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The Evolution of a Quote: Misconceived, Misattributed, Misconstrued

Yesterday a professional contact of mine shared the following message on Facebook:

"Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage." – Ralph Waldo Emerson

This contact of mine is a business marketer with a highly entrepreneurial approach to living, and frequently posts quotes like these as a motivation to keep trying, never give up, and have faith that things will work out if we strive and believe.

Misconstrued
There’s a virtue-by-persecution aspect to this quotation that suggests criticism and opposition are irrelevant or, what’s more, a sign that you’re on the right track. It may be true that people are often criticized for work of high quality, but it’s also true that people are often criticized for work of low quality. There may always be someone to tell you that you are wrong, but sometimes that’s because you actually are wrong. There may be difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right, and we all have been told with resist temptation, but what if your critics are right after all? To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage, and we all have been told how virtuous courage is, but what if you’ve mapped out a course of action that takes you over a cliff? Courageous + blind = dead.

Misattributed
I was so disappointed in this quote that I began to question whether the thoughtful mind of Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered it at all. This question is easily resolved with a visit to the online index of the complete lectures, letters and other written works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, a quick search of which reveals that Emerson wrote no such thing. Someone has tried to grant legitimacy to this questionable idea by attaching the fictional authorship of Emerson in an appeal to literary authority. I suppose they might courageously say that I’m a naysayer doubting the wisdom of their course, but nothing will change the fact that they’ve misquoted.

[Update: a handy tip in the comments section indicates that the online source linked to above is not entirely complete. However, see below for indications that Emerson is not the source.]

If Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t write this misguided motivational treacle, who did write it? Thanks to technology, sleuthing this sort of question out is not as hard as it used to be. A search of Google’s extensive archive of phrases in books reveals that the phrase “map out a course” does not appear in books until 1864, at the fading end of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s long career as an author:

The phrase "map out a course" does not appear in books until 1864

The earliest search result in the Google Books archive for the more complete phrase “map out a course of action and follow it” is the 1908 book Keep Up Your Courage: Keynotes to Success by Mary Allette Ayer. Keep Up Your Courage is one of many books in which Ayer lists motivational quotations on various themes from various sources; this book features the following quotation:

Whatever you do, you need courage.  Whatever course you decide upon, there is always some one to tell you you are wrong.  There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right.  To map out a course of action and follow it to the end, requires some of the same courage which a soldier needs.  Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men to win them. - Young People's Weekly

The attribution to the magazine Young People’s Weekly is important, because Ayer makes plain in the introduction to her book that she admires Ralph Waldo Emerson and considers him a valuable source. Ayer provides 11 quotes of Ralph Waldo Emerson with the explicit permission of his publisher, and always cites him by name without source. According to Ayer, the Young People’s Weekly quotations come from its producer, the Christian tract publisher David C. Cook.

Misconstrued
Did you notice the transformation in the quote’s content from its apparently original publication in Young People’s Weekly to its modern version? The last sentences have been truncated: “To map out a course of action and follow it to the end, requires some of the same courage which a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men to win them.” This thought, that peace takes courage and that courage lies not merely in physical fights but in conscientious non-violent deeds, has been deemed culturally unworthy in modern times.

5 comments to The Evolution of a Quote: Misconceived, Misattributed, Misconstrued

  • Dave

    Wonderful sleuthing, Jim. I like moon walking astronaut Jim Irwin’s story of how mapping out a course of action works in reality. He said that the targeted landing strip for the LEM was 500 miles long (his landing was only inches from the end of the strip) and that in actuality we simply had thrown the astronauts at the moon. Course corrections were made sometimes every few hours, sometimes every 15 seconds. For those guys, “mapp[ing] out a course of action and follow[ing] it to the end” without vital feedback and course corrections would have been disastrous.

    Your final thought, that peace takes courage and is a culturally worthy goal,in the light of Irwin’s experience might look something like
    a) set a wide target (peace)
    b) throw ourselves at it (courage)
    c) be prepared for course corrections along the way (humility)

  • You are most likely correct, but you base part of your research on an incomplete source. The online index you consulted of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s works only indexes those works published up until the early 20th century. His journals were published in a greatly truncated form at that time, but the full text of his journals, published by Harvard University Press, in 16 volumes, is about six times as long as the edited versions.

    Nevertheless, it doesn’t sound like Emerson.

    • I was misled by the “complete works” description on the website — thanks for the tip!

      This makes it more important for me to actually find the original source. I look forward to that.

  • I happened to be researching this quote myself while working on my own quote pages, some of which appear in the top 10 hits for Google searches. It appeared to have problems, but now that I have stumbled on your analysis I’m quite happy to let you run with it. Over the past several years I’ve spent tons of time trying to authenticate the quotes on my site, often to find that there are no sources. The web is great for spreading misinformation. Nice analysis. You might also look at the techniques used by The Quote Investigator.

  • Robin

    Fantastic follow-through. Thank you.

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