Chafed over chaff

Somebody pointed out today that my signature quote from Adlai Stevenson paraphrases a similar quote by a writer and entrepreneur named Elbert Hubbard, who died with his wife aboard the Lusitania after the Germans torpedoed it in 1915.


Source: The Columbia World of Quotations. 1996.

Quotation: Editor: a person employed by a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed.

Attribution: Elbert Hubbard (1856?1915), U.S. author. Roycroft Dictionary of Epigrams (1914).

This definition was picked up by Adlai Stevenson, and included in The Stevenson Wit (1966).

Hubbard’s most famous work was a celebration of can-do people called “A message to Garcia.” It might also be called a slagging of slackers. Hubbard wrote the piece after the outbreak of the Spanish-American war, when President McKinley needed to get an urgent message to a Cuban rebel leader named Garcia.

Some one said to the President, “There’s a fellow by the name of Rowan will find Garcia for you, if anybody can.”

Rowan was sent for and given a letter to be delivered to Garcia. How “the fellow by the name of Rowan” took the letter, sealed it up in an oil-skin pouch, strapped it over his heart, in four days landed by night off the coast of Cuba from an open boat, disappeared into the jungle, and in three weeks came out on the other side of the Island, having traversed a hostile country on foot, and delivered his letter to Garcia – are things I have no special desire now to tell in detail. The point that I wish to make is this: McKinley gave Rowan a letter to be delivered to Garcia; Rowan took the letter and did not ask, “Where is he at?”

Hubbard’s sympathies lay with the man of action and commerce.

… when all the world has gone a-slumming I wish to speak a word of sympathy for the man who succeeds – the man who, against great odds, has directed the efforts of others, and having succeeded, finds there’s nothing in it: nothing but bare board and clothes. I have carried a dinner pail and worked for day’s wages, and I have also been an employer of labor, and I know there is something to be said on both sides. There is no excellence, per se, in poverty; rags are no recommendation; and all employers are not rapacious and high-handed, any more than all poor men are virtuous. My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the “boss” is away, as well as when he is at home. And the man who, when given a letter for Garcia, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets “laid off” nor has to go on a strike for higher wages.

Civilization is one long anxious search for just such individuals.

I happened across a letter sent to Hubbard’s family by somebody who had spoken with Hubbard aboard the Lusitania before it sank. The correspondent recalled Hubbard “was sure a submarine would never make any effort to torpedo a ship filled with women, children and non-combatants.”

Among the writer’s last words, after the ship was attacked. “Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.? Then he and his wife returned to their cabin.

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