Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house, in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, the poem was originally part of a play called The Psyco-ed, which Mearns had written for an English class at Harvard University, circa 1899. In 1910, Mearns staged the play with the Plays and Players, an amateur theatrical group, and on March 27, 1922, the newspaper columnist FPA printed the poem in "The Conning Tower", his column in the New York World. Mearns subsequently wrote many parodies of this poem, giving them the general title of Later Antigonishes.
"Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn't there!
He wasn't there again today,
Oh how I wish he'd go away!"
When I came home last night at three,
The man was waiting there for me
But when I looked around the hall,
I couldn't see him there at all!
Go away, go away, don't you come back any more!
Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door...
Last night I saw upon the stair,
A little man who wasn't there,
He wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish he'd go away....
- In 1939, "Antigonish" was adapted as a popular song titled "The Little Man Who Wasn't There", by Harold Adamson with music by Bernie Hanighen, both of whom received the songwriting credits.
- A July 12, 1939 recording of the song by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, with vocals by Tex Beneke, became an 11-week hit on Your Hit Parade and reached #7.
Other versions were recorded by:
- Mildred Bailey & Her Orchestra
- Larry Clinton & His Orchestra with vocals by Ford Leary
- Bob Crosby & His Orchestra with vocals by Teddy Grace
- Jack Teagarden & His Orchestra with vocals by Teagarden
- In 2018, the experimental industrial group The Reptile Skins released an EP entitled Antigonish with the two lead singers having a different interpretation of the poem.
- Colombo, John Robert (1984). Canadian Literary Landmarks. Dundurn Press. ISBN 978-0-88882-073-0.
- McCord, David Thompson Watson (1955). What Cheer: An Anthology of American and British Humorous and Witty Verse. New York: The Modern Library. p. 429.
- Kahn, E. J. (September 30, 1939). "Creative Mearns". The New Yorker. p. 11.
- Colombo (2000), p.47.
- Mearns, quoted by Hayakawa, Samuel Ichiyé & Hayakawa, Alan R. (1990). Language in Thought and Action. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 96. ISBN 9780156482400.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
- Mearns, quoted by Colombo, John Robert (2000). Ghost Stories of Canada. Dundurn. p. 46. ISBN 9781550029758.. Italics and exclamation points.
- Mearns, quoted by Gardner, Martin (2012). Best Remembered Poems. Courier. p. 107. ISBN 9780486116402. Italics and exclamation points.