“Commune” In East Aurora

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In the spring of 1915 a handsome fifty-nine-year-old man with a marked resemblance to Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan boarded ship in New York, bound for England. Other passengers stared unabashedly at his long black Prince Albert coat, his outsize black tie, his almost shoulder-length tresses topped by a Stetson hat. There was indeed nothing ordinary about Elbert Hubbard. When the Lusitania was torpedoed in the Irish Sea a few days later, his death was reported across the United States in the same paragraph that recorded that of the multimillionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. The Literary Digest described Hubbard’s loss, along with that of several theatrical notables, as a “Blow to Arts and Letters.” And forty thousand Americans wrote their condolences to his son in East Aurora, New York.

Who was Elbert Hubbard, this deeply mourned victim of war? Few today are able to identify him except as the author of an inspirational popular essay entitled “A Message to Garcia.” But Hubbard was more than an uplifter. Eor twenty years this one-time soap salesman mixed handicrafts, village atheism, success worship, and ballyhoo into an improbable amalgam of earnest truth-seeking and charlatanry. Though he equalled few of them in real talent, he reminds one of Ben Franklin, Bob Ingersoll, Norman Vincent Peale, Mark Twain, Emile Coué (“Every day in every way I’m getting better and better”), Horatio Alger, Walt Wrhitman, P. T. Barnum, and Mary Baker Eddy. Part vulgarian and part aesthete, part Owcnite socialist and part robber baron, Elbert Hubbard lived a life of compelling interest.

Hubbard was primarily a huckster, a man with a keen nose for publicity, who first channelled his commercial talents into business and then into a successful writing and publishing career. In addition to “A Message to Garcia” he wrote dozens of biographical sketches called Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great (a veritable five-foot shelf when collected) and published two periodicals, the Philistine and The Fra . The former, launched in 1895, at one time had a monthly circulation of 126,000. Although Hubbard wrote ads willingly, as well as essays preaching the virtues of the American free-enterprise system and the talented social benefactors who ran it, his magazines appeared between arty brown covers, were printed by an organization supposedly dedicated to a communal economy, and were full of Hubbard’s antiestablishment manifestoes. He favored enlightened reforms in penology, supported a tax on inherited income, and claimed that he opposed child labor (though many a prepubescent found employment in his East Aurora works). Three established professions were constantly under attack in the Philistine . First was the clergy, whose privileged status the agnostic Hubbard assaulted by opposing blue laws and Bible-reading in public schools and by favoring the taxation of church properties. Second came physicians, who also felt Hubbard’s public scorn, for Fra Klbertus, as he styled himself, was a kind of slapdash Christian Scientist who believed in drugless healing and Fletchcrism (chew a lot and live longer), and opposed vivisection and vaccination. Finally, there were the academics, irreconcilable enemies after Hubbard spent part of a year at Harvard, where he enrolled at thirty-seven after quitting the soap business for “literature.” Hc got little out of it but a hatred for professors. His forte was the aphorism, which he invariably turned against his intellectual “betters.” “You can send a boy to college,” he wrote, “but you cannot make him think.”

Nonconformist Elbert Hubbard wore hippie-length hair and ran his publishing business like an artists’ colony—yet American businessmen worshipped his words
 

In his most unorthodox moments Hubbard even defended new notions about female equality and held unusually progressive views about marriage and divorce. On these issues his personal interests were deeply involved, for after years of respectable marriage, Hubbard began an affair with another woman and lived a double life for years. In one two-year span he had one daughter by his wife and another by his mistress. Finally he divorced the wife and married the “other woman.”

The success and popularity of a man so paradoxical, and perhaps so fraudulent, demands an explanation. The answer lies in his remarkable skills as a salesman and promoter. To understand these it is necessary to drop back to his early business career, which began in 1872 when the sixteen-year-old Hubbard was hired as a salesman for J. Weiler & Company, a Chicago soap firm headed by his cousin. Young Elbert was so sharp at doorto-door selling in and around Bloomington, Illinois, that before long his territory was widened to include Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, where housewives found him on their thresholds, smiling eagerly, a box of soap in his hand. Around 1880, when his cousin’s partner, John Larkin, went to Buffalo to organize a new soap company, Hubbard followed. First a mere drummer and then general manager, Hubbard at last became an equal partner in the new company.