1922: Poet Edgar A. Guest

From a 1922 issue of The American Magazine:

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What I Owe the Other Fellow

There is no such thing as a self-made man. No one achieves anything by his own efforts alone; all along the way are countless others who contribute to his progress, who help him to reach his goal

by Edgar A. Guest

All my life I have heard about the self-made man. He has been written up in all the leading publications of the world. He has frequently written of himself — not always from a spirit of pride, but often from a desire to inspire others even at the sacrifice of his own modesty.

The self-made man has become a symbol of energy and industry in our national life. I think he is more truly American than anything else. We have grown fond of him. We cultivate his acquaintance and we advertise his worth.

As a lad I was fed on books of the “From Farm Boy to Senator” type. We have all been told and re-told that no gate is barred to the boy of courage and ability and integrity. True greatness, in the common belief, is nearly always self-made.

I learned that, and used to believe it. Now I am older and have met many men, great and otherwise, I still believe firmly in the possibilities of greatness in every healthy American boy. The farmer’s lad may become senator; the boy on the obscure Illinois farm may rise to the Presidency of the United States; there may be, and undoubtedly is, another Henry Ford dreamily trudging his way to the district school this very morning; to-morrow’s captains of industry may be selling newspapers on our street corners, and no doubt the papers of thirty years from now will be writing them up as “self-made.”

In spite of all this, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a self-made man.

I have never known anyone who reached the goal we call success single-handed and alone. There is no such thing as solitaire in the game of life. To be a great leader, a man must have followers. To have followers, a man must have friends and be worthy of them.

No man is wholly self-made. It cannot be done, and it isn’t done. All along the way, others have made their contributions to the fame and glory of the one.

Each of us is the sum of our own efforts plus the gifts of others. How much of the deeds we are proudest of are our own, and how much came from friendly hands, we alone know, and that but vaguely.

The joy of accomplishment becomes conceit and arrogance when one forgets the assistance he has received, and assumes himself to be the exclusive author of his own achievement.

I have had a fortunate and fairly successful life, so far. Things have broken well for me. I have had my share of trouble, but I have never been in a pit from which I had to struggle out alone. Always, friends have stood by ready to help me.

Others have smoothed the rough way for me. I have had many a “hitch” on a kindly wagon going my way; many a swift ride in a motor car over roads where I might not have had the strength or courage or faith to go alone; and I stand today where I am — not yet at the top, I hope — resting on the kindly shoulders of uncounted friends.

I owe a lot to the other fellow. He has done much for me. As a matter of fact, the other fellow has made me possible. I cannot recount here all the kindly favors and helps I have received back through the years; but that they are a part of me and of my success I am sure.

The other fellow began taking an interest in me and my welfare when I was a boy attending school and putting in my spare time at a drug store, trying to make myself generally useful.

I was small of stature, but willing. I think I must have attracted the other fellow’s attention first by having almost to stretch myself full length into that old-fashioned cigar case to get his favorite brand. It.makes little difference now what caused him to notice me. The important fact is that he did and learned to know my name. That was really the beginning of my acquaintance with the other fellow.

In that drug store I met men of every occupation, there were three who stand out in my memory to-day above the throng of others who daily came and went. One was a banker, another a merchant, and the third was then employed as bookkeeper by the Detroit “Free Press.”

I didn’t know it then, but I do now, that I was flirting with three opportunities. Each of those three other fellows had it in his power to shape my career. What my future was to be depended not entirely upon my own choice. The other fellow was to have his say in the matter. Had the banker or the merchant spoken first, the newspaper might never have heard of me. Had neither of the three spoken, the drug store might still be the scene of my labors.

But the other fellow took me from the soda-water counter sooner than I expected. The “Free Press” bookkeeper did the trick.

He offered me Saturday-afternoon employment in the counting department of that paper. I jumped at the chance. During the summer months I worked full time, and in addition took care of the baseball score board, which was then a feature of the paper’s outdoor publicity program.

That was my start. That was the beginning of “the other fellow’s” active interest in me. The bookkeeper has faded out of my life, but his place has been taken by scores of others who have contributed, and continue to contribute almost daily, something of themselves and their own to my happiness. I joined my paper in 1895, and from that day to this my name has been regularly on its pay roll. I hope to keep it there until Death writes “30” after my last line of copy — that being the way we newspaper writers indicate that the story has come to an end.

As a reporter I could not have succeeded without the other fellow. He gave me my best stories.

I got the credit for getting them, but it was often the friend in the policeman’s uniform, or in the plain clothes of the detective, who was really entitled to it. I was young then and thought much of myself. I had the notion that I was really doing it all; but I know now how much I depended for my success upon those with whom I came in contact.

The exclusive newspaper story always comes first from some other fellow. It has to come from somewhere. It is not the product of the reporter’s imagination, nor is it created by his own ability.

In my case, sometimes the other fellow was high in public office; sometimes he was patrolling a beat; sometimes he was a janitor in a building; sometimes a nurse in a hospital, or the driver of an ambulance; sometimes he was a prisoner in the jail, or a bartender, or a minister, or a mysterious anonymous friend over the telephone; but whoever or whatever he was, he contributed to my achievement.

When I was covering the police beat, the chief of detectives was friendly to me. He liked me and I liked him; we got along well together, but I should have failed in my duty to my paper had I turned in only the stories which he was pleased to give out. When he made public a story, he gave it to all the reporters. He could not and would not play favorites. His news was never to be exclusive. The trick of the good reporter was to get it before the chief was willing to announce it.

This is my debt to the other fellow. He let me into the secrets.

“Where did you get that story you printed this morning,” the chief stormed at me one afternoon.

“I can’t tell you,” I replied.

“You’ll never get another bit of news out of this office unless you do,” was his threat. To which I answered,”I’d never get another good story around here if I did.”

He grinned and walked away. We argued that many and many a time, always with the same result. I never told; and while he may have suspected who the other fellow was, he was never certain. But he knew, and I knew, that the other fellow was helping to make me successful.

But I did not want to be a reporter all my life. I had my dreams and my ambitions. There was much that I wanted to do. The opportunity, however, lay not altogether with me but with others. I wanted to do creative work. I thought that I could do it, but I had never tried.

My first attempt was a bit of color-dialect verse. I created it. It was mine. I had done that single-handed and alone. That was self-made. I shudder when I look at it now to see how crude and trivial a bit it was. If I were the Sunday editor and that indifferent work were handed to me I doubt that I should publish it.

Fortunately for me the Sunday editor was a gentle, kindly, helpful friend. I think now he saw, not the thing I had done, but the things I might some day do. He opened the Sunday page to me. He printed that first bit; and he did more — he printed my signature beneath it. I have never ceased being grateful to him. It was that one kindly act of his that has made possible much that has come to me since.

Had he rejected it; had he pointed out the weakness of it, or even so much as smiled at the poverty of its thought I might never again have ventured into the field of creative writing. Instead, he gave me encouragement and hope.

He was the other fellow shaping my career. He made it possible for me, time and again after that, to appear in his columns; and to him I owe much. He gave me my chance.

Life cannot be lived happily without the other fellow. We had an experience the other night: It was bitterly cold. We had been spending the evening with friends who live about twelve miles out in the country. We drove out in our car. Apparently we were equipped with all that human beings can possess for safety and comfort. We might have said truthfully that we were independent of the world. We could pass the other fellow, or let him pass us, as we chose.

At midnight we began the journey home. For some reason or other, the motor, which had been reliable up to that minute, could not be started. We were twelve miles from home on a cruel night and powerless to move. Could we handle that situation single-handed and alone? Did we have brains or strength or money or ability enough to extricate ourselves from that embarrassing situation? No. We were stuck; we were up against it and the prospect was not encouraging.

But out poured our friends. Clothes lines were dug up from somewhere. The other fellow backed his car down to us, tried to tow us, but the ropes snapped and had to be discarded.

“Wait a minute,” said a friend; “I know where there’s a wire cable that won’t break.”

I have yet to learn where he obtained it. All I know is that when he reappeared he had with him enough wire to make a durable tow line; and with that to bind us together, the other fellow towed us that twelve miles and landed us safely at out front door.

Home on our power? No! home by the gracious and kindly act of the other fellow.

I often wonder where I’d be without the other fellow. He does so much for me. I get the credit for my daily column, but know that the printer and the proof-reader have more than once saved me from blunders. I complain bitterly, at times, when a dropped line ruins a verse. I often growl at the make-up man for running to-day what I wanted held for tomorrow. But the actual fact is that the boys up-stairs prevent more mistakes than they commit.

But why stop there? Every worthwhile thing that has come to me has come on the stream of good will of the other fellow. I have acquired what little I have, not by main strength or by single-handed combat; it has become mine because the other fellow was willing to let me have it, glad to see me get it, and eager to help me to get it. I never see a newsboy on the street, doing his best to sell the newspaper for which I write, but that I feel he is a partner in my personal enterprise. Unless he were out there selling that paper successfully my position would not last long. I could not run all the departments by myself. The one-man band attracts a little attention as a curiosity, but he can never compete with a symphony orchestra as a maker of sweet music.

I have discovered this also: Whenever I seem to have come to the point where the larger opportunity is ready for me, it is the other fellow who prepares the way. Every important step has been guided by kindly people. I have adventured in strange fields, but never alone. The other fellow has always been there to encourage and to assist.

My first three books of verse I published myself. That is the vain and self-contented way of putting it. “Self-published” was the distinguishing mark used to indicate in the catalogues that these frail children of mine had not been born in a regular publishing house.

But they were not self-published! They were published by the faith and loyalty and courage and hard work of my brother, in combination with the faith and willingness of other fellows to assist. If “Home Rhymes” had depended upon me alone for publication, it would never have seen the light of day.

In those early days my brother Harry was a printer. He believed we could sell a book of my verse. He insisted he could print such a book. Together we bought several fonts of type, and a print shop was established in the attic of his home. There, night after night, he set by hand the type for eight pages of the little volume; that done, he carried his forms to a down-town press, where enough pages for eight hundred volumes were run off; then back went the type to the attic shop to be re-distributed and another eight pages set up.

This was the arduous and self-sacrificing process by which that first little book was brought to birth. The book-paper man gave us credit for our paper supply; the binder permitted us to sell the book first and to pay him afterward; and when at last the work was done, the venture was successful because my brother went out and sold it.

Had he deserted me when he had produced the book, it would have failed. I. could not have sold it myself. The following year he repeated his labor of devotion; and “Just Glad Things” was issued. This time the edition was 1,500 copies; and two years later we produced 3,500 copies of a volume christened, “Breakfast-Table Chat.”

Self-published books? Yes, if the combined efforts of a brother and a host of loyal friends can be forgotten and squeezed into the insignificant little word “self.” These books are out of print now. Thousands of my later volumes have been printed and sold. But I know, and acknowledge to myself over and over again, that this probably never would have happened but for the enthusiasm and devotion of the numerous other fellows. It is their work and their assistance that have made the present accomplishments possible.

After “Breakfast-Table Chat,” along came Frank Reilly, of the Reilly and Lee Company, of Chicago, with the suggestion that he be allowed to publish my next book. To write the material for a book is one thing. That can be done, perhaps, as nearly single-handed as any task I know of; but I know of no one so original that, if he be honest, he will not admit that he is indebted in part, even for his ideas, to the work of others. To be a good writer a man must be a good reader; and for his reading he must look to others. He cannot feed upon himself.

Having the book written is not success. Neither is having it published. Hundreds of books are published every year, and few live beyond their first editions. This is particularly true of books of verse.

Had my publishers merely published “A Heap o’ Livin’,” and rested there, it might not have gone beyond its first edition. But Frank Reilly had faith in me; and Billy Lee and Sam Darst had faith in me; and they communicated their faith and their enthusiasm to the boys of their force. They started the other fellow working for me.

To sell a book of verse is not easy. They went through the country and devoted their energies and their interests to me. Now that “A Heap o’ Livin'” has gone through so many editions that I have lost count of them, I know how little of its success is due to my own efforts, and how much is due to the labors of others. There has been friendship in its making, every mile of the way. Without these friendly hands and loyal hearts, from the greatest to the humblest, it could not have been done.

A friend dropped into my office recently. He had visited a book store in St. Louis.

“I happened to mention your books to the young lady who waited on me,” he said, “and she told me that she had met you. She enthusiastically told about selling your books, and added that she always mentioned them to people who dropped in. It must be great to have boosters like that working for you.”

“It is great,” I said. “It is the most wonderful thing that has happened to me. Without the good will of the clerks in the stores I could get nowhere. And I feel my obligation greatly.”

We are all wrapped up in the other fellow. I am so tangled in his deeds, and so deeply in his debt, that to set myself apart is hopeless. Every new day seems to find me more and more beholden to him. From my earliest boyhood until this very minute, he has held me by the hand and made smooth the way.

One day I received a telephone call. We had been having trouble with the car. On the wire was a young man employed in the garage.

“This you, Mr. Guest?” he said. “This is Frank. I’ve got your car going all right now. Took it out on the road myself and located the trouble. You can get it this afternoon.”

The other fellow again! He need not have made a road trip to find out my motor difficulties; but he did, and to that extent he added to my comfort and my gratitude.

It has been the other fellow all along the way. I sometimes stop and wonder whether I have meant as much to him as he has meant to me. Have I contributed my little to the other fellow’s sum of happiness? Has somebody found life a little easier because I live? Am I boosting for other people in the same way that the young lady in St. Louis is boosting for me? Have I helped to tow someone home who would otherwise have been stranded? Are the things which I say and do encouraging and cheering others in their daily labors?

These are questions which give me some concern. I cannot hope to pay off my indebtedness to the other fellow. I cannot always be aware of it. He works often in a quiet, unseen way and there are times when his help and his encouragement come back to me unidentified. It is not possible for me always to thank those who have been my friends. Those who have helped me most would no doubt resent any suggestion of mine that I considered myself obligated to repay them.

This is the way of true friendship. It asks nothing in return, and it rejoices always in the success and happiness of those whom it has been seeking to help.

Nevertheless these obligations are mine. I have profited and prospered under them. I have been the grateful recipient of many favors and much help. I owe much to the other fellow. I can see but one way to play square with him and with the world.

To everyone else on this earth I myself am “the other fellow.” To the extreme limits of my influence I can play his game. If I can better his success and make easier his struggle, let me begin now. If a word of praise will cheer his soul he shall have it.

When Frank fixed up my rebellious car for me, I took time to go to the garage and speak to the proprietor about Frank’s interest in my troubles.

“Yes,” said he, throwing out his chest, “I pride myself on the fact that I have made a success of this business. I have built up the largest repair shop in this territory — solely on the fact that I give service. I did more business here last month than my nearest two competitors combined.”

I left him in his pride and his conceit. . . . He was hogging the credit. . . . The fact is that without the enthusiasm and loyalty of his employees, his would be just an ordinary garage. The secret of his success was his own efforts, plus Frank’s and all the others, even to the telephone operator. He no doubt thinks himself self-made. I know better.

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Additional:

Wikipedia: Edgar Guest

Original page images (one partial page), click to enlarge:

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