear of success. One source told me it came from a 1992 book by Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love - Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles. Although it is only indirectly related to our inquiry into "Success", I offer this quote as an item of interest.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,Although I found this verse quite inspirational, it also had a "New Age" flavor to it. The dates by themselves already evoked suspicion, so I decided to check it out for myself. I found Mandela’s inauguration speech on the internet, and discovered there no reference to "our deepest fears" or anything else in the quote. It appears that Mandela’s name and reputation was being used as a springboard for someone else's ideas. I checked the book Return to Love, and at first I did not find the quote there. Then someone kindly indicated to me where to look. I was glad to discover the quote there without any mention of Nelson Mandela, and it was clear to me that its author was in fact Marianne Williamson. It is interesting that the person who used this quote to be attributed to Mandela left out one of Williamson's lines: "We are all meant to shine, as children do." It seems that idea did not quite fit in with this person's thoughts.
This "attribution" phenomenon is not new by any means – it is seen throughout history. During the time of the early Christians for example, people were constantly using the name of Paul and other well-known and respected people as the author of somebody else's writings, hoping that these ideas would be accepted more readily. According to scholars, to this day it is not known for certain who is the author of some of the writings or letters traditionally attributed to Paul in the New Testament.
Whether this phenomenon applies to the "Success" poem is not for me to say, but certainly the parallels are strong. If anyone has any more pieces to the puzzle to "Success", please email me.
At age 4, success is...not peeing in your pants.
Last revised: December 22, 2004.