Random quote of the day:
“Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; riches take wings; the only earthly certainty is oblivion…”
—Horace A. Greeley, Recollections of a Busy Life
I’m fascinated by the way some quotes get transformed over time. This quotation is often and widely misquoted as, “Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; riches take wings; only character endures.” Nice quote, but not exactly what Mr. Greeley said.
In Horace A. Greeley’s autobiography, Recollections of a Busy Life, he writes at the end of Chapter 18:
Fame is a vapor; popularity and accident; riches take wings; the only earthly certainty is oblivion; no man can foresee what a day may bring forth; while those who cheer to-day will often curse to-morrow: and yet I cherish the hope that the journal I projected and established will live and flourish long after I shall have mouldered into forgotten dust, being guided by a larger wisdom, a more unerring sagacity to discern the right, though not by a more unfaltering readiness to embrace and defend it at whatever personal cost; and that the stone which covers my ashes may bear to future eyes the still intelligible inscription, “Founder of the New York Tribune.”
Pithy stuff, huh? And wow, amazing usage of commas and semi-colons, huh? I think you can see why the full quote isn’t often used and has been amended with time. But where and when, that’s the question.
In A Memorial to Horace A. Greeley, published in 1873 shortly after Greeley’s death, Rev. E. C. Sweetser quoted Greeley’s autobiography:
Fame is a vapor; popularity and accident; riches take wings; the only earthly certainty is oblivion; no man can foresee what a day may bring forth; while those who cheer to-day will often curse to-morrow…
Sweetser went on to muse, “His character stands out in glorious colors before the world…” Later he again quotes Greeley, talking about his life, saying he was “grateful that it has endured so long, and that it has abounded in opportunities for good…”
Somewhere between 1873 and 1900, the quote got switched up enough that Dr. John Barnett Donaldson in his sermon, “Through Thorns To A Throne,” (in The Two Talents, with Other Papers, Sermons, Leaders) turned part of Greeley’s words into a deathbed speech:
Horace Greeley sighed as he fell asleep, after a bad hour at the last, “Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; riches take wings; those who cheer today will curse tomorrow; only one thing endures; character.” He might have added that only one character survives oblivion, and that is Christ.
Dr. Donaldson is even more creative in the usage of semi-colons than Mr. Greeley. I don’t know if Dr. Donaldson is the originator of the “character” variation on Greeley’s words—the Good Lord knows a poor, beset Rev is sometimes hard-pressed to get historical figures to spout the Proscribed Truth—but I know Donaldson’s variation has been amended and widely used since. It has also been variously attributed to Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman—and others, I’m sure. In the case of Twain, he actually wrote in his Notebooks, “Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.” He was quoting Greeley, but many have not realized this and gone on to attribute the quote to Twain. As to Roosevelt and Truman? It sounds like something these gentlemen might have said, doesn’t it? And in the vast world of misattribution, sometimes that’s enough to get someone’s name plastered on a quote.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this random quote of the day do not necessarily reflect the views of the poster, her immediate family, Siegfried and Roy, Leonard Maltin, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. They do, however, sometimes reflect the views of the Cottingley Fairies.