The war will progress from horror to horror,” he declared, “and with it the protest, disgust, and anger of the people will deepen.” What to do? Why, head overseas to meet with the enemy leader, naturally. It never hurts to talk, and the encounter might just lead to peace. This little narrative, which would fit any number of current politicians, was the final episode in the career of Elbert Green Hubbard (1856–1915), a true American original. Once world-famous, now obscure, Hubbard was a unique amalgam of essayist, huckster, impresario, sage, and egomaniac.
It was the last attribute that cost him his life. On a mission to see Kaiser Wilhelm II and stop World War I in its tracks, he and his second wife, Alice, boarded a ship to Europe. At dockside in New York City, Hubbard ebulliently informed reporters that he was a negotiator without portfolio, an “ex-officio General Inspector of the Universe, with power to investigate anything in any way I choose, as long as I do not violate the Pure-Food laws.” The inspector never reached his destination. On the morning of May 7, 1915, as the RMS Lusitania cut through the Irish Sea, a German torpedo hit her prow. She sank in 18 minutes. Among the 1,190 victims who drowned were Elbert and Alice, last seen arm in arm as they headed for their stateroom.
The next morning, newspaper obits brimmed with the deceased’s achievements—and aphorisms:
Many a man’s reputation would not know his character if they met on the street. To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.
No one ever gets far unless he accomplishes the impossible at least once a day.
Editor: A person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.
Men are not punished for their sins, but by them.
You can lead a boy to college, but you can’t make him think.
The teacher is one who makes two ideas grow where only one grew before.
Enthusiasm is the great hill-climber.
Of all the subjects that consumed him, Hubbard knew most about hill climbing. He came from nowhere—or, to be more specific, from the tiny hamlet of Hudson, Illinois, where he grew up in a hard-shell Baptist household. His father was a prim small-town physician who made calls in a horse-driven gig. His mother was a long-faced homemaker who had lost three sons in infancy or early childhood. Melancholia never seemed to leave the large frame house; even the drop-ins were sad. Elbert recalled a series of Civil War veterans, “gaunt and bearded men in uniform, some invalids, some drunkards and broken with vice,” who needed his father’s aid and counsel.
Perhaps in rebellion against this blue background, Elbert was buoyant, humorous, optimistic, a whirlwind of positive energy. After high school, he hit the road as a soap salesman. His powers of persuasion made Harold Hill, the ebullient drummer of The Music Man, look like a victim of chronic fatigue syndrome. “When I arrived in a town,” wrote Hubbard, “the bus driver smiled, the babies cooed, the dogs barked, and the dining-room girls giggled. I scattered smiles, lilac-tinted stories, patchouli persiflage, good cheer, and small silver change all over the route. . . . And I sold the goods.”
He sold so many, in fact, that by 1881 he had established himself as a partner in the J. D. Larkin Soap Company, whose products he peddled with such panache. That year, he courted and married a pretty girl named Bertha Crawford, from Normal, Illinois. Elbert had swept Bertha off her feet during one of his downstate trips. “She was to bear three sons and a daughter,” notes Hubbard biographer Freeman Champney, “and to get on his nerves dreadfully.”
The young couple relocated to East Aurora, New York, 18 miles south of Buffalo, where Larkin had its headquarters. As he began his third decade, Elbert G. Hubbard was poised to become the George F. Babbitt of his epoch, fashionably mustachioed, barbered, and tailored, spouting bromides, raising a family in prosperous, horsey suburbia, getting on in the Gilded Age. But a funny thing happened on the way to prosperity: he fell in love. The object of his affection was Alice Moore of neighboring Wales, a rather plain, highly intelligent schoolteacher and one of the area’s first “liberated women.” Later—13 years later—Elbert acknowledged that Alice “had caused me, at thirty-three years of age, to be born again.”
Part of that rebirth was a sudden desire to pursue a literary career. The love affair remained clandestine; the aspiration did not. In 1892, Elbert sold his Larkin shares for $75,000, a princely sum in those days (“I have sloughed my commercial skin,” he told his mother), took Greek and Latin lessons from a local minister, developed a voracious appetite for American and English literature, and applied for admission to Harvard. He entered the university in September of the following year; three months later, he dropped out, disenchanted with the faculty. One incident was particularly wounding. “Professor Jarrett Bennett,” he remembered, deigned to read a composition by the 35-year-old freshman. “On being ushered into the Presence, I stood first on one foot, then t’other, and rolled my hat in the vain hope of giving the impression of the humility which I did not feel. Finally the ass opened its mouth and spake: I was told that my work was totally lacking . . . that I would never make a writer.”
Hubbard had a low threshold for rejection. Fueled by acrimony, he quit Cambridge and set out to prove his professor wrong. He scribbled three novels (all published, all ignored) and made notes for a series of essays on great men. For research, he traveled to England, visiting the homes of early-nineteenth-century writers and artists. Upon return, Elbert shuttled surreptitiously between two households in upstate New York: Alice’s in Potsdam, and Bertha’s in East Aurora. He acquired some modest stone buildings near the East Aurora home, and there founded a monthly “magazine of protest.”
Well aware of Matthew Arnold’s pejorative use of “philistine” to describe the vulgar and unlettered, he impudently called his publication The Philistine. The pocket-size periodical allowed for no sacred cows and viewed the robber barons with particular disdain. In Hubbard’s view, “Millionaires as a rule are woefully ignorant. Up to a certain sum, they grow with their acquisitions. Then they begin to wither at the heart. The care of a fortune is a penalty. I advise the gentle reader to think twice before accumulating ten millions.” The Philistine was a hit from issue one. Some 52,000 impulse buyers snatched up the first copy, and soon an audience of 126,000 was quoting Elbert’s iconoclastic views. Readers loved it when he criticized high society and the medical establishment, and lampooned the academy with pseudo-ads:
H2 BOYESSEN, Literary Analyst
Ibsen interpreted while you wait
Columbia College, N.Y.
Not all Hubbard views were negative. Presenting himself as a latter-day Ralph Waldo Emerson, the writer/editor trumpeted the virtues of self-reliance and urged his readers to choose homemade goods over mass-produced ones.
The handiwork and socialist philosophy of William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement in Britain, particularly impressed him. Morris paid homage to medieval textiles and furniture, producing some of the most beautiful designs of the nineteenth century; Hubbard believed that the time was propitious for an American version. In 1895, he founded the Roycrofters, named for the seventeenth-century English bookbinders and artisans Samuel and Thomas Roycroft. Like them, Elbert and a group of newly hired colleagues started from scratch, designing their own fonts, making their own paper, and producing their own volumes, page by page.
The first effort was a reprint of the Song of Songs. This was not an arbitrary or a theological choice. Though Elbert had turned into a freethinker who believed that “formal religion was organized for slaves,” he found backing for his clandestine affair in King Solomon’s sonorities. Accompanying the book was a “study” written by the main Roycrofter. “Surely the love of man and woman is not an ungodly thing,” proclaimed Hubbard, “else why should God have made it? ‘God’s dice are loaded,’ says Emerson, and further he adds, ‘All natural love between boy and girl, man and woman, is a lovely object, for the richness of its mental and spiritual possibilities are to us unguessed.’ ”
This essay was part of an elaborate defense built against the day when the dalliance with Alice might become public. Elbert would need it. For in the fall of 1894, he became the father of two daughters: Katherine by Bertha, and Miriam by Alice. To avoid scandal, Alice parked her infant with a sister in Buffalo and went off to address suffragette rallies in New England and the West. Aside from a few well-chosen confidantes, no one was the wiser. But the clock was ticking down to denouement.
On the last page of Song of Songs appeared a proud declaration: “no power save the Human Muscle” had created the book. If the Roycrofters’ debut was a bit rough around the edges, succeeding volumes showed more than brute force; they were objets d’art. Some bore suede covers and gilded edges; others came bound in blue leather, collectors’ items from the moment they rolled off the presses.
The Philistine also gained stature and popularity with each issue. Stephen Crane’s writing appeared in its pages; so did Shaw’s, Kipling’s, and Tolstoy’s. Hubbard had a different affect now: a broad-brimmed hat sat atop his clean-shaven face, and he took to wearing elongated Western-style jackets and a large velvet bow tie. Countercultural when counterculture wasn’t cool, he called himself “Fra Elbertus.” The Fra was a sort of medieval monk gone modern, abandoning poverty, chastity, and obedience to worship at the twin altars of Art and Commerce.
In that spirit, Hubbard founded another periodical, this one called Fra and subtitled “A journal of affirmation.” Unlike The Philistine, with its A-list contributors, Fra was basically a one-man show. The new magazine had a larger format (9 by 14 inches) allowing for longer copy, and, of greater significance, illustrated ads. These presented another kind of A-list: major American products, including Kellogg’s cereals, Wrigley’s chewing gum, B. F. Goodrich tires, Ford and Studebaker automobiles, and Equitable life insurance. In his new magazine, Elbert wrote blurbs for various items and services—for a fee. George Batten, a founder of the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne, looked on admiringly: “For anyone to deny the cleverness of Hubbard is like saying that flying machines can’t fly. Hubbard has always been smart. He makes and sells everything from literature to andirons.”
Besides writing, publishing, and managing, Elbert went on lecture tours, appearing in 18 cities in nine states. Full houses greeted him everywhere. He also did a turn in vaudeville, lecturing on the same bill with the Scottish comedian Harry Lauder. Predictably, he adored the limelight: Sir Harry later described Hubbard as the only performer he knew who wore his makeup offstage. He wasn’t the only one to view the dynamo with something less than awe. Shaw exploded when Elbert edited him, and Kipling threatened to sue when the title of one poem wound up changed without his permission.
But if Hubbard had detractors, he was never without advocates, either. William Marion Reedy, editor of the influential newspaper Reedy’s Mirror, helped to establish the reputations of Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Lee Masters, and Amy Lowell. Like Elbert, he was a self-made journalist, and wrote in defense of his colleague: “It has been said that Hubbard’s appeal is to the half-baked. It is true, for the greater part. But we are all half-baked for that matter. Culture is relative. People who follow Hubbard do not stay half-baked. They come out of it. He makes lovers of books out of people who never knew books before.”
In fact, books were but a few of the objects that the Roycrofters turned out. Widening his scope, Elbert hired skilled workers to design and manufacture furniture, ironwork, stained-glass windows, lamps, and jewelry. Some 800 artisans found employment in East Aurora, and most adored the boss. He motivated them with pep talks, shared some (though by no means all) of the profits, and showed them how to flog the merchandise by stressing William Morris’s slogan, “It is not how cheap but how good.” No wonder they applauded unbidden when he entered the dining room.
Elbert basked in the flattery. He began to reappraise himself and other leaders. William Morris was a genius, all right, but maybe his brand of socialism wasn’t the answer, after all. Those major industrialists . . . perhaps the criticisms were unfair. Experience had taught Elbert that running a business took fervor, intelligence, and leadership. To stimulate the Roycrofters, he tacked notes around the place in a manner that IBM would one day mimic: “Self-Control,” “Loyalty,” “Mutuality.”
And he reached out to his vast audience, regarding each reader as a potential customer. A couplet in The Philistine advised readers to “Take the train for East Aurory/Where we work for Art and Glory.” In 1896, the magazine went further: it invited every one of its subscribers to visit. They would be “welcome to seats at the table and a place to sleep—of course without charge.” Those who remained for more than one night, however, had to “work for the public good at least two hours a day. There is type setting, proof reading, copying and addressing wrappers to do, besides taking care of the Roycroft Baby (limited edition—de luxe copy), cooking, washing, and then there is a good big wood pile.”
So many visitors accepted his invitation that Hubbard turned one of the buildings into an inn. Instead of numbers, rooms bore the names of his kind of celebrity: Socrates, for example, Beethoven, Edison, and, reflecting Alice’s influence, George Eliot and Susan B. Anthony.
To woo a larger audience (and put a few more coppers in the coffer), Elbert got around to publishing those articles on the famous. He called the popular series Little Journeys. There were Little Journeys to the Homes of English Authors, among them Robert Burns, Samuel Johnson, and Walt Whitman, whom he’d once met. “Milton knew all about Heaven,” observes the author, “and Dante conducts us through Hell, but it was left for Whitman to show us Earth. He never boasted that he was higher, nor claimed to be any less than any of the other sons of men. He met all on terms of absolute equality, mixing with the poor, the lowly, the fallen, the oppressed, the cultured, the rich—simply as brother with brother.”
But Hubbard’s praise of equality had limits. Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Musicians praised Wagner, Paganini, Beethoven, and Verdi, composers not known for love of their fellow man. And in Little Journeys to the Homes of Eminent Artists, Elbert fervently endorsed the cantankerous master of landscapes and seascapes, J. M. W. Turner. As Hubbard saw it, the painter’s emotional outlook bore certain parallels to his own: “Turner’s temperament was audacious, self-centered, self-reliant, eager for success and fame, yet at the same time scorning public opinion—a paradox often found in the artistic mind of the first class; silent always—with a bitter silence, disdaining to tell his meaning when the critics could not perceive it.”
In Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Business Men, Elbert shed the last traces of romantic collectivism. He produced hortatory profiles of bankers and industrialists, among them Andrew Carnegie and Peter Cooper: “Democracy has great disadvantages. Democracy is a safeguard against tyranny, but it often cramps and hinders the man of genuine initiative. If the entire public-school system of the state had been delegated to Peter Cooper in 1850, he as sole commissioner would have set the world a pace in pedagogy.” In writing about these captains of industry, Hubbard came to believe that “when the world is redeemed from sickness, woe, want, worry and distress, it will be through the influence of businessmen, not through the courts, the preachers or the professional reformers.”
This was music to the ears of the emerging manager class. Executives quoted the inspirational words of Elbert Hubbard, and The Philistine became secular scripture in corner offices across the nation. Elbert developed a Business Credo, and sales reps from New York to California made it their mantra:
I believe in myself.
I believe in the firm for whom I work.
I believe in my colleagues and helpers.
I believe in American business methods.
I believe that Truth is an asset.
I believe that when I make a sale I make a friend.
And I believe that when I part with a man I must do it in such a way that when he sees me again he will be glad—as will I.
Even the Credo could not compete with what Hubbard produced on the night of February 22, 1899. Over dinner, he and his 16-year-old son, Elbert “Bert” Jr., had a discussion about the recently concluded Spanish-American War. Who was the conflict’s real hero? Teddy Roosevelt, leader of the Rough Riders? General Calixto García, America’s Cuban ally? President McKinley? Bert insisted that it was a certain Lieutenant Andrew Rowan. After the dishes were cleared away, Elbert pondered. The preceding day had not gone well; several employees had given him a hard time, challenging the boss’s orders and failing to follow through on assignments. Finally, Elbert concluded that Bert was right. The true champion is one who doesn’t ask for reasons; his is but to do or die.
He retired to his study and tossed off a 1,500-word essay entitled “A Message to García.” It concerned Lieutenant Rowan and his assignment: find General García and give him a message from the U.S. president. The obedient officer unquestioningly took the letter, wrote Hubbard, “sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to García.” Then the moral: “It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this and that, but a stiffening of the vertebrae which will cause them to be loyal to a trust, to act promptly, concentrate their energies: do the thing: ‘Carry the message to García!’ ”
In case anyone missed his point, Hubbard concluded, “We have recently been hearing much maudlin sympathy expressed for the ‘downtrodden denizens of the sweat-shop’ and the ‘homeless wanderer searching for honest employment,’ and with it all too often go many hard words for the men in power.
“Nothing is said about the employer who grows old before his time in a vain attempt to get frowsy ne’er-do-wells to do intelligent work, and his long, patient striving after ‘help’ that does nothing but loaf when his back is turned . . . . Self interest prompts every employer to keep the best—those who can carry a message to García.”
The “Message” ran without fanfare in The Philistine. Elbert considered it a literary trifle until an assistant brought the news: orders were pouring in for reprints. George Davies, president of the New York Central Railroad, ordered 100,000 copies, one for each of his employees, the rest for his colleagues and their staffs. Other executives followed suit. Prince Hilakoff, director of the Russian Railroad, had the “Message” translated into Russian and given to his workers. When the Russo-Japanese war began, each soldier received a copy. Eventually, the essay was translated into 37 tongues. Nothing Elbert had previously done came close to this triumph. As his fame spread, the Roycrofters’ sales skyrocketed. Everyone connected to Hubbard seemed to benefit from the association.
Well, almost everyone. Alice’s (and Elbert’s) daughter, Miriam, had lived with her aunt for seven years. During that time, the still-smitten Alice received no money from her lover. In 1901, her brother-in-law had had enough. Ignoring her protests, he sued for child support. An out-of-court settlement followed, but the wire services got wind of it and the scandal broke in newspapers everywhere. Humiliated, Bertha left Elbert and filed for divorce. Editorials thundered with denunciations. The New York Sun was characteristic: “It is said that like Faust Hubbard has sold his soul to the devil.” The sinner found himself pilloried as a seducer, an adulterer, and, worse still, a man who deprived his child of her birthright. Elbert fought back with his customary aphorisms: “It is a satisfaction to a vast number of people to hear of the downfall of others.” “If joy comes to you the news will go unheralded, but if great grief, woe, disgrace be your portion, flaming headlines will tell the tale to people who never before heard of you.” Privately, though, he acknowledged that he had fatefully misstepped. A letter to his mother confessed, “If I go down it will be because I deserved it.”
Evidently he didn’t deserve it. In 1904, Elbert made Alice an honest woman, marrying her in a widely publicized ceremony in Bridgeport, Connecticut. In the process, he legitimized Miriam. Two of his four children by Bertha, 21-year-old Bert and 16-year-old Sanford, elected to live with their father. All this helped restore his image as a family man. Over the next several years, he quietly repaired his public reputation. He put Alice in charge of the Roycrofters, and she ran the place unobtrusively and well.
Turning to his old ally, the pen, he wrote a series of tributes to his new wife. These appeared in the 1907 volume White Hyacinths. “To make a better woman than Alice Hubbard,” said one, you would “have to take the talents and graces of many great women and omit their faults. If she is a departure in some minor respects from a perfect standard, it is probably because she lives in a faulty world, with a faulty man, and deals with faulty folks, a few of whom, doubtless, will peruse this article.” Gradually, some of Elbert’s harshest critics came around. The Detroit Press called the book “tender and gentle and sweet.” The New York Times agreed: “Coming at a time when the world seemed given up to defamation, it marks the very high tide of appreciation.”
The old confidence returned. In a memoir, Frank Lloyd Wright’s son recalls a meeting between the entrepreneur and the architect.
“Elbert was almost as picturesque as was Father,” wrote John Lloyd Wright. “They talked arts, crafts and philosophy by the hour. Said Elbert the Hubbard to the Papa one night, ‘Modesty being egotism turned wrong side out, let me say here that I am an orator, a great orator! I have health, gesture, imagination, voice, vocabulary, taste, ideas. I acknowledge it myself. What I lack in shape I make up in nerve.’ Said Dad the Papa to the Hubbard, ‘Not only do I intend to be the greatest architect who has ever lived, but the greatest who will ever live.’ Just a couple of boys trying to get along.”
When the moment was auspicious, Elbert began a campaign to win back the industrialists. The cover of the December 1911 Philistine declared, “I am not in the business of defaming America nor using as a doormat the things that are building it up: I believe in big business and more of it.” He mocked the emerging revolutionaries in Eastern Europe. His definition of a Marxist was “any man who, when given a room in a hotel that contains two beds, sleeps in both; and who also uses the towels to polish his shoes.” When the Titanic sank in 1912, Elbert extolled Isidor Straus, John Jacob Astor, and other moneyed folks among the victims: “I did not guess your greatness. You are now beyond the reach of praise—flattery touches you not—words for you are in vain.” First the obscure came around, then the prominent, including poet James Whitcomb Riley, Nobel Peace laureate Elihu Root, meatpacking magnate J. Ogden Armour, catsup king Henry J. Heinz, and seed-company founder W. Atlee Burpee.
And yet, for all his boosterism, Elbert Hubbard continued to avoid easy categorization. As war clouds gathered, he took stock of the deteriorating conditions overseas, of the munitions manufacturers, and of the profiteers. Abruptly, almost in shock, he fingered the very people he had previously admired: “Big business is to blame for this thing, let it not escape this truth—that no longer shall individuals be allowed to thrive through supplying murder machines to the mob.”
Inconsistent? No doubt. Then again, so was Elbert’s idol Whitman, the great avatar of self-promotion and soul who took pride in his own conflicts: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” To the end, Elbert, like Walt, was a festival of opposing beliefs and behaviors, moralist and reprobate, aesthete and advertiser, upright citizen and nose-thumber.
Indeed, one of his last acts was a flaunting of federal authorities, and ultimately it did him in. Officials at the U.S. Post Office took offense at a tale printed in The Philistine: “The bride of a year entered a drugstore. The clerk approached. ‘Do you exchange goods?’ she asked. ‘Oh, certainly! If anything you buy here is not satisfactory we will exchange it.’ ‘Well,’ was the reply, ‘here is one of those whirling-spray [contraceptive] affairs I bought of you, and if you please, I want you to take it back and give me a bottle of Mellin’s [baby] Food instead.’ ” Elbert received a $100 fine for this bawdy indiscretion, and, incredibly, had to surrender his passport. His citizenship rights weren’t restored until he came up with the idea of visiting Germany in the name of peace. Elbert appealed to the White House, begging permission to cover the war as a journalist. Something of a fan, Woodrow Wilson granted the pardon that sealed the Hubbards’ fate.
When news of the Lusitania hit the papers, journalism suddenly got a little quieter; it was as if the circus had left town. For with all his shortcomings and excesses, Elbert had beguiled millions, educating them—and himself—in the process. In his father’s spirit, Bert tried to keep Roycroft going. But the enterprise could not function without an engine; it dwindled rapidly, and in 1938 sputtered out. The Roycrofters’ output wound up relegated to attics and cellars for decades, awaiting a recognition that never seemed to come. In fact, it had to wait until the new millennium, when the books and artifacts showed up in antiques road shows at very respectable prices. Today, eBay lists hundreds of Roycroft items. In East Aurora, the Roycroft Museum on Oakwood Avenue celebrates the arts and crafts of a bygone era. The nearby Roycroft Inn, now a National Landmark, continues to welcome visitors, and Elbert Hubbard remains a presence in the area and outside it.
So does the controversy that swirled around him in life. Some continue to find him an enigma; his biographer refers to him as both an “elemental force” and “a true quack.” Reedy offered a similar profile during Elbert’s life: “Every day he does something for someone and someone for something. Thus works out his glorious motto: ‘Be kind—but get the mazuma.’ ” But for all that, Hubbard did manage to leave a great deal of sound and valuable work in his wake. Did the author of the “Message,” which has sold some 40 million copies, combine the best attributes of Emerson, Whitman, and P. T. Barnum, or the worst? Was he a lover of intellect and a maker of beautiful objects, or a hustler out for the Main Chance? Was he an American archetype, or an American anomaly? The answer to all these questions is yes. In the end, Elbert Hubbard is a figure that only Elbert Hubbard could have invented: great, petty, attractive, repellent, inspiring, exhausting, sincere, hypocritical, ephemeral, memorable. In short, a man who wasn’t punished for his sins but by them, whose character would not recognize his reputation if they met on the street—yet who, until his dramatic finale, accomplished the impossible at least once a day.
Photo by Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images