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Orison Swett Marden Invents the American Self-Help Book

And helps himself in a big way

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Right after his business failed, Orison Swett Marden wrote a book about how to succeed in business.

He had written it once, but in 1894 a catastrophic fire destroyed the manuscript along with the hotel he owned. Marden himself barely escaped with his life. Undiscouraged, he took a train to Boston, rented a cheap room and rewrote the book. He made three copies and showed it to three publishers. They all wanted it.

Houghton Mifflin ended up publishing Pushing to the Front. An instant best seller, the book sold millions of copies around the world. Presidents and prime ministers swore by its advice. It made hum a rich man.

Marden’s inspirational platitudes spurred the American self-help movement. Books like Think and Grow Rich and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up  partly owe their existence in him. He also inspired critics like H.L. Mencken and, more recently, Sarah Knight, who wrote The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do.

Orison Swett Marden

He was born in Thornton Gore, N.H., in 1848. While still a toddler his mother died. His father, who farmed and hunted, took care of Orison and his two sisters. But when Orison turned seven, he died in an accident in the woods.

Orison was bound out to farm families – in other words, he worked for his room and board. He labored for at least four different families in New Hampshire.

Samuel Smiles by Sir George Reid

While in his middle teens he discovered a beat-up, disused book in an attic. It changed his life, he said. Called Self Help, it was written by a Scot, Samuel Smiles. Smiles preached the virtues of a positive mental attitude, hard work and perseverance. Marden called it “worth its weight in diamonds.”

His positive mental attitude took him to Andover Theological Seminary, Boston University and Harvard. He earned an A.B. degree from Boston University, working during the summer as second assistant clerk in the front office of the Ocean View Hotel on Block Island.

He rose to manager of Ocean House and oversaw improvements and expansion. Marden, wrote an admirer, saw the potential of Block Island as a summer resort. Somehow he found time to enter BU’s School of Oratory and become the department’s business manager. He graduated from the school and took a master’s degree as well.

He then entered Harvard Medical School and BU Law School, earning an M.D. From Harvard in 1881 and LL.B. at the law school in 1882. He still worked summers on Block Island.

Success, Then Failure

He next took postgraduate courses at Harvard. “I profited greatly under the genial lectures of Oliver Wendell Holmes,” he wrote. Before he left Harvard he began to expand a little hotel he’d bought on Block Island, the Manisses. A history of Newport, R.I., credits him with turning the island from a sleepy backwater into a stylish resort.

Hotel Manisses

Success followed success. By the time he’d finished his studies he’d amassed the considerable sum of $20,000. He spent some of it on a long trip to Europe. Then he returned and acquired more hotels in the American West and South.

He bought hotels in Nebraska at inflated prices, which fell after three years of drought. He was staying at one of his hotels, the Midway in Kearney, when it went up in flames. He escaped wearing nothing but a nightshirt.

The blaze had destroyed his 5,000-page manuscript on how to find success. Marden got himself some clothes and a 25-cent notebook, with which he began to rewrite his book.

More Trouble

Marden owned another hotel in Florida. It too, burned down.

He ran a hotel in South Dakota, but the owners wouldn’t pay him until he sued.

Then he ran a hotel at the Chicago Columbian Exposition, where another New Hampshire native, H.W.  Mudgett, was busy murdering women. He returned to Kearney afterward, but couldn’t make a go of his rebuilt hotel. He was 44 and not just broke, but heavily in debt. That’s when he took a train to Boston and rented a cheap room.

No sooner had he gotten started rewriting his masterpiece than the owners of the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego telegraphed him five times asking him to run the place. He declined.

On Dec. 1, 1894, Pushing to the Front was published. A former slave who worked as a barber suggested the title to him. It was a best seller from the start.

Pushing to the Front

William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Gladstone read it. So did millions more.

One book followed the other.

Marden urged his readers: “Be a man,” probably excellent advice at the time.

Characteristic of Orison Sweet Marden’s approach is the book: How To Get What You Want, published in 1917.

The book begins with a tale of a lion cub separated from his mother. A sheep adopts him, and the cub grows up thinking he’s a sheep. But then he hears a lion roar, a magnificent lion appeared, sharply outlined against the sky. “He shook his tawny mane and uttered a terrific roar.” The sheep mother trembled but the lion cub “listened as though spellbound, and a strange feeling which he had never before experienced surged through his being until he was all a-quiver.” from that day forward, the lion cub had a new nature, he answered the lion’s call with a roar and gave his foster mother a pathetic glance and joined the lion on the hill.

At least the cub didn’t eat his foster mother.

Marden preached that every man has a silent lion within him. “It is just a question of arousing it.”

Followers and Critics

His follower, Napoleon Hill, wrote the classic Think and Grow Rich, which in turn inspired W. Clement Stone, who also went from rags to riches. Stone wrote his own book, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude. Og Mandino, inspired by Stone, wrote The Greatest Salesman in the World. Norman Vincent Peale in 1952 put a religious spin on his The Power of Positive Thinking, putting a religious spin on the contributed to it.

By 2013, 45,000 self-help titles were in print, according to New York Magazine.

Marden had his critics, though, and so did the genre.

H.L. Mencken, the curmudgeon from Baltimore, had little use for Marden’s “canned sagacities.” He called such writing “strings of sonorous certainties, defectively articulated. “ Mencken wrote that Marden, like other self-help gurus, “devote themselves almost exclusively, and to vast profit, to the composition of arresting and uplifting apothegms, and the fruits of their fancy are not only sold in books but also displayed upon an infinite variety of calendars, banners and wall-cards.”

Dwight MacDonald also had issues with the prose style of self-help manuals. “How-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals,” he wrote  in 1954. “Their books are not born, they are spawned.”

Others, like Upton Sinclair, criticized the focus on individual effort. He thought it ignored the need for collective action to reform oppressive political systems.  By himself, Sinclair wrote, Man by himself, he wrote, “is the most helpless and pitiful of creatures, while standing together and forming societies and developing moralities, he is master of the world.”

More Success for Orison Swett Marden

In 1897 he started Success magazine. Its circulation rose to a half million, with 200 employees and its own printing press in New York. It included interviews with  Teddy Roosevelt, Julia Ward Howe, Thomas Alva Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, an John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. He turned those interviews into one of his 50 books.

At the age of 55, Orison Swett Marden got married, moved to Long Island and had three children.

In 1912, Success magazine failed. A Chicago businessman came to its rescue five years later, and it started up again. Marden would only live another seven years, dying in 1924 at 74. who relaunched Success as Success Unlimited. and edited Success Unlimited. It still exists, published by Success Enterprises LLC, still with 500,000 subscribers.

Marden died suddenly in 1924.

Images: Success Magazine: By From SUCCESS Media, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20289136.