The Robert Louis Stevenson Archive

Spurious Quotations

Quotations often wrongly ascribed to RLS

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1) ‘There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves us all not to talk about the rest of us’ (variant: ‘… that it hardly becomes any of us to talk about the rest of us’).

This is used in Thornton Wilder’s Pullman Car Hiawatha, a one-act play first published in 1931 (in many ways, a draft of Our Town). A series of characters representing various towns, fields, workers, etc.come out onto stage to deliver small pieces of information as well as a motto derived from various works of literature. The first character to come onstage is a small boy, aged ten or so. There is a stage direction which says he speaks in ‘a foolish voice as though he were reciting a piece at a Sunday school entertainment.’ He says ‘I represent Grovers Corners, Ohio. Eight hundred twenty-one souls. “There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves us all not to talk about the rest of us.” Robert Louis Stevenson.  Thank ya.’ Then he exits.

The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations attributes this to Edward Wallis Hoch (1848–1925) and notes that it has been ‘attributed to many other authors.’ Bartlett's Familiar Quotations adds that it first appeared in the Marion, Kansas, Record, a newspaper owned by Hoch, who was at the time governor of Kansas, “and assumed to have been written by him”. Date not given. Another attribution is to historian James Truslow Adams (1878-1949).
The attribution to RLS predates Wilder: '[Stevenson is ] the man who declared that there is so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that fault-finding by any of us is an unseemly piece of work' (Henry de Vere Stacpoole, François Villon, his Life and Times, 1916, p. 245).

2) ‘How to Be Happy'

1. Make up your mind to be happy. Learn to find pleasure in simple things.
2. Make the best of your circumstances. No one has everything, and everyone has something of sorrow intermingled with gladness of life. The trick is to make the laughter outweigh the tears.
3. Don't take yourself too seriously. Don't think that somehow you should be protected from misfortune that befalls other people.
4. You can't please everybody. Don't let criticism worry you.
5. Don't let your neighbor set your standards. Be yourself.
6. Do the things you enjoy doing but stay out of debt.
7. Never borrow trouble. Imaginary things are harder to bear than real ones.
8. Since hate poisons the soul, do not cherish jealousy, enmity, grudges. Avoid people who make you unhappy.
9. Have many interests. If you can't travel, read about new places.
10. Don't hold post-mortems. Don't spend your time brooding over sorrows or mistakes. Don't be one who never gets over things.
11. Do what you can for those less fortunate than yourself.
12. Keep busy at something. A busy person never has time to be unhappy.’

The list is found in several internet citations but is not found in Stevenson’s works. It seems to be modelled on the poem 'Desiderata' by Max Ehrman (1927), which is sometimes wrongly attributed to a memorial in 'Old Saint Paul's Church, Baltimore A.D. 1692.'

Max Ehrman, like Bessie A. Stanley in the following quotation, were possibly inspired by passages in RLS, like the following from 'Lay Morals': ' To be of a quick and healthy blood, to share in all honourable curiosities, to be rich in admiration and free from envy, to rejoice greatly in the good of others, to love with such generosity of heart that your love is still a dear possession in absence or unkindness - these are the gifts of fortune which money cannot buy and without which money can buy nothing'.

The same Stevenson quote may have inspired the anonymous author of the quotation usually (and wrongly) attributed to Emerson: 'To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; 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 - that is to have succeeded.' The structure is the same: the list of infinitives and the simple formula at the end. The quote never seems to be attributed to RLS, but the following (clearly related) text is attributed to both RLS and Emerson.

3) Success

He has achieved success who has lived well,
laughed often and loved much;
who has enjoyed the trust of pure women,
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 is a benediction.

A prize-winning piece in a Modern Women competition by Bessie A. Stanley (1905) (cf. Anthony W. Shipps in Notes and Queries, July 1976), though it is often attributed to Stevenson as well as to Emerson. However, Bethanne Larson, who claims to be Bessie Anderson Stanley’s great-granddaughter, states that the above poem ‘was written as the winning entry in a contest run by Brown Book Magazine in 1904.’ (see Another great-granddaughter says that the piece was first printed in The Lincoln Sentinel, Nov. 30, 1905, the first prize for a brief 100-word essay on ‘What constitutes success?’. This information is from The Lincoln Sentinel publication is also attested at, where the words are printed out as prose.

4) The best things in life are nearest

The best things in life are nearest: Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life.

Another list of 'simple pleasures', this time in the form of noun phrases, followed by imperatives, as in Ehrman's 'Desiderata' and the anonymous 'How to be a success'.

5)‘A friend is a gift you give yourself’ (or: ‘A friend is a gift you give to yourself’, ‘A friend is a present you give yourself’,‘A friend is a present you give to yourself’).

Often attributed to Stevenson on the internet but not found in his works. It has been suggested (but so far with no precise references) that it is by Baltasar Gracian, a seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit (who wrote other aphorisms such as ‘Friendship multiplies the good in life and divides the evil’).

6) The person who has stopped being thankful has fallen asleep in life

This is actually a version of a genuine quote (from a letter of April 1884 to Trevor Haddon (Letters vol. 4: 276): ‘You seem to me to be a pretty lucky young man; keep your eyes open to your mercies. That part of piety is eternal; and the man who forgets to be grateful has fallen asleep in life’), though only one internet source gives the correct wording.

7) ‘Keep your fears to yourself, but share your inspiration/courage with others’, 'Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant', 'You cannot run away from a weakness; you must sometimes fight it out or perish. And if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?'

None of these seem to come from any of Stevenson's works – perhaps assigned to him in the period when he was seen above all as ‘morally-inspiring writer’.

8) 'Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences'

This (and its variants) are mostly attributed to Stevenson on internet pages. The sentence, though not found in his works, is based on a genuine quotation from the essay 'Old Mortality':
'Books were the proper remedy: books of vivid human import, forcing upon their minds the issues, pleasures, busyness, importance and immediacy of that life in which they stand; books of smiling or heroic temper, to excite or to console; books of a large design, shadowing the complexity of that game of consequences to which we all sit down, the hanger-back not least.'
In contrast to the thousands of hits for spurious version, Stevenson's actual quote gets only 4 hits.

9) 'Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer'

Over 2000 hits with Stevenson attribution on Google - but not by Stevenson.

10) 'A Christmas Prayer' or 'A Christmas Blessing'

Loving Father, Help us remember the birth of Jesus, that we may share in the song of angels, the gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the wise men. Close the door of hate and open the door of love all over the world. Let kindness come with every gift and good desires with every greeting.
Deliver us from evil by the blessing which Christ brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts. May the Christmas morning make us happy to be Thy children, and the Christmas evening bring us to our beds with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for Jesus' sake, Amen!

Roger Swearingen writes: 'Stevenson did write prayers, mostly to use in his extended household in Samoa, and these appear in most collected editions of his work. His cousin and biographer Graham Balfour also published the same group of prayers at the end of his Life of Robert Louis Stevenson (1901).
But this prayer is not among them. Not only is the source un-findable in Stevenson's works, none of his other prayers refer either to Jesus or to angels, nor does he do so in his letters. (This is probably a carry-over from his Scots Presbyterian background.)'

11) The father of 2012 Republican US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, wrote to him in 1967 “The author, Robert Louis Stevenson, was greatly afflicted with illness and other handicaps, yet he gained immortality by what he did in the midst of affliction. He wrote: “Despair not, but if you despair, work on in your despair”.ʼ Time 29 March 2012.28

This seems to be a spurious quotation, not found in RLSʼs works or letters, despite several hundred Google hits attributing it to him.

12) 'It is not enough we write to be understood. We must write so we cannot possibly be misunderstood'; this epigram and variants of it comes up many times on Internet searches attributed to Stevenson, but it has not be traced on his works.

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