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“Commune” In East Aurora
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
The single factor that contributed most to turning Hubbard the Roycrofter into Hubbard the troubadour of American business was “A Message to Garcia.” This originally appeared as an inconspicuous 1,500 word filler in the Philistine of March, 1899, dashed off after a dinnertable argument over who was the real hero of the Spanish-American War. According to Hubbard it was an American army officer, Captain Andrew Rowan. Ordered to deliver a message (whose contents were never stated) to the Cuban rebel leader, General Calixto Garcia Iniquez, Rowan left without a word and straightaway carried out the mission. Hubbard’s point was that Rowan followed orders without stopping to ask foolish questions. His moral was that it was high time to quit weeping for the sweatshop workers and shed a tear instead “for the employer who grows old before his time in a vain attempt to get frowsy ne’er-do-wells to do intelligent work.” The businessman who sacked half his work force was not being heartless but was only trying to find the men he really needed—“those who can carry a message to Garcia.” Hubbard concluded his essay with a resounding appeal for such workers to make themselves known to those who hunted for them: My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the “boss” is away, as well as when he is at home. And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets “laid off,” nor has to go on strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long, anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted. He is wanted in every city, town and village—in every office, shop, store and factory. The world cries out for such: he is needed and needed badly—the man who can “Carry a Message to Garcia.”
(Hubbard erred in some of his facts. He had President McKinley himself giving Rowan this message, which was incorrect. Moreover, Stephen Crane, who had met Rowan while in Cuba as a war correspondent, wrote Hubbard that the hero “didn’t do anything worthy at all. He received the praise of the general of the army and got to be made a lieutenant col. for a feat which about forty newspaper correspondents had already performed at the usual price of fifty dollars a week and expenses. Besides he is personally a chump and in Porto Rico … he wore a yachting cap as part of his uniform which was damnable.”)
Nevertheless, the essay was an astonishing success. A few days after it first appeared, George Daniels, the general passenger agent of the New York Central Railroad, ordered 100,000 reprints. Hubbard, not yet realizing what he had wrought, was flabbergasted. His facilities were not up to such an order, but he gave the railroad executive permission to reprint them on his own. Before Daniels stopped the presses, he had run off over 2,000,000 copies. From this moment forward the essay had a history that was, as one writer put it, “monstrously inter esting.” Churches and schools ordered reprints by the thousands; businesses, armies, and governments, by the millions (the profits made it possible for Hubbard to expand his plant and handle these orders himself). For years, scores of U.S. and foreign business concerns bought copies for their employees. A sample list includes the Milwaukee Gas Light Company, People’s Drug Stores, Reading Iron Company, John Deere Plow Company, Westinghouse of England, the Bon Marché in Paris, and nine American insurance companies. Wanamaker’s department store in New York ordered 200,000 copies, and Macy’sjesse Straus, who always carried a copy on his person, made certain that there was a steady supply on his desk for all new employees. Over two hundred newspapers and magazines reprinted “Message.” Two movies were made, somewhat loosely based on Rowan’s exploit. A copy was given to every member of the United States Marine Corps and the Boy Scouts of America. It was translated into nearly twenty foreign languages. Every Russian railroad employee had his own copy, and the czar’s officers carried “Message” into battle against the Japanese in 1904. The Japanese outdid the Russians by giving copies to enlisted men as well. By 1913, Hubbard estimated, he had earned $250,000 from “Message” and 40,000,000 copies had been reprinted; twenty-five years later his son placed the reprint figure at 80,000,000 copies, and The Roycrofters were still printing about 150,000 copies annually.
It was “Message” that made Hubbard truly famous. It is possible that some readers came to believe that he, not Rowan, searched out Garcia in the Cuban jungle. The circulation of the Little Journeys and the Philistine doubled, Hubbard was invited to lecture at more and better places, Tufts College gave him an honorary degree, visitors began to pour into East Aurora, and the nation’s businessmen rejoiced in their discovery of an apologist who knew how to reach the very same kind of people who were being led astray by the muckrakers.
The Roycrofters carried on for a generation after their founder foundered. Critics, especially those who held dear the memory of William Morris, did not overly regret Hubbard’s passing and were often harsh in dealing with his career, describing him, for example, as “an American barker” as “different from Morris and his background as the Larkin Soap factory at Buffalo was different from Merton Abbey and the quiet reaches of the Thames at Lechdale.” Many even harsher things were said of the cultural sage who was essentially a packager—of goods, of ideas, of his own personality.