Sunday, January 03, 2010

Essay on Silence

    We have looked over with a great deal of interest the Fra's new "Essay on Silence" which has just come to our reviewing table. It ranks high with the other great essays on this subject by Carlyle, Maeterlinck, Cristadoro, Geronimo, Rev. Dr. Slicer, George H. Daniels, Charley Prizer and Jos. Leon Gobeille.

    This essay is bound to stimulate thought and meditation. It is a book that the tired man or woman can go away with alone and communicate with the Infinite. Open it anywhere and it is equally interesting. It is one of the best things the Fra has done, and so different from some of his other writings in that it is wholly unobjectionable.

    It is a book that any husband can give to his wife, or any lover to his sweet heart, or in fact, it makes an admirable present to any woman.

    The Fra rises to the height of the literary style of Harry Peck, Gustave Stickley and Andrew Carnegie in that he does not project his own personality constantly into the game but lets his subject shine through and speak itself. It is told in language with which lovers might communicate with each other, and will never bring the blush of shame on the brazen cheek of innocence

    We hope the Fra will give us more books like this, and we look anxiously of his next.
    -George Whopper James in "The Craftsman."

Fra Elbertus was a pseudonym used by Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) who was an American writer and publisher. He established an artist colony in East Aurora, N.Y., and started the Roycroft Press, imitating William Morris's romantic experiment in the hand craftsmanship of fine books.

Imagining himself as a medieval and reverend-like Father Superior, Fra Elbertus took great pleasure in symbolic of protests against the traditions of the day and the inadequacies of an industrialized culture. Epigrams flowed from his pen. "There is no failure except in no longer trying," he noted. "Logic is an instrument used to bolster a prejudice...One machine can do the work of 50 ordinary men but no machine can do the work of an extraordinary man...This will never be a civilized country 'til we spend more money for books than we do for chewing gum."

The earliest title from the Hubbard art nouveau print shop was The Song of Songs which Is Solomons Being a Reprint and a Study by Elbert Hubbard. The press ran six hundred copies and it took five months to turn them out. "The appeal of The Song of Songs to Hubbard," says Tom Benton from Book Source Magazine, "could have had something romantic to do with Chapter 2, Verse 12: "The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. And perhaps he liked 8 for Chapter 8, Verse 15: "Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry."

The artsy little magazine reached it peak between the 1890s and early years of the 20th century with its tetchy opinion peddlers eager to get in touch with their audiences. The Philistine was first printed late in 1894 as a one of a kind gag. Hubbard paid to have it printed and it became the longest lasting of the Roycroft periodicals. Eventually serving as Hubbard's voice he nicknamed it "A Periodical of Protest."

A devoted believer in rugged individualism, Hubbard not only edited the inspirational Philistine magazine but was the author of Essay on Silence. Originally printed as a pamphlet with the title and his name on the front there was nothing but blank pages between the covers. Much like the initial reader's response to Swap's submission Essay on Silence was a small literary scandal in the beginning since nobody could judge the merit of the work. Most deemed it simply a joke that was perhaps, a little funny. Others considered it a flagrant offense to words and literature, a sarcastic query of their worth. Hubbard later claimed Essay on Silence was his best work. Even though the bulk of his other works were lively and droll he thought they were not that interesting. This essay carried insightfulness missing from the others simply because it totally admits that language cannot say enough about silence and that the nothingness of the page is a much better alternative.

Silence is one of the hardest things to refute and other artisans have embraced the topic with similar zeal. John D. Barrow notes that, "John Cage's musical composition 4,33 — enthusiastically encored in some halls — consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of unbroken silence, rendered by a skilled pianist wearing evening dress and seated motionless on the piano stool in front of an operational Steinway. Cage explains that his idea is to create the musical analogue of absolute zero of temperature 24 where all thermal motion stops." Barrow adds, " Martin Gardner tells us that 'I have not heard 4, 33 performed but friends who have tell me that it is Cage's finest composition."

Following along in the same vein is Len Shackleton's more recent composition titled, What the average director knows about football. The English footballer included it in a blank volume called The Nothing Book. Published in 1974 it appeared in a number of publications and even survived a breach of copyright action by the writer of another book of empty pages.

First printed in 1905, Hubbard's Essay on Silence was issued yearly until his death. In essence it is a book of blank pages that went through many adaptations over time. Most copies of the book measure 5 1/4" x 3 1/2" and it is effectively a book of 56 unnumbered blank pages usually bound in soft cover suede with the title stamped in gold lettering. Some versions can still be found today with autographs, drawings and remarks by well known writers of the day like Clare Wiseman whose non de plume was Wakeleigh Rhodes, painter Sandor Landeau, poet Joseph Leiser, William Marion Reedy and several others who attended the Roycroft Convention of July, 1906. No longer in print there are a few copies that have been inscribed and signed by the author and various celebrities of the day that are currently offered as collectibles at a wide variety of prices depending on ,not only the condition of the blank pages, but who signed them as well.

Probably the most renown work is what Hubbard called a "literary trifle." In his A Message to Garcia (1899) was a lesson in duty and efficiency based on an event in the Spanish-American War. A military officer assigned to find the whereabouts of leader of a rebellious group located in the backwoods of Cuba. He was to convey a communication from President McKinley. One journalist speculated that it might have been that the Yanks were coming. Fra Elbertus used the incident to deprecate the average laborer "who couldn't find his posterior with both hands.":

    No man who has endeavored to carry out an enterprise where many hands were needed, but has been well-nigh appalled at times by the imbecility of the average man—the inability or unwillingness to concentrate on a thing and do it. Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference and half-hearted work seem the rule...

    And this incapacity for independent action, this moral stupidity, this infirmity of the will, this unwillingness to cheerfully catch hold and lift—these are the things that put pure Socialism so far into the future."

    We have recently been hearing much maudlin sympathy expressed for the 'downtrodden denizens of the sweatshop' 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're-do-wells to do intelligent work; and his long, patient striving after 'help' that does nothing but loaf when his back is turned.

With the outbreak of World War I Hubbard would change his tune a great deal by saying no one should be allowed to profit by supplying, "murder machines for the mob." Determined to go to the battlefields Tom Benton writes that Hubbard wanted to, "see what all the ruckus was about, so he and (his wife) Alice climbed the gangplank to the Lusitania despite German warnings that Americans had better stay off ships bound for the war zone. No survivor witnessed the actual demise of Elbert and Alice. But one said he had asked them to stay by the rail while he went for life jackets, and when he returned they were gone."

The news Fra Elbertus's death was widespread and deeply mourned. In Hubbard's life story Art and Glory, Benton adds that biographer Freeman Champney cites a poem penned by a columnist in a closing appraisal of Hubbard's life:

    Down to the depths went Elbert Hubbard,
    With smiling eyes that knew no fear,
    And all the lovely mermaids rubbered,
    And Neptune shouted, "See who's here!"


Sources

Benton, Tom, Not Cheap, But Good: Fra Elbertus and the Roycrofters
Accessed August 3, 2005.

The essay on Silence
Accessed August 3, 2005.

The essay on Silence
Accessed August 3, 2005.

Hubbard, Elbert., The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition 2005

nothing.no _ guide to nothing and the avantgarde of artists
Accessed August 3, 2005.

Roycroft Essay on Silence Advertisement
Accessed August 3, 2005.

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