Nightfall”, a 1941 novelette by Isaac Asimov, is possibly his most well-known and acclaimed work. It was prompted by a discussion between Asimov and John W. Campbell concerning a quotation from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God!

Asimov’s take, as detailed in Nightfall, was that in this situation men would instead go insane.

I read about the genesis of the story more than ten years ago in “The Early Asimov, Volume 2” (published in 1974), where Asimov wrote that he had never been able to actually track down the source of the quotation. From that, I assumed that it must either be really obscure, or that it had simply been mis-attributed to Emerson. Today, however, it seems to be well-known that the quotation comes from Emerson’s essay “Nature”. When did the source quotation become known to the sci-fi community - did Asimov live to see its identification?

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    Not that it matters at all to the question, but I would have thought "I, Robot" (and the robot stories in general) and "Foundation" (and its sequels etc) are many times more well-known than "Nightfall".
    – IMSoP
    Jan 4, 2021 at 9:07
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    @IMSoP Maybe "I, Robot", at least now since that Will Smith movie, but a few decades ago "Nightfall" was (I believe) the most reprinted and anthologised SF story ever. As for "Foundation", again, those got a boost in popularity when the later sequels came along. It's dubious. Jan 5, 2021 at 16:48
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    @PrimeMover The Will Smith movie was only called that because it was such a well-known title, and thus a saleable brand; they rewrote a previously drafted script to include the references. As for "later boost in popularity", the last "Foundation" prequel was published nearly three decades ago, so it's not like we're in the grip of some passing fad. It may be that Nightfall is the most famous single story, but the Foundation and Robot series get the top billing in just about every biography I found in a quick web search, just as "Lord of the Rings" would for JRR Tolkein.
    – IMSoP
    Jan 5, 2021 at 17:43
  • I thought Nightfall is the opposite situation: The stars disappear once in a thousand years?
    – tgdavies
    Feb 1, 2021 at 10:02
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    @tgdavies the local system's suns disappear (all set at once) with that frequency, which is what allows 'stars' to be seen
    – AakashM
    Feb 1, 2021 at 12:22

1 Answer 1


The quotation wasn't really obscure. Once The Early Asimov was published, where Asimov said that he couldn't find its source, he was immediately informed about it by several readers:

A few years ago, I admitted in print that I had never been able to find the source of the quotation. At once, dozens of letters arrived giving me the precise reference. So please, Gentle Readers, cease and desist from here on in. I now know.
from The Nightfall Effect, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1976

As already noted in the question, the quotation is from Emerson’s essay Nature. The complete reference is “Nature. Boston: James Munroe and Company. 1836.” The essay is available online and has a Wikipedia entry.

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    So, what is the precise reference?
    – Spencer
    Jan 3, 2021 at 23:51
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    @Spencer: The quotation is from the essay “Nature.” The reference is “Nature. Boston: James Munroe and Company. 1836.” Clara has linked it in her question. The essay also has a Wikipedia entry.
    – Ubik
    Jan 4, 2021 at 0:02
  • Thank you @Ubik, I've read a lot of Asimov, but somehow never encountered that essay. Good to know the matter was resolved! Jan 4, 2021 at 0:26
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    The 1970s version of "every few years that dang tweet comes back up and my DMs fill with people explaining why it was wrong..." Jan 5, 2021 at 3:04
  • You should add the reference to your answer Jan 5, 2021 at 21:01

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