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, and QI will be glad to examine it for you. Top expert Ralph Keyes wrote in the Quote Verifier [QVLB]:
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:
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.
In 1910 the New York Times reported in a front page story that a disciplinary action was taken against the Wall Street trader Henry Stanley Haskins. The firm Lathrop, Haskins & Co. had failed and a committee report blamed “reckless and unbusinesslike dealing” on the part of Haskins. Understandably, Haskins disagreed and stated that he was being unjustly treated. His defenders claimed that he was a scapegoat [NYHH]:
The Governing Committee of the Stock Exchange, at a special meeting yesterday, took action which practically amounts to the expulsion from the Exchange of Henry Stanley Haskins, the floor member of Lathrop, Haskins Co., leaders in the Hocking pool, which collapsed on Jan. 19.
In 1940 a book containing the adage under investigation was published and a short review in the financial magazine Barron’s commented about its unknown author and its compelling aphoristic content [BMWS]:
One of the most popular guessing games current in downtown New York is finding an answer to the question, “Who wrote ‘Meditations in Wall Street’?” So far there’s no authoritative answer, but this little book deserves reading in any case. It is not just about the Street—in fact, very little of it is devoted to affairs of finance. It is the philosophy of a successful business man and financier—or so it’s stated in the extremely laudatory preface by Mr. Nock—expressed in aphorisms.
Later in March 1940 a reviewer on the opposite coast of the United States in Los Angeles also commented about the mysterious author [LTWS]:
Titled “Meditations in Wall Street,” this book just published by William Morrow & Co., New York, and...
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