Book List: A Socialist's/Humanist's Message to Garcia

It’s a good rule of thumb to learn something about an author before taking what he/she says at face value. Elbert Hubbard was a Socialist and a Humanist whose belief system informed his writings, including his ode to independent action that leads to collective success, known as “A Message to Garcia”. In 1893 Hubbard stopped selling soap, left his wife and children behind in Illinois and moved to East Aurora, New York to live with his mistress, Alice Moore, a Transcendentalist and Humanist. Hubbard embraced Moore’s beliefs. In 1894 he traveled to England and sought out William Morris, a Karl Marx enthusiast and founder of the Socialist League. Hubbard was impressed with Morris’s socialist experiment known as the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1894 Hubbard launched a socialist experiment in East Aurora, called Roycroft Arts and Crafts, and founded Roycroft Press which published The Philistine, in which “A Message to Garcia” appeared in 1899.

By the time Hubbard penned the essay that made him rich and famous, he had long since turned his back on traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs. Humanists have no need for God because they are their own gods and are responsibile for their own destinies. Hubbard lived by a code that extolled rugged independent acts and persistence. So we have Rowan, the hero of “A Message to Garcia.” Hubbard praises Rowan’s instant, uncomplaining, independent action when given a message by President McKinley to carry to a Cuban revolutionary leader whose exact location in Cuba is unknown. Rowan treks alone and on foot through mountainous terrain to find General Garcia. He soon finds him, delivers the message, and emerges without fanfare from his ordeal. The war Garcia is fighting is of little interest to Hubbard as he tells the story of Rowan. The Cuban revolutionaries were winning their war against Spain before the United States entered it, but no matter. The opportunistic nature of America’s entry into the war does not interest Hubbard, yet the war resulted in the United States acquiring three new territories, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines.

Hubbard’s essay attained fame as a great motivational piece. But what was Hubbard’s motivation for writing it? The answer is contained in his essay. He wanted to show how independent action and stoic determination are necessary to lift Socialism up and make it thrive–in America, presumably. Hubbard asks, rhetorically, “If men will not act for themselves, what will they do when the benefit of their effort is for all?” In “A Message to Garcia,” Hubbard’s Rowan is the ultimate Humanist who, with nothing but his own perseverance, succeeds. But, above all, Hubbard’s Rowan is the ultimate Socialist who acts obediently, unhesitatingly, and independently to further Socialism. Elbert Hubbard did not hold in high regard those who were called “conservatives” in his day. He is quoted as saying, “A conservative is a man who is too cowardly to fight and too fat to run.” Speaking as a conservative woman, I find it instructive to bear in mind what Hubbard said about conservatives as we contemplate his essay, “A Message for Garcia.”