The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

object(WP_Session)#187 (5) { ["session_id:protected"]=> string(32) "0f1dcbd4c1978142f6fea0c0b677b665" ["expires:protected"]=> int(1414228367) ["exp_variant:protected"]=> int(1414228007) ["container:protected"]=> array(1) { ["ai_visit_counter"]=> int(0) } ["dirty:protected"]=> bool(true) }
Retroview: In His Proper Place

Samuel Smiles, the quintessential Victorian, is back.

Published on January 1, 2008

by Samuel Smiles

The Scotsman Samuel Smiles wrote more than twenty books between 1836 and 1894, but his most popular was without a doubt Self-Help. Published in 1859, Self-Help ultimately sold more than a quarter million copies during Smiles’ lifetime, an astounding number for the times. But Smiles was more than the author of Self-Help, he invented a concept of “self-help”, now a genre that commands entire sections in most American bookstores. In Self-Help and other popular books like Character, Smiles faithfully reflected the spirit of the Victorian age, but in a sense also helped deepen its spirit. Smiles clarified and amplified the edifice of Victorian virtue, usefully advancing the project of separating moral discipline from formal religious dogma. In the process, he became a wealthy, well-known and very much respected man, not only in Britain but throughout much of the world.

Victorian values, sometimes referred to derisively as bourgeois values, fell out of favor during much of the 20th century, at least among the upper crusts of most Western societies, and, in step with the times, Samuel Smiles fell out of favor with them. He was at first dismissed and derided, and then virtually forgotten. His view of life, however, though considered passé by the elite, has remained the basis of what may fairly be called “hearth virtue” in much of Europe, Britain and the United States—the virtue that parents and other family elders convey by model and aphorism to children in the intimacy of their own homes. Indeed, Smiles’ work defines a version of compassionate conservatism, which, whatever one thinks of George W. Bush, clearly has deep resonance within American society. Re-reading Self-Help today, along with Smiles’ paean to technological ingenuity, Lives of The Engineers (1862), one cannot help thinking what a boon such material would be to Republican speechwriters, if they only knew of its existence.

Samuel Smiles, 1880 [credit: Getty Images]


Smiles’ work offers more than a rhetorical gold mine, however. We’ve come a long way from Lytton Strachey’s 1918 book The Eminent Victorians to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s 1996 The De-moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values. Strachey famously pilloried and satirized the Victorians by serially debunking the reputations of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold and General “Chinese” Gordon. He loathed the Victorian style of biography, of which Smiles was a major practitioner, as “funeral barbarism.” His irreverence was meant to destroy the image of Victorian virtue, and it fairly well succeeded. Nearly eighty years later, Himmelfarb, among others, regretted Strachey’s success. Values, she pointed out, are not the same as virtues, and cannot substitute for them. We have not improved Western society for having eroded individual moral responsibility through all manner of sociological and psychiatric artifice. Smiles would very much have agreed on both counts.

Doctor, Reformer, Author

Samuel Smiles was born in Haddington, Scotland on December 23, 1812, the eldest of 11 children. Like bright Scotsmen for many generations, Smiles was attracted to medicine. In 1832, he received a diploma in surgery from the University of Edinburgh and later a doctor of medicine degree from Leyden University in the Netherlands. For several years he practiced as a country doctor in his birthplace, but still found time to write articles for general interest journals, author a book on physical education, and study French, violin and painting.

As a young man, Smiles was also deeply interested in politics. He was an ardent reformer and advocate of female suffrage and free trade. He came to conclude that medical doctors were slaves of the public, often on call at odd hours, frequently not paid and generally unappreciated, and so he left medicine for the world of journalism. As editor of the Leeds Times from 1838 to 1845, Smiles threw himself into politics. He advocated the six objectives of what was then called Chartism: universal suffrage for all men 21 years and older; equal-sized electoral districts for Parliament; secret ballot; the abolition of qualifications to stand for Parliament; pay for Members; and annual Parliaments. As editor, he also championed the agenda of the self-improving working classes.

As his fellow Chartists became increasingly radical, however, Smiles turned away from reformist politics and journalism. He went to work for the Leeds & Thirsk railroad, taking the minutes of board meetings and handling correspondence. These relatively light duties left him time to write articles about health, the education of women, the widows and orphans fund, temperance, and improvement of the moral and social conditions of factory women. Over time, however, Smiles shifted focus from the reform of institutions to the betterment of individuals, a transition that culminated in the publication of Self-Help. Perhaps he was influenced by his elder, Scottish reformer Thomas Carlyle, who once wrote that “all reform except a moral one will prove unavailing.”

In Self-Help, Smiles tells numerous stories about persons of humble origins who achieved greatness of character, and sometimes wealth, too. Farmers and shopkeepers, Smiles contends, were educated by life experiences, not by books; more by action rather than by contemplative study. Great men and women of humble origins were free from the debilities of riches, from lassitude and self-indulgence. In a chapter on application and perseverance, Smiles insists that perseverance, common sense, application and indefatigable labor—not genius—mainly explain great achievers such as Isaac Newton, whom Smiles quotes as having commented, “If I have done the public any service, it is due to nothing but industry and patient thought.” Smiles argues that accident rarely brings great results; only steady industry and application can reliably do so. He also stresses the importance of observation, for it is the prepared mind that benefits from good turns of fortune. Besides the many engineers and scientists whom Smiles chooses as examples of self-help, he focuses upon artists of humble birth. Among his favorites are William Hogarth, son of a poor schoolteacher, and J.M.W. Turner, son of a barber and wig maker. Turner expected to become a barber like his father, but his life changed when a customer saw one of his son’s sketches and urged his father to let the boy become a painter.

Energy coupled with courage, Smiles believes, allows men to endure life’s drudgery and toil. Smiles approves of Napoleon Bonaparte’s favorite maxim: “The truest wisdom is a resolute determination.” Napoleon also pleased Smiles by saying, “‘impossible’ is a word only to be found in the dictionary of fools.” Yet, as we would expect, Smiles thinks the Duke of Wellington, the victor at Waterloo, a far greater man: Napoleon wanted glory; Wellington understood duty. Smiles characterizes Wellington as being as wise a statesman as Oliver Cromwell, and as pure and high-minded as George Washington. He asserts that Wellington’s character was untarnished by any low passion, even though he almost certainly knew of Wellington’s affair with Harriette Wilson, a notorious courtesan, who, in her widely circulated memoirs, named Wellington among her many lovers. But Smiles often overlooks his subjects’ flaws when it suits his pedagogical purposes.

Even though Smiles idealizes engineers, inventors and respected military men, he does not disdain certain men of business, those we call entrepreneurs today. Yet he adjures them to have comprehensive minds and interests. He warns that riches are no proof of worth and asserts that moneymaking is not in itself honorable. Making a fortune may enable some to enter society, but to be truly esteemed one must possess qualities of mind, manner and bearing. He believes, too, that the nucleus of national character originates not in the market but in the home, where parents set examples for children. “The nation”, he writes, “comes from the nursery.” He spoke from experience: Smiles and his wife had five children and 22 grandchildren, all of whom benefited from his copious advice.

The Uses of Biography

As his books brought increasing royalties, Smiles and his wife enjoyed an affluent style of life, hobnobbing with artists and shopping at fashionable Gunter’s Tea Shop on Berkeley Square. The Smiles were noted for their “at homes”, or parties, especially those that featured dancing. As befitted a man of his station, Smiles smoked cigars and drank whiskey and water. His wife’s doctor urged her to have brandy at lunch, and for both to have whiskey at dinner. (Those really were the days.)

According to Smiles, not only the home but also biographies about persons of character set examples by which to live. He wrote several such biographies—of the philanthropist and humanitarian activist George Moore, of a French poet named Jasmin, and of Robert Dick, a baker and geologist. Although he wrote mostly about men, he included in his Brief Biographies (1860) sketches of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61); writer and feminist Sarah Margaret Fuller (1810–50); prison reform advocate Sarah Martin (1791–1843); and English writer and feminist Harriet Martineau (1802–76). All his biographical writing served to illustrate the main points he made in Self-Help and Character: One could control one’s destiny by choosing to cultivate the right virtues; patience, tenacity and hard work were more important than brilliance, book learning and luck. On behalf of these convictions, Smiles sought to use fame itself for good purposes.

Many of Smiles’ biographies sold extremely well, including Lives of The Engineers. Smiles attributed its success to its emphasis on social history over technical details. He was not, however, ill informed about technical details, having served effectively as a secretary to railway companies; he simply believed that details would not interest his chosen readers. That approach certainly worked with one reader: Prime Minister Gladstone, after browsing through Lives of the Engineers, wrote to Smiles saying, “It appears to me that you have first given practical expression to a weighty truth—namely, that the character of our engineers is a most signal and marked expression of British character.”

Smiles also believed that the history of engineering cut closer to the essence of the past than the history of battles and politics. In Industrial Biography, he placed on the title page a quote from Carlyle: “The true Epic of our time is not Arms and the Man, but Tools and the Man—an infinitely wider kind of Epic.” Understanding that transportation not only spread materials, but ideas and social change, as well, Smiles emphasized civil engineering, and especially transportation, in Lives. He wrote about leading civil engineers of the British Industrial Revolution, including canal builder James Brindley (1716–72) and road builder Thomas Telford (1757–1834). Smiles stressed that Brindley’s Liverpool-to-Manchester canal brought a thriving textile industry to the region and that Telford’s road building in Scotland transformed social conditions. Over almost twenty years, Telford and associates built 920 miles of roads and 1,200 bridges, advancing the Highlands of Scotland by at least a century. Smiles wrote:

Agriculture made rapid progress. The use of carts became practical, and manure was no longer carried to the field on women’s backs. Sloth and idleness disappeared before the energy, activity, and industry which were called into life by the improved communications; better built cottages took the place of the old mud biggins with a hole in the roof to let out the smoke; the pigs and cattle were treated to a separate table; the dunghill was turned to the outside of the house . . . and very soon few young persons were to be found who could not both read and write English.

After the success of Lives, Smiles’ fame and recognition grew apace, and spread across Europe and the world. Aside from becoming a correspondent with British prime ministers, and aside from the fact that Queen Victoria herself gave a copy of Self-Help to Prince Louis of Hesse when he married her daughter Princess Alice in 1871, by 1879 more than 40,000 copies of Self-Help had been sold in Italy. King Umberto I awarded Smiles the Chevallier of the Order of St. Maurice and Lazare. The Queen invited him for a private interview, as did Garibaldi himself. Nor was Smiles’ fame limited to Europe. According to the British historian Asa Briggs, the Khedive of Egypt once proudly informed an English visitor that the mottoes of his palace walls were “principally from Smiles. . . . They are better than the texts of the Koran!” Members of the samurai class, especially government officials and educators of the new Meiji government in Japan, lined up to buy copies of Nakamura Keiu’s Japanese translation, entitled Saikoku risshi hen. A runaway best seller, it had an enormous impact on Meiji youth. It became a widely used school textbook; plays were extracted from it; lectures to the Meiji Emperor were based on it. It became one of the “holy books” (seisho) of the Meiji era.

Smiles’ books were also well-received in the United States. In his preface to the American edition of Smiles’ Happy Homes: The Hearts That Make Them (1889), Charles Gaskell wrote, “Probably no books of the same general type were ever written that have so much interested and inspired to worthy action the various classes to whom they were addressed, as have the productions of Samuel Smiles.” (Though many Americans admired Smiles, Smiles himself regarded them less well, perhaps because his American publishers failed to pay him what he thought were adequate royalties for his books: Ticknor & Fields paid only £25 for the rights to publish Self-Help in the United States.)

Smiles was also widely evoked and praised by others. According to the May 1, 1904 Washington Post, Cecil Rhodes said as he inaugurated a new library in a South African town, “I have been called an empire-maker. I don’t know about that. But there’s one thing I know and am sure of, and that is”—and here the Post article describes Rhodes holding up Dr. Smiles’ Self-Help and saying, “that we have here what is better still—a man-maker, a character-maker.”

Smiles’ own personal and professional habits testified to his self-help creed. For example, while he used dictation for business correspondence, he preferred to write essays in longhand. He needed, he said, to see his essays “coming out of his fingers’ ends” so he could shape, prune and modify. Only after he thoroughly understood a subject would sentences flow from his pen. He expressed himself as “perspicuously” and concisely as possible. He confessed that composition was not easy for him, and that he often mulled over his writing during long walks.

At work and especially when writing, however, Smiles tended to drive himself hard. At age sixty, “burning candle at both ends”, as he put it in his autobiography, he had a stroke and lost the power of speech. Before his illness, he was described as a handsome middle-aged man; afterward his features blurred and brown blotches appeared on his face. Unable to write, he went to the South Kensington Museum daily to copy paintings. He also read novels, which earlier he disdained, relishing Hardy and Kipling. (George Eliot and her theories, he said, did not amuse him.) He gradually recovered after a complete rest, enabling Smiles and his wife to celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 1893. He passed away at age 92 on April 16, 1904 at the Newcastle Golf Club.

Smiles’ books brought him fame in his own lifetime, but more importantly, they influenced entire generations thereafter. His own life illustrated his creed that the modestly born could succeed famously if they cultivated the right virtues. When one can persuade many thousands of people that this is so, as Smiles seems to have done, a socially self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts comes to pass. People like Smiles, through their work and example, helped to transform Britain from a socially stagnant society in the 18th century into an upwardly mobile one in the 19th and beyond.

Smiles’ achievement was not always well appreciated, however, as suggested above. By the end of the 19th century, socialist leaders and intellectuals dismissed Smiles’ individualistic approach. Matthew Arnold, the poet and culture critic, criticized Smiles’ smugness, his Philistinism, and the maxim of every man for himself. In the eyes of later critics, too, Smiles ignored sex and deplored the irrational to the point that he appeared a quaint relic in an era of Freud and the new psychology. Half a century later, Smiles had become “a shattered former idol of parents and schoolmasters” according to the Times Literary Supplement’s review of Eileen Smiles’ 1956 biography of her grandfather.

But parents and schoolmasters still count for plenty, thank heaven, which helps to explain why Smiles’ Self-Help and many of his other books remain in print, while those of the socialist leaders and self-styled social progressives who once dismissed him are not. Indeed, Self-Help is available in several editions in the United States and Britain. Asked why he has re-published Smiles, the founder and proprietor of Waking Lion Press, Jack Lyons, answered simply: “I like him. I like his books, and I publish them because I hope they do some good.” When asked who is buying Self-Help, Lyons revealed that Internet research provides the answer: numerous parents who are home-schooling their children.

This makes perfect sense, and it suggests that the ethos of self-reliance is alive and well among those Americans who work hardest to make their society a decent place for future generations. Now that Freud is no longer a name to conjure with, and that the preternatural fascination with the Bloomsbury Group (of which Strachey was the eldest member) may be subsiding, maybe Smiles is due for a comeback—if only Oprah would pitch Smiles to her vast audience. After all, in her own way the self-made empress of talk television is a spiritual descendent of Samuel Smiles, whether she realizes it or not.

There is another way for Smiles to mount a comeback, however. George W. Bush is said to have once relished a summertime reading of Albert Camus. Perhaps Mr. Bush or his successor will add Smiles to his reading list. Among many noteworthy things, the President will discover the man who coined the phrase, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.”

Thomas Hughes is author, most recently, of Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture (2004). He is now writing a biography of Smiles.