Friday, 26 March 2010

What Is Success?

If you google "What Is Success" and "Ralph Waldo Emerson" you should sooner or later find this poem:

What is Success
Ralph Waldo Emerson
To laugh often and love much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the approval of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one’s self;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived…
This is to have succeeded.

Bearing in mind Emerson's transcendentalist tendencies you probably would not think twice about its origin, in fact; very few seem to have done so lately. However, lovely and flowery powery though he was, a closer study would suggest that he was not the origin of this poem.
Not the author of "What Is Success"?

What seems to have happened is something like this. One Saturday in early November 1905, Elizabeth-Anne Anderson Stanley was sitting at the cleared dinner table in the house she shared with her husband A.J in Lincoln, Kansas. History seems to have forgotten the man behind these initials. Let us for all intents and purposes call him Adam.

She had just been outside preparing her Isis garden for the winter. She felt a certain commitment to her neighbours who were often visiting and complimenting her on her horticultural touch. However, at the moment she was exercising another of her talents. Pen in hand she was re-reading the article in "Brown Book Magazine". The George Livingston Richards Co. of Boston, Massachusetts would pay $250 for the best essay on "What constitutes success". Elizabeth-Anne, or Bessie as most of her friends called her, knew that she should at least try to win the prize. After all, she considered herself to be quite deservedly successful and she loved poetry, so if she could keep within the limit of 100 words she could do with the extra money. She started with one of her own experiences: "He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much ..."

Bessie Stanley

It was Saturday the 25th and a couple of weeks since Bessie had submitted her essay. Adam had had to help her with the length and some of the words, but the poetic rythm and the patriotic sobriety to the essay were all hers. Despite this, she had never really considered herself a likely candidate for the prize. Hundreds of other submissions had reportedly poured in from all parts of the country and there was probably someone out there with a more extensive career as an essayist than her. Just as she resigned herself to reading up on the reported turmoil in Russia and the newly established monarchy of her grandfather's native Norway there was a knock at the door.

The man at the door was wearing a tweed suit and gave them his card to verify his association with the "Brown Book Magazine". He said that her 96 word essay had won the prize and would soon be published in the magazine. At first she thought it some kind of trick; her husband was known to play practical jokes on her, and she laughingly offered him half the prize money in appreciation. However, when the man reproduced the draft she had submitted, reality dawned.

The following Thursday one of her local newspapers printed her essay:

"Lincoln Sentinel, Nov. 30, 1905
"What Constitutes Success"
A $250 Prize Story by a Lincoln Woman

Below we give Mrs. Stanley’s essay on "What Constitutes Success."

"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.""
A month later, the Lincoln Republican added:

"Lincoln Republican, 21 December 1905

Mrs. A.J. Stanley not only won $250 by her prize essay, "What Constitutes Success"; but has won considerable notoriety. Her name and her essay has already been published in a large proportion of the newspapers of Kansas, as well as in papers of other states, and doubtless will be published in half of, if not in every state in the Union before the incident is closed."
Bessie and A.J. Stanley reportedly used the prize money to pay down their mortgage.

25 years later, in the 30's the a poetic version of the essay was included in the esteemed "Bartlet's Familiar Quotations" under "success". On the oppsing page, a quotation from Emerson was printed. Yet some years later, Bessie's entry had been removed from Bartlet's but was frequently quoted in Ann Landers' advice column in the "Chicago Sun-Times". However, as one of Bessies legal-minded decendant would later have rectified in "The Ann Landers Encyclopedia", the "What Is Success" poem was consistently misquoted and attributed to Emerson.
One of the Ann Landers'es

As an ironic twist of fate, he poem owes much of its popularity and survival to the Ann Landers column even though Bessie seems to have got the bad end of the deal. Ralph Waldo Emerson would never know what a lovely poem he had supposedly written, but irregardless of copyright, the poem lives on and inspires young and old 100 years after its genesis.
Sources:,,,,,,,, last visited 26.3.10
(Please note that this is my artistic renering of events as percieved and developed from the above material. Apart from the assumed verity of the above sources, I can hold no claim to have presented the objective truth and have adapted the story for continuity and appeal. Therefore this article makes no definite claim of the origin of the poem "What Is Success")

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