I was at the High School yesterday for the final assembly of Year 4 before their big exams and their transition into year 5 (or indeed, their transition of out school into work…) The head teacher read a quotation on the nature of success that was attributed to Emerson. It was exactly right for his purposes, but for some reason it niggled. It seemed a bit too modern, a bit too pat. A bit too nice, even, to be Emerson.
And sure enough, it seems to be a false but frequent attribution. The passage was in fact written by a woman called Bessie Stanley for an essay competition on ‘the definition of success’ in 1905. For her efforts, she received the impressive sum of $250, and her essay was published in the Lincoln Sentinel (Lincoln County, Kansas) — on the right page of the paper, facing an essay by Emerson on the left. Clearly, someone linked the two, and Emerson has been named the author ever since.
So my question is this: who got the better deal? Emerson, for taking the credit; or the totally unkown Bessie Stanley, for writing something that has been passed on in Emerson’s name? I suspect Emerson would be less than pleased…
Bessie Stanley, on Success:
(not quite the version read in school)
He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.
And something a bit more Emersonian:
Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet. Then all things are at risk. It is as when a conflagration has broken out in a great city, and no man knows what is safe, or where it will end.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
from the essay ‘Circles’