Volume XXVII · Number 2 · Winter 1973-1974
East Aurora's Secret
--THOMAS M. FASSETT
Anyone making a little journey to East Aurora, New York, during the closing years of the nineteenth century and the 'teens of the twentieth would have found a small town attracting world-wide attention and a charming poseur who produced the impossible.
Elbert Hubbard, champion of ideas, entrepreneur supreme, and his Roycrofters made everything from bread to books to furniture and turned East Aurora into an intellectual watering trough that has not been matched in succeeding generations.
From 1895 to 1915, Elbert Hubbard involved himself in a whirlwind of literary pursuits that earned him the friendship of people as different as Andrew Carnegie and Stephen Crane, along with lawsuits from George Bernard Shaw and Rudyard Kipling. But the man who wrote, "Life is just one damned thing after another" lived a perpetual contradiction of that ponderous epigram.
Although he had the appearance of affectation, Elbert Hubbard assumed no attitude that was not truly his. And, however carefully he attempted to pattern his ideas on household furnishing and decoration in the spirit of the English poet and craftsman William Morris, Hubbard with equal care established the Roycroft Press to publish his favorite authors and small magazines written by himself crammed with ideas on life and art.
If a poseur, perhaps a genius -- with long hair, wide shirt collars, and a huge-brimmed hat -- Hubbard was called the Sage of East Aurora. And this much belongs to history.
What history little remembers, and East Aurora has forgotten, and Elbert Hubbard never lived long enough to find out was that he helped introduce to the world a giant in American letters.
In the Roycroft Chapel, on the evening of July 5, 1907, a small crowd clapped and yelled for an encore from 20-year-old Charles A. Sandburg as he concluded a lecture on Walt Whitman. The young Sandburg, once a ten-day inmate of the Allegheny County Jail, was none other than America's Carl Sandburg.
That lecture in East Aurora in the Roycroft Chapel was a pivot point in the life and times of Charles (Carl) Sandburg. He spoke again the next night, and a third time, on socialism, on July 13. It was there that he decided: "I now am sure I have trained my powers so that they can be of service to man."1 And, needless to say, fortune never again allowed him to be arrested for riding the rails without a ticket.
But this was just the beginning of Sandburg's creative relationship with "Fra" Elbertus. The whole world lay before him, and Charles Sandburg moved on, Elbert Hubbard becoming more an influence than a constant companion.
The following year, 1908, was one of importance for Sandburg. Charles married Lilian Steichen. And although his baptismal name was Carl, his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, had known him as Charles for a long time; so he continued to write, lecture, and organize the Social-Democratic Party in Wisconsin under this name. But Lilian thought Carl the stronger name and more like him as an individual. This opinion influenced him in going back to it before publishing his first major work in 1916, Chicago Poems.
In that same year of 1908, Elbert Hubbard published four of Sandburg's poems for the first time in his new magazine called The Fra: A Journal of Affirmation. Before "The Road and the End," "Old Woman," "Docks," and "Dream Girl" appeared in Chicago Poems of 1916, subscribers to The Fra for 1908-09 had already read them as "Lands and Souls," "Monotone," "Departures," and "A Dream Girl."
History has recorded that it was not until 1914, when he was thirty-six, that Sandburg found the literary way, for then "Chicago" and other poems were printed in Harriet Monroe's new magazine Poetry, and his reputation, like that of many others, was launched by his appearances in its pages.
The Sage of East Aurora was never wiser. He had helped set young Charles Sandburg on the way long before he "arrived" with Chicago Poems.
From his first visit at Christmastime 1902, Carl Sandburg returned again and again to East Aurora and the Roycrofters. In a letter to his sister Mary, December 26, 1902, he said, "I went away from that place with a kind of lump in my throat and a gladness in my heart about it all, only this, -- when future generations weigh in the balance the life of Elbert Hubbard, they will pronounce him one of the greatest men the world ever saw."2
Elbert Hubbard and his wife died in the sinking of the Lusitania May 7, 1915. Chicago Poems was published in April 1916.
- Herbert Mitgang, Ed. The Letters of Carl Sandburg, Harcourt Brace & World, Inc., New York, 1968, p. 49.
- Ibid. p. 7
The issues of The Fra containing Sandburg contributions include:
Vol. 1, no. 5 (August 1908), p. 80. "Lands and Souls." Later, "The Road at the End," with some word changes.
Vol. 3, no. 1 (April 1909), p. 16. "Monotone." Later, "Old Woman," with extensive revisions.
Vol. 3, no. 2 (May 1909), p. 45. "Departures." Later, "Docks," with minor word and punctuation changes.
Vol. 3, no. 3 (June 1909), p. 67. "A Dream Girl." Later, title unchanged, but extensively revised, with word changes and stanza rearrangement.
Vol. 3, no. 6 (September 1909), p. 151-152. "What Do You Think?" Apparently unpublished elsewhere, this sole prose contribution is here reproduced as it appeared on the pages of The Fra.
- The register of the Carl Sandburg Papers
- A Invalid Link of the cataloged Hubbard printed collection in Rare Books and Special Collections