Was the poem "Hogamous, Higamous" composed by William James under the influence of nitrous oxide?

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Mar 3 19:36:49 UTC 2011

Hogamus, higamous
Man is polygamous
Higamus, hogamous
Woman monogamous.

This droll poem is included in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations
(online) where it is attributed to the famous psychologist and
philosopher William James based on a 1990 citation in the Oxford Book
of Marriage.

An article in the periodical Verbatim in 2004 discusses this
attribution somewhat critically and presents colorful details from
some references. For example, one book contends that William James was
experimenting with opium when he composed this poem. Another book
claims James was experimenting with nitrous oxide when he created the


Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, psychologist H. J. Eysenck, science
journalist Natalie Angier, composer Arthur Frackenpohl, columnist
Maureen Dowd, and many others have invoked the poem.

Several candidate creators have been mentioned in the literature in
addition to James: Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Lois Gould, Alice Duer
Miller, and the wife of Amos Pinchot.

I have not yet located any solid evidence that James composed this
poem. Below are the salient citations before 1952. I would appreciate
any additional citations or comments that illuminate the history of
this poem. Thanks.

The earliest appearance of this poem that I have found is dated 1939
and this is many years after the death of James in 1910. The Cleveland
Plain Dealer columnist Claire MacMurray contended that the lines were
composed by "Mrs. Amos Pinchot" while she was enfolded in a dream

Cite: 1939 November 23, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Thanksgiving Nightmare
by Claire MacMurray, Page 20, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio.

She dreamed one night that she had written a poem so beautiful, so
wise, so close to the ultimate truth of life that she was immediately
acclaimed by all the peoples on the earth as the greatest poet and
philosopher of all the ages. Still half asleep as the dream ended, she
stumbled out of bed and scribbled the poem down, realizing that she
must take no risk of forgetting such deathless lines. She awoke in the
morning with the feeling that something wonderful was about to
happen—oh, yes! Her poem.

She clutched the precious paper and, tense with excitement, read the
words she had written. Here they are:

Hogamus Higamus
Men are Polygamous
Higamus Hogamus
Women Monogamous

A recurrent theme occurs in tales that profess to describe the
construction of the verse. The composer experiences a hypnagogic
state, sometimes drug-induced, and when he or she emerges from the
state the poem is examined with anticipation followed by
disappointment that is shown or implied.

In May of 1940 the story by Claire MacMurray was given nationwide mass
circulation by being reprinted in the Reader's Digest under the title
"Masterpieces of the Subconscious".

Cite: 1940 May, The Reader's Digest, "Masterpieces of the
Subconscious", Page 104, Volume 36, [Reprint of short piece by Claire
MacMurray from Cleveland Plain Dealer; Text is very similar but not
identical], The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)

The periodical "Public Administration" apparently contains a review of
the 1940 book "A.R.P. and All That (and Other Wartime Stories) by
Clifford Kent Wright that mentions the poem:

There are pictures of the weird dreams and reactions of the
subconscious that might be expected in times so disturbing. A lady in
her dreams is inspired to verse, and, half asleep, gets up to record
the deathless lines. In the morning they read thus: — "Hogamus Higamus
men are Polygamous, Higamus Hogamus women Monogamous."

The text above is extracted from Google Books and has not been
verified on paper.

In 1942 the anecdote is told in the book "Unconsciousness". The author
claims in a footnote that Mrs. Amos Pinchot denies composing the poem.
The gender of the dreamer is switched to male. Immediately after the
account the author discusses the mental effects ether.

Cite: 1942, Unconsciousness by James Grier Miller, Page 131-132, J.
Wiley & Sons, New York. (Questia)

This dissociation from the world of everyday is the main subjective
characteristic of dreams. It appears to be a separate existence
related to the waking life but not bound by its rules and standards.
For instance, there is the story of the composing of a jingle which
has since become so much public property that no one seems to know who
wrote it [69]. As the story goes, the author dreamed one night that he
had written a poem of such ultimate truth that he was immediately
acclaimed to be the greatest poet and philosopher of all time. He
immediately rose and scribbled it down, and the next morning found
that he had written:

    Hogamus Higamus
    Men are Polygamous
    Higamus Hogamus
    Women Monogamous.

Like impairment of judgment in dreams under ether was reported by
Oliver Wendell Holmes [70]. Experimentally he took ether and, while
under it, the key to all the mysteries of philosophy was revealed to
him. As he came to, he still remembered it, and at the first possible
moment scrawled the all-embracing truth on paper. The words were: "A
strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout."
[69] Mrs. Amos Pinchot has repeatedly been incorrectly said to have
been the author of this quatrain. She denies any responsibility for
it, however, and the true author appears to be shrouded in anonymity.

[70] O. W. Holmes, Mechanism in thought and morals, in Pages from an
Old Volume of Life, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895, 283-4.

End excerpt

In 1942 Ogden Nash published a collection that included a short poem
that mentioned polygamy though the word was deliberately misspelled
"polygmy". The poem also contained the nonsense word "hogmy" used in a
pun. The existence of this poem may help to explain why the poem under
investigation is sometimes attributed to Nash.

Cite: 1942 (reprint 1944), Good Intentions by Ogden Nash, Page 52,
Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Google Books snippet; Verified on
paper in 1944 reprint)


Why does the Pygmy
Indulge in polygmy?
His tribal dogma
Frowns on monogma.
Monogma's a stigma
For any Pygma.
If he sticks to monogmy
A Pygmy's a hogmy.

In 1946 an article in the New York Times stated that the verse was
"ascribed by some experts" to the American poet Alice Duer Miller.

Cite: 1946 May 12, New York Times, Women, Page 74, New York. (ProQuest)

By dusk, however, the women achieved unity on the question and adopted
a resolution to include "the right of monogamy" in a world plat-form
on women's rights. The resolution seemed to some to confirm the
philosophy of the short poem (ascribed by some experts to Alice Duer
Miller): "Hoggamus, higgamus, men are polygamous: higgamus, hoggamus,
women monogamous."

In 1952 the poem is attributed to a "literary lady".

Cite 1952 March 15, The Diplomat, Town Talk, Page 7, Diplomat Pub.
Co., Washington D.C. (Verified with scans; Thanks to the librarian at
the Herman Wells Library of Indiana University)

A literary lady dreamt that she had composed a wonderful poem. So
convinced was she of the poem's value to humanity that she woke up and
sleepily committed the masterpiece to paper. In the morning she
scanned her writing-pad eagerly and read:

Hogamous, higamous,
Men are polygamous;
Higamous, hogamous,
Women monogamous.

End excerpt

The earliest attribution to William James that I have located is dated
1953 and appeared in a book by the prominent psychologist H. J.

Cite:  1953, Uses and Abuses of Psychology by H. J. Eysenck, Page 192,
Penguin UK, London. (Questia)

It is doubtful if this learned display of accumulated wisdom gets us
very much further than the famous quatrain which W. James wrote down
during a drug-induced dream. Experimenting with various methods of
influencing consciousness, this famous philosopher several times
dreamed during these states that the secret of life had been imparted
to him, only to find that upon waking he had forgotten it again. He
resolved to write it down immediately, and succeeded in doing so. When
he woke up he hurriedly picked up the sheet of paper, and found that
the secret of life, as written down by him, amounted to this:

Higamus, Hogamus, Woman is monogamous; Hogamus, Higamus, Man is polygamous.

He was somewhat disappointed, although it is difficult to see why.
There is probably more truth in this verse than in most philosophical

End excerpt

Any help tracing this poem would be appreciated,

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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