Monday, September 5, 2016

"A Message to Garcia" and Other Odd Business Inspiration (Labor Day 2016)

On the evening of February 22, 1899, editor Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) wrote a short, inspirational essay that ran as last-minute filler in the March 1899 issue of his magazine, The Philistine.  

This “literary trifle,” as he called it, took just an hour to compose.  But, Hubbard said, it “leaped hot from my heart” after his son suggested that “Rowan was the real hero of the Cuban War.”

By "Cuban War," Hubbard was referring to the Spanish American War.  And “Rowan” was Andrew Summers Rowan (1857-1943), a lieutenant in the United States Army charged with the dangerous mission of delivering a message from President William McKinley to Cuban rebel commander Calixto Garcia.  Rowan's mission was a success; he made contact with Garcia, who went on to play an important role during the war in support of U.S. troops.

This is how Hubbard framed the challenge:

When war broke out between Spain and the United States, it was very necessary to communicate quickly with the leader of the Insurgents.  Garcia was somewhere in the mountain fastnesses of Cuba—no one knew where.  No mail or telegraph message could reach him.  The President must secure his co-operation, and quickly.  What to do! 
Someone said to the President, “There is a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and was given a letter to be delivered to Garcia.
Hubbard adds that Rowan took the letter, strapped it over his heart, landed by night on the coast of Cuba, disappeared into the jungle, and three weeks later came out alive, his mission accomplished. 

A few days after publication of Hubbard’s essay in The Philistine, the American News Company ordered a thousand copies.  Then, George Henry Daniels (1842-1908) of the New York Central Railroad sent a telegram asking for one hundred thousand of the “Rowan article in pamphlet form—Empire State Express advertisement on the back.”  Unable to meet such demand, Hubbard gave Daniels permission to reprint the article.  Daniels, a marketing genius in his own right, turned the essay into a booklet and printed half a million.  The article, now officially “A Message To Garcia,” was reprinted in over two hundred magazines and translated into two dozen languages.  

Every railroad employee in Russia received a copy.  So did every soldier and civilian working for the Japanese government.

By 1914, Hubbard could brag that “A Message to Garcia” had been printed forty million times, “a larger circulation than any other literary venture has ever attained during the lifetime of the author, in all history.”


It was as if Harry Potter met The One Minute Manager and was featured on the Oprah Book of the Month Club, in twenty-five countries.

So pervasive was “A Message to Garcia” that it became part of American slang.  In the first half of the twentieth century, “to take a message to Garcia” described any daunting challenge.  Thomas A. Edison Inc. turned the essay into a silent movie in 1916, and Twentieth Century Fox a talking movie in 1936.

Described by Frank Nugent of "The New York Times"
"as undocumented a piece of historical claptrap as the
film city has produced," "A Message to Garcia" (1936)
saw Rowan (played by John Boles) crawling through an
enemy-infested jungle guided by a perfectly coiffed
Barbara Stanwyck, and nearly tortured by the evil Alan
Hale Sr.  Had Nugent watched the film with the 79-year-
old Rowan, the critic believes Rowan "would have arisen,
screaming, and left the theater."
So, just what was the idea that so captivated America in 1899, and for the next half century?

“A Message to Garcia” is 1,500 words and takes about five minutes to read.  That, perhaps, is part of its charm; a reader can grow wise in a moment and then get on with life. 

But let me highlight for you the central theme of the essay:

Hubbard believed Rowan’s form should be cast in “deathless bronze” and placed on every college campus in the country.  “It is not book-learning young men need, nor instruction about this or 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 a message to Garcia.”

It was like an early Nike commercial: Just do it.

Hubbard continues, “Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule” in the American workplace and among his countrymen.  “In every store and factory there is a constant weeding-out process going on.  The employer is continually sending away ‘help’ that have shown their incapacity to further the interests of the business. . . .”

Hubbard closes his essay, “The world cries out for such: he is needed, and needed badly—a man who can carry A MESSAGE TO GARCIA.”

I admit, I was a little surprised when I finally read “Message”--and thanks to my wife for buying a copy--and understood the point Hubbard was making.  And I can think of a few people in my life to whom I might like to send his essay.  But only a few.  And certainly not to all the employees of the New York Central Railroad.

Here's what strikes me as most odd.  “A Message to Garcia” made its debut in 1899.  I think of that period at the turn of the century as perhaps the greatest moment of pure, unfettered, grinding capitalism in American history.  Robber barons.  Trusts and monopolies.  Mining and foresting and grazing on public lands.  No income tax.  No pesky regulators making sure you weren’t grinding rats into your hot dogs or putting alum in your candy. 

Rockefeller defined octopus.
JP Morgan was about to form U.S. Steel, the first billion-dollar company in the nation.  The richest American ever (my topic on Labor Day 2014), J.D. Rockefeller, was crushing competitors with his Standard Oil.  Henry Ford was already on the loose, as was Alfred Sloan.  

America had just won a war against a world power and itself become a world power; it would take just seventeen years to become the world’s largest economy.  

1899 was the leading edge of the Greatest Generation, the people who would fight WWI and lead America to victory in WWII.

And speaking of fighting, the young men Hubbard found lacking in vertebrae and vigor were inclined to do just that.  The Homestead Strike of 1892 was a pitched battle that cost twelve lives.  The Pullman Strike of 1894 nearly shut down the nation's railways, cost thirty lives--and led to the creation of Labor Day.  The Lattimer Massacre of 1897 cost nineteen striking coal miners their lives.

Maybe the reason nobody could take a message to Garcia in 1899 was because they were too busy taking messages to Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick instead.

And amidst this rollicking, money-grabbing, bloodletting, jazzed-up, capitalistic, free-for-all, Hubbard wrote one of the country’s great works of pop-business inspiration telling Americans to stop shirking their duty, stop being so lazy, and just do it.

Who could have guessed?  I would have bet my bottom dollar that a viral pop essay in 1899 would have told American workers exactly the opposite:  Stop being so darn pushy.  Wait your turn.  Do your work and stop worrying about what your boss is doing.  No, you can't be promoted yet.  No, you can't have a raise.  Yes, you have to take your vacation. Your time will come.

Oh, and put down your gun.

Colonel Andrew Summers Rowan
In fact, Avery Moore of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, writing in their union magazine, took offense at Hubbard and his 1,500 words-of-wisdom, calling the essay "a libel upon manhood."  It wins first prize, Moore wrote, for the "brutal system which is degrading men and women to the level of the mechanical."  Their well-heeled bosses may have liked "A Message to Garcia," Moore added, but to the common working American it met with a chilly reception.

In other words, not all forty million people who received the essay, often courtesy of their boss, were apparently so enamored with it as George Daniels of the New York Central Railroad.

Andrew Rowan received the Distinguished Service Cross, retired from the military in 1909, died in 1943, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  The Colonel's own version of events in the jungles of Cuba is here.  George Daniels became director of the New York Central's new advertising department before passing away in 1908.  Avery C. Moore served in the Idaho legislature and published a booklet of his speeches.  And Elbert Hubbard, anxious to report on WWI from Europe, booked passage aboard the Lusitania and drowned when it was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915.

Here's the other thing that strikes me about "A Message to Garcia," the real lesson I take away from reading it.  Hubbard was talented and prolific--an author, publisher, artist, and philosopher.  He founded the Roycroft Artisan Community in New York and was a leading figure in the Arts and Crafts movement.  He wrote a number of books, including a 14-volume series, Little Journeys to the Homes of the Great.  He pumped out hundreds of magazine articles.

How many years of labor, how many millions of lines of text must he have sweated over in his life, either as author, editor, or publisher?

And yet, the "trifle" inspired by his son, the 1,500 words he knocked out in an hour as untitled filler for his magazine, was reprinted millions of times in dozens of languages, became part of the American lexicon, and was made into two movies.  "A Message to Garcia" turned out to be an essay of unintended, unexpected "genius" that somehow resonated with the world.  And the author himself didn't realize it until someone else figured it out for him.

So, here's the "message" we might hear today in Hubbard's trifle: Seek inspiration from your children.  Pay close attention to the things that leap from your heart.  And make sure, on this Labor Day 2016, to recognize that your next hour of labor might, against all odds, be the hour that really matters.