ElbertElbert Hubbard,
Megalomaniac & Self-Proclaimed Genius

Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

I. Roycroft Press vs. the Artisans

Elbert Hubbard, the money behind the Roycrofters who existed during the late Victorian & Edwardian era as part of the American arts & crafts movement, lived by a credo that can be summed up "I believe I'm a genius." He was wrong. But he was rich enough to induce others who might gain by his friendliness & largess to adapt his credo & give it back to him as: "We believe you're a genius too."

If Ashley Brilliant & Rod McKuen qualify as geniuses, so might be an eccentric whose most famous aphorisms include "I believe in sunshine fresh air & spinach" I kid you not. He would publish whole books crammed with his lame mottos, as though Poor Richard's Almanac had been processed through a stupidity device. As a study in "positive megalomania" Elbert Hubbard would be worth collecting for one's psychiatric thesis.

He saw the Kelmscott set-up in England & instantly imagined himself the same degree of New Renaissance Man as was William Morris. Imagine a thirteen year old who, on hearing the Sex Pistols, starts up his own band & with a conviction that the whole neighborhood wants to hear him practicing at three in the morning, throws open the garage door & turns up the amp full blast, totally unable to comprehend the abject lack of ability this requires. Like that self-absorbed child, Elbert returned to America to create his pale interpretation of the Kelmscott Press. Lacking even a rudimentary degree of Morris-esque brilliance, he was eternally reliant on others to make him look good, but they could only do so much.

If he'd not attempted to make himself out a writer he'd be easier to take seriously, but alas his own weak talent is stamped all over everything — hence the Roycroft logo connotes idiotic scribblings at least as much as it connotes the vastly more credible furniture. Of the Kelmscott type of books focusing on such brilliant pictorial artists as Burne-Jones, or any author or translator of Morris's artistry, scholarliness & exceeding merit, or type-designer with the ambitious imagination of Emery Walker — Roycroft possessed not even token examples thereof. Elbert had captured only the self-publishing attribute of William Morris's press. What in William's case was an easily excused vanity backed by actual merit, in Elbert's case was only an excuse for self-aggrandizement & promotion of his personal mediocrity.

He did have one best-seller, a completely fictional "essay" called "A Message for Garcia," with millions & millions of copies bound & distributed around the world. It can be found in the dollar-bin outside the door of many a used bookstore to this very day. It is in part "a heavy-handed admonition to workers to obey authority," to quote John Charnay & Fern Bryant Fadness' analysis in The People's Almanac#2, 1978. If it had been the worst thing Hubbard ever wrote he wouldn't be quite so ridiculous, but as his "best" it's pathetic, as popular things frequently are, his worse than others.

Roycroft Press books, magazines, & pamphlets are for the most part dead meat in the used book trade despite that they are frequently lovely objects thanks to the excellence of the tradesmen — or, where the books were concerned, tradeswomen. Women predominated among the Roycrofters, for Hubbard promulgated opportunities for women within a utopian-communist context. His was a nice "philosophical angle" which pretended women were a wasted workforce, requiring him to deny the fact that women had worked in factories for quite some decades already, including in Elbert's own soap factories. Women were cheaper & had fewer professional options so industrialists exploited young women miserably, especially in New England where Hubbard sat writing ignorantly of how there were no women laborers & this was a waste of resources his superificial utopianism pretended to correct.

Still, to give him his due, his glowy framework for women laborers included ideas about educational daycare centers liberating mothers from children, & surprisingly radical attitudes in opposition to the institution of marriage, all of which he cribbed if not from Morris's socialist writings then mostly from his fellow self-publisher Charlotte Perkins Gilman whose utopian ideas of women & community he was thoroughly steeped in. Therefore it is little wonder women artisans did flock to the Hubbard estate, taking their chance that a worker-owned commune would indeed open avenues closed to those women who were laboring in factories & garrets. And since this was an under-utilized population of skilled workers, Hubbard frequently possessed the best without having to pay out the wages of a journeyman.

That he gave no credit where credits were due was justified by his slogan "Beautiful art is always a collaboration." Individuals other than himself were not promoted as signal to the look & effectiveness of Roycroft goods. As a result there are no Roycrofters who achieved the kind of lasting fame of such independent master craftsmen as Gustav Stickley, nor print-design masters like Emery Walker. The actual collaboration was one of other people making Elbert look better than he was capable of being.

So Hubbard hired skillful women & men to design & typeset & print & bind his grievous scribbles, using the best-available materials, resulting often enough in fabulously beautiful book-objects. As a talentless millionaire who used soap-merchant riches to purchase his "genius" wholesale from others, he could not restrain himself from saddling every hired artisan with his deluded vision of himself. The more of Hubbard that crept in, the less valuable Roycroft products became, so that the books he penned go on the very bottom of the value in lists of Roycroft goods, whereas the furniture & wares that reveal him minimally go on the top.

One of his regrettable mottos was "In a community an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness." This practically confesses his belief that anyone who did personally excel should subjugate him or herself as Elbert's faithful vassal, at the same time promulgating the sentiment that to accept a man without genius as a god-king upraised not only the soap merchant, but also the abnegating artist who volunteers to remain submerged. If these artisans & artists were sixteen times more talented than Hubbard, nevertheless, their loyalty in permitting him to receive foremost credit was the very essence of vaunted loyalty, Elbert's definition of goodness, beauty, spirituality, community, all summed up as obedience to his authority — all in keeping with his Garcia "Message."

There does survive some evidence of his wrath against those who wanted to do their craft without kowtowing like loyal subjects. Not that he was entirely wrong; without his underwriting everything, there would be no Roycroft, & many must have lain their superiority under his name with exactly the degree of obsequious self-negating gratitude Hubbard's ego required from them. With his slogan "Creative genius is the highest gift vouchsafed to man, & wherein man is likest God" we do not find deserved praise for his work force but, rather, his "I am a genius" motto extended to "I am your God." The cultic quality of his Roycroft vision led Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard to boast that he was Elbert Hubbard's nephew, a baseless claim. Elron's Way of Happiness aphorisms were patterned on Elbert's namby-pamby motivational slogans with the same underlying agenda of accumulating worshippers.

When it comes to the furniture he was so insubstantial a designer that in spite of his fixation on William Morris, his own stuff looks more like it was designed by hillbillies. But in fact that Appalachian rusticity is quite appealing so the furniture & plates & metalware & humidors & sundry knickknackery are all quite lovely & collectible & valuable. If my home were crowded with Roycroft furniture, it'd be hillbilly heaven & nothing to be ashamed of, though of course anyone rich enough to have a choice in the matter would prefer Stickley if only to avoid the stigma of the Hubbard association. Even so, Roycroft furniture & goods are genuinely wonderful, either because the craftspeople effectively worked around Hubbard's imposition of commonplace design, or because like his ghostwritten books many of the designs he wanted credit for were not his, & whatever he did impose was done with such limited understanding of design that he mainly asked them to duplicate traditional country-styles such as had complete practicality & an American Gothic beauty.

As to the books, however, the majority were written by Hubbard himself, who had all the writing skill of a turnip recombinated with DNA from a down's syndrome child. Some of the books were ghost-written by Sadakichi Hartmann besides others who never achieved Hartmann's separate success, so Elbert was dishonest even in presenting himself as an author & philosopher. Hartmann didn't try very hard because he did feel exploited, & turned in stuff no better than Elbert could write on his own. The critical abilities of the divinely self-canonized "Fra Elbertus" (as he enjoyed being addressed) were too clouded by vainglory to know the difference anyway. So the Roycrofters produced beautiful books stupidly written, including name-dropping books about people Hubbard either never actually met or whose graves & historic houses he visited in the exceedingly vain & foolish belief he was honoring his peers.

In a day when it was hard to make a great living building furniture or cigar boxes or fashioning utensils or hand-binding special editions of books printed on handmade papers, a skilled craftsman need only say "You're a world renown genius Mister Hubbard & I bow to your sphincter in adoration" & he'd let them live on his property & provide them a first-rate workshop & a stipend to work for him. So it didn't matter whether or not their trade generated sufficient money through sales. The commune must have been quite a glorious experiment for these artisans, with the Master's desire to be adored not too painful a price to pay for admission.

When he went down on the Lusitania the fortune he was using to float craftspersons was no longer provided to them. The Roycrofters slowly waned. Their furniture was good enough they could still sell that, & with Hubbard dead they may even have had fewer dreamily ignorant impositions on what they were permitted to do. But it nevertheless took the largess of that self-important millionaire to feed the hundreds of Roycrofters who had gathered on his estate in East Aurora, New York — a sincerely inspiring environment in which to live & work that must have been most painful to leave behind. Left to their own profitability, their sundry industries, lacking the selfless (or egotistical) influx of underwriting funds, might've supported a small family here & there, but not more people than in a big factory.

Some Roycrofter projects ended within days of the news of his death, the Roycroft "literary" magazine for instance, using the term "literary" loosely since virtually all the "original" material was dashed off by Hubbard if not some ghost writer with no personal investment in doing it well. But those who produced useful objects continued for some while. First a few, then many, eventually all Roycrofters drifted away, until by the end of the 1930s there was no longer any Roycroft commune & the estate began it's long descent into disrepair. Only in the last decade or so has the town of East Aurora & Elbert's heirs restored the estate as a historical hotel & tourist trap of vastly less interest than the Roycroft Museum in town. Plus there was recently established a peculiar method of permitting scattered craftspeople to use the Roycroft logo on their own minor creations by joining a club. Since only mediocrity would ever seek such pretence of association, it could actually be argued the true spirit of Roycroft has thereby been revived.

II. Roycroft Press collectibility today

Roycroft Press books, even those in limited editions, were issued in numbers more than sufficient to meet public need, appealing chiefly to the sorts of people who need shelf-decorations but don't actually read books. Because the furniture & kitchenware & stuff like that have been forever collectible, there has been more interest in the books among furniture collectors than among book people, because it was kind of neat to have a Roycroft end-table with a couple Hubbard books displayed thereon. And I suppose anyone who values self-help books today will find Hubbard's simpering philosophy & childish way of expressing himself excellent examples of early self-help & motivational writing. But no one who values fine writing or intelligent discourse could ever stomach his stuff.

There are nevertheless to this day a few diehard Hubbard collectors though I swear there wouldn't be even one if the furniture & goods weren't so appealing in their rustic simplicity. I have frequently wished Hubbard had actually loved fine literature & had put his bookbinding & typesetting & papermaking hirelings to work giving great works fine editions, instead of focusing on his own smily-face crud. Roycroft editions of authentic classics do exist, Sonnets from the Portuguese for instance, as if it had too few fine editions already, ditto The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam. But such are a small percentage, & these public domain reprints existed mainly so that Hubbard could place his original work in a row with better stuff & pretend he belonged. Just as he similarly commissioned from fine sculptors life-size statues of such imagined peers as himself & Michelangelo.

The books are old enough by now they have a kind of inherent value as decorations. Prices have risen, though it's surprising how many Hubbard books & pamphlets are still to be encountered in bookstores at give-away prices. Antique dealers who are always on the look-out for the furniture will still grab the finest-bound Hubbards if cheaply priced, & they'll reprice them through the ceiling to display with the furniture. But it's easier to overstock the books than it is to replace furniture inventory, so not all Roycroft books have been grabbed up from cheap sources as yet. Still, it's pretty obvious they will continue to increase in value because of other Roycroft stuff that is so very much more worthwhile, dragging the well-made crappy books along for the ride. And just as obviously, as with the majority of vanity presses after Hubbard's day, these books will remain unimportant to the antiquarian book trade per se.

Certainly there are worse things a man could spend his great wealth on than accumulating & supporting craft artists. If the books issued under his imprint had not consisted primarily his own vanity press blatherings, I'd've admired the man for having successfully lorded over a commune that produced a great deal more than his own cheap aphorisms. But as a booklover I cannot help but get the willies from the misguided waste of trees & cotton-balls & horses' hooves that brought these grand editions of awful writings into being.

To some without critical skills of any kind, Hubbard was if no genius then at least "a poor man's William Morris." In our own age of plastic everything the worst of his stuff does look dandier & dandier compared to the post-1950s influence of aluminum lawn chairs, while almost any stick of furniture put together by anyone in 1910 is worth more than Mediterranean style from Seers. So there'll always be value placed on everything Roycrofter except his own writings, though devotees of Roycroft goods do tend to trick themselves into believing the "Love Is — Elbert's Ego" gambit really has merit.




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