1922: Writer Dr. Frank Crane

From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:

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Personal — And Indiscreet

The story of my travel on the Long Road of Life, from my boyhood ambitions, through the experiments of young manhood, on to the time when I could call myself “The Happiest Man I Know”

by Dr. Frank Crane

This article is going to look egotistic, because it will be about myself. But that is not my fault. I did not write this piece and offer it to The American Magazine. It was ordered by the Editor.

Still, the Editor is running the magazine, not I. He offered me money to write this, and insisted it be personal. Hence the crime. I am guilty, of course, because I commit it for money, But the Editor is the man higher up, and if you want to shoot anyone shoot him. I am the weak victim; he is the cool, shrewd villain.

I was born in Urbana, Illinois. My father was a Methodist preacher. He was full of common sense and good humor. He was very human, loved tobacco, and was fond of a good story. He was a dark, lean man. He played dominoes. He was loved by everybody and was a good mixer. I am not.

Still I am not sour. I get along pretty well with people. But I am careful never to ask them for anything. For, as Ed Howe says, friends are like flowers in the park: it is well to walk around and admire them; but don’t pick ’em.

As far as I know, I don’t owe anybody any money, or have any grudges. I like folks. But I am afraid of them. From my mother, I inherited a certain morbid sensitiveness, and I find that in mingling with people my skin is too thin and I bruise too easily. So I live rather to myself, not because I do not like people, but because I do like them and want them to like me.

As a matter of fact, I am socially inclined, enjoy company and, as Bill Nye said, am pleasant to be thrown amongst. But personality is a strange thing. People who read my writings know me much better than those who are personally acquainted with me. For I, as well as other writers, am much more frank and expansive to the public than to any one of them.

My public understands me. It sees my soul. It knows me as I am. And where can you find a flesh-and-blood person of whom you can say as much?

My father was chaplain in Grant’s regiment during the early days of the Civil War. So when Grant was elected President he appointed my father postmaster at Springfield, Illinois, where we then lived. There was no reason for this appointment, except that Grant liked my father — which was reason enough for Grant. Still, Father made a good postmaster. I worked a year in the post office, as clerk and, part of the time, as letter carrier.

Previous to this I went to school. I entered public school at the age of six, passed through every grade, and graduated at sixteen from the high school. I was very spindling, conceited, shy, and studious. I loved books. Also, girls. I was as romantic and tragic as any boy of sixteen ever was. But I got over it safely. I was always decent, and coarseness repelled and rather frightened me.

I had a distinct call to at least half a dozen professions. I studied Greek passionately, fell in love with the lady Greek teacher, and was sure that some day I would be a learned professor and marry her. She was forty and I was sixteen.

Then I decided to be a naturalist, when our class took up botany. Afterward I had a fad for raising flowers. In the parsonage lot in two or three Illinois towns — Ashland, Rantoul, and Island Grove — I had amazing flower beds, full of imported tulips, roses, gladioli, and what not, of which I knew all the Latin names.

At another time I veered to entomology, and amassed a collection of beetles and butterflies, which I had neatly pinned on boards and kept in my room, until I found they were full of lice.

Again, I studied law for a year, and was in Judge Henry’s law office at Shelbyville, Illinois. But two or three visits to the court-room cured me of that. It was the personal repulsion again. While I loved law as a science, or a collection of ideas, I was repelled by the rough-and-tumble of courtrooms.

For years I was certain that my career was going to be music. We had no piano, only an old melodeon. But I worked at that until I became a violent nuisance to the rest of the family. I had to take the melodeon out to the barn. I took one lesson. I didn’t like it nor the teacher. She wanted me to play five-finger exercises. I wanted to play classical things at once.

I learned Mozart’s Third Mass and could wheeze it through splendidly on the organ, and showed off whenever l got a chance, doubtless to the great amusement of the people who heard me. When we got a piano I bought Chopin’s nocturnes and waltzes, Beethoven’s sonatas, and Schubert’s Moments Musicales. I worked like a Trojan on,all these, and got so I could play any of them.

Afterward, when a young preacher at Rantoul, I taught music and had a class of fifteen or twenty. I had not the native skill, however, to make a musician, and no proper guidance. It was more or less of a brain-storm with me, and finally died out.

All of my fads were solitary. I found no companions in them.

After graduating from high school and serving a year in the post office I taught in a little country school seven miles south of Shelbyville. I boarded with a farmer, who was so religious he would not let me play the flute on Sunday. (At this time I was determined to become a great flute player.) I would get up at daylight, walk three miles to the scnoolhouse, build a fire in the wood stove, and teach.

About this time I began to write poetry. This fever lasted on and off a good many years. I wrote an epic poem of Illinois life. It was about as bad as you may suppose. Afterward I wrote a number of other poems, which nobody seemed to care for but me. Still, poetry was never wholly convincing to me. I never could see the sense in twisting an idea around to make sing rhyme with fling, and never found anything said in rhyme that could not have been said better and more directly in untortured words.

Afterward I taught school near Jacksonville, in two country districts.

At about the age of twenty-one I entered the ministry. As I look back upon it now I see myself carried along by my environment. I was young. I had not yet ripened and separated myself from the parent stem of ideas and feelings. My father being a Methodist minister, the ministry appealed to me as an avenue of self-expression. I was sincere. But it was a sincerity of the medium in which I floated. Every influence operated to crush my individuality. Conformity was the shining virtue.

My first charge was at a railroad junction called Chapin, where my congregation met in an upper room over a hardware store. I received seventy-five dollars for my year’s labor. It was more than it was worth.

The next charge I had was at Roodhouse, Illinois, a larger junction town. While here I often visited the family of Doctor Short, who was president of the Female College, at Jacksonville. It was a very beautiful and friendly atmosphere. Here I met a girl student who captured my wayward fancy. I married her, and we went to live in the parsonage at Roodhouse. We have lived together harmoniously for thirty-seven years. To us were born four children, two of whom are living.

My last charge in Illinois was at Bloomington. From there I went to Omaha, Nebraska, where I spent three years, the happiest of all my ministry. From Omaha I went to the Trinity Church at Chicago. This was my first charge in a great city. I had tremendous ambitions. I was going to do great things. But there I began to find out that I did not fit as a denominational leader. I did not realize it. I labored hard at the oars, but the current was against me.

I was not interested in denominational aims. Doubtless my fellow ministers thought me egotistic. Really, I was groping. I never had any trouble with a church. There was never any clash over doctrines. I believed, and still believe, in the great fundamentals the church stands for.

But the machinery repelled me. I could not throw myself into the great and fascinating business of propagandizing the essentials, because I had to work too hard at the nonessentials. I did not want to be headstrong, and so for years I did my best to be a regular pastor. I was never a very efficient one.

I was a good preacher; that is, I had good congregations, and people were interested; but the business of running any kind of institution, with its boards and committees and rules, was not one for which I was adapted.

After being seven years in Chicago, I was called to the Union Congregational Church, at Worcester, Massachusetts. I remained at Worcester seven years. Then I resigned my pulpit. For almost thirty years I had served as a Christian minister. I got along about as well as other preachers.

I love and respect the Christian Church, or rather the people in it. In my judgment they are the finest people in the world. They are intelligent, open-minded, just, and sincere. They are the backbone of our civilization. But I was never intended to be an officer in an institution. I was born, as I now see it, to devote myself entirely to Ideas. The task of organizing is for others. Machinery never interested me. My whole aim and enthusiasm is for the individual, not for the corporate body.

In other words, I like folks, rather than the Church, Lodge, or Nation they are in. My vision is not that of the hymn — “Like a mighty army, moves the Church of God;” but rather that of the parable of the lump of leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until the whole was leavened.

I suppose I am essentially a heretic. Yet not a heretic of belief, for I believe in the great central truths of Jesus’s teaching even more utterly than the Church officials; I am rather a heretic of practice, if I may coin the phrase, for to me Christianity is essentially unorganizable; it must remain free to reach “all the world.” As Wesley said, “The world is my parish.”

And then, I did not want to preach, as my fellow ministers did, to convert anybody. Why should I want to convert them, when probably they were really as good as I? I wanted to preach, as a poet wants to write, as a painter to paint, as an architect to build. It was the pure impulse of self-expression. I had glimpses of spiritual truth, visions of the laws of life and of the beauties of virtue; and I wanted to reveal what I had seen.

These are the reasons why I stepped out of the pulpit and into the newspapers. In the first place, I wanted “all the world;” and the only place all the world can be found to-day is reading the newspaper. There is neither bond nor free, Jew nor Gentile, Greek nor barbarian. There, and there alone, are college professors and elevator boys, hired girls and millionaires’ wives, black and white, Bolsheviks and bankers. There is the one world where there is no class (how I loathe the word!), no exclusiveness, no party, no respectability — nothing but just folks.

That I have achieved my ambition, that I now write my daily preachment, which appears in some fifty newspapers throughout the United States and Canada, that I have what is said to be the largest audience to whom any human being ever spoke daily, numbering around fifteen millions, and that I am able to keep this position not because a bishop appoints me or any institution backs me, and not because I am subsidized by some benevolent person or persons, but simply because people want to read what I write, and the newspapers know this and pay me wages for it, just as they do for sporting news or funny pictures — all this is to me the cause of devout thankfulness to God, but I am not vainglorious over it.

At the age of forty-eight I resigned my pastorate at Worcester. I had no money; so I borrowed sixteen hundred dollars on my life insurance and went back to Chicago. Here I made enough by lecturing occasionally to pay my rent and upkeep, while I tried to get my peculiar stuff into the newspapers.

After some six months, Leigh Reilly, then editor of the Chicago “Evening Post,” gave me a chance. I wrote for his paper a little article about four inches long, which appeared daily on the editorial page, and was called “The Philosopher’s Corner.” For this I got a dollar a day.

After about six months I was fired. Meanwhile, however, Edward Bok, of the “Ladies’ Home Journal,” had seen the “Post” articles. He cut out one that he liked, and sent it to me with a letter, asking me if I could do this sort of thing right along. I wrote twenty little articles and sent them to him. Half of them were on pink paper and half on white. He kept the pink ones. This is a good hint for struggling authors — use pink paper. That is about as valuable as most hints. The upshot of this was that I wrote a page in Mr. Bok’s paper for several months.

I succeeded, also, in breaking into the Chicago “Tribune,” and wrote some for the back page of the Hearst papers. The way I got into the “Tribune” is instructive to young writers. I wrote to James Keeley, the editor, and said, in substance, “You have a religious column in your Sunday issue. You know, of course, that it is punk. I am enclosing copy I have written as a substitute, to show you my hand. I am going to send you five more.” He never answered me. But some time afterward I got a letter from Burns Mantle, then the “Tribune” Sunday editor, asking me to write for him.

About this time Wilbur Nesbit, a successful columnist on the “Post,” sent me to George Matthew Adams, who was running a syndicate. Adams was willing to try to syndicate my stuff, although he could offer me only a dollar a day. He got the material out under the title of “Thinking Themes.”

Some time afterward Adams was chosen managing editor of the Associated Newspapers, a new syndicate composed of several papers of large circulation, of which Victor Lawson of the Chicago “News” was president. Through Adams I was taken on as a writer for this syndicate at a good salary. Adams afterward retired from his position as editor to attend to a syndicate of his own; but I was kept on.

I have lived in New York eight or nine years. I found that the same sort of writing I was doing for the Associated Newspapers is in demand throughout the business world. That is, simple, clear, imaginative material, with a human touch. Dry-goods firms, real estate concerns, banks, hotels, and trade papers began to come to me. Theatres, moving-picture houses, in fact, every enterprise that wants to reach the public were my possible employers.

Hence, I began to do a considerable amount of advertising writing. I wrote prologues and titles for moving pictures, placards to hang up in hotels, material that could be used by banks, editorials for trade papers, prospectuses for business houses. Many concerns which had peculiar problems of advertising, turned to me.

In all this I conceived that I was preaching the Gospel just as much as I had been in the Church. In the field of business I was advocating the same decencies, moralities, and spiritual values that ministers advocate in their pulpits. And I found that the multitude in the street was just as hungry for the great verities of life as the exclusive congregations that gather in churches. All that was necessary was to translate these things into understandable language and to infuse into that language the warmth of human interest and the assurance of common sense.

For instance, a gentleman called on me not long ago and asked me if I would write the text for some motto cards; that is, cards for Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and the like, such as are usually sold in stationery and notion stores. This appealed to me at once. Why was not this an opportunity to put upon these cards some sound and helpful sentiment, so that the kind of people who send cards one to another could use something that was wholesome and helpful instead of something that was cheap and common?

I once sat next to Augustus Thomas at a public dinner, and in the course of the conversation he said to me, “Crane, I read your stuff. It reminds me of a cigar my father used to smoke. It was a five-cent cigar. When I asked him why he smoked these cigars, he said, ‘Well, they are cheap, and every once in a while you get a good one.'”

I do not call myself a preacher, because I do not like the connotations of the name. But all the same, I am a preacher, and will never be anything else. Only, I am willing to sit at the feet of the world, and give the world what it wants. I give it ideas and words, precisely as a brick mason gives it bricks, because it orders them and pays for them. Thus I am serving the world in the same way the bricklayer is. I am a business man. I am a merchant of ideas. I am a craftsman with words.

I make no pretensions to be literary. I tried to break into the high-brow magazines by writing their kind of literature, but was not very successful. Most magazines are like churches. They have their little congregations. Nobody has the world, except the newspaper. Of course, the conventional critic turns his nose up at my writing, because the critic has his canons of opinion quite as much as a bishop. His opinions about what I write are diverting, but they teach me nothing. The man whose opinion I value is the managing editor of the newspaper. He alone knows whether my stuff gets over or not. The other man whose opinion I value is myself. I l:now whether I am sincere or not, and whether I am true to my ideals and convictions. If I can satisfy these two people, I am content.

Altogether, I do not consider that I have resigned from the ministry, or that I have gone out of the pulpit. I have simply moved on to a larger charge.

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Additional:

Tumblr: Three Frank Crane quotes

Original page images (two are modified), click to enlarge:

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