Pushing To The Front
Orison Swett Marden
In their Foreword , the publishers of this work boast that, "It is doubtful whether any other book, outside of the Bible, has been the turning-point in more lives."
The original Pushing To The Front was published in 1894, but was revised and expanded into the two-volume work of 1911. At 70 chapters and close to 900 pages, in its size and scope it could safely claim to being an encyclopaedia of success, and has arguably not been overtaken.
The publishers describe the book as "full of the most fascinating romances of achievement under difficulties, of obscure beginnings and triumphant endings, of stirring stories of struggles and triumphs." Indeed, Marden received thousands of letters from readers saying how it had brought them back to college, back to vocations they had abandoned and helped them come back from business failures.
Though Horatio Alger inspired many with his poor-boy-makes-good stories, Orison Swett Marden must be considered the real founder of the American success movement. Pushing To The Front, which was his first book, was inspired by Samuel Smiles' Self-Help, the seminal self-improvement manual, which Marden had discovered in an attic. Though twice the size of Smiles' tome, it is written in a similarly enjoyable style and sticks to the theme of "how men and women have seized common occasions and made them great". Where it differs to Smiles' work is that it has references to successful women of the day such as Jane Addams and Julia Ward Howe, and Marden refers to the dawning 20th century as 'the century of the woman', bringing unparalleled opportunities for young girls.
Pushing To The Front also inspires the reader not to make the most money, but pursue a career which excites, enriches intellectually and which uses your talents to the full.
Most persistent among the themes of the book is that character is built by adversity, or as the saying goes, Kites rise against, not with, the wind. Marden points out that "poverty and hardship have rocked the cradle of the giants of the race", drawing to our attention such people as:
Necessity is the mother not simply of invention, but of success. "Failure often leans a man to success by arousing his latent energy, by firing a dormant purpose, by awakening powers which were sleeping." Prison, Marden notes, has often been the rouser of this latent energy: Sir Walter Raleigh wrote his History of the World during his 13-year imprisonment; Luther made his translation of the Bible while behind bars; and Dante wrote while exiled. Cervantes took up his pen while in jail in Madrid, producing Don Quixote. In more recent times, we think of Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, writing his memorable autobiography and planning a new South Africa.
Jewish people have been oppressed through history, Marden observes, yet they have produced some of the finest music and writing and made cities thrive.
It took the plague and the great fire to destroy London before it rose up as a fine city.
Marden recalls Samuel Smiles' simple words on the matter: "If there were no difficulties there would be no success". Burdens make us try harder to lift them, and get stronger as a result, while the person who has none need do little.
Nerve, pluck, persistence and grit
Marden recalls that Ulysses S Grant lost an early battle in the Civil War at Shiloh. Every newspaper called for his removal, but Lincoln's final response was, "I can't spare this man, he fights." What Lincoln saw in him - a resolve to never let go, 'grit' - is what later made him the hero of the war. Lincoln himself was asked what he would do if the rebellion took hold and he could not suppress it, and he replied, "Oh, there is no alternative but to keep pegging away." Both men were not moved by public clamor; knew what their task was, and did it.
Marden notes that Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire took twenty years to write, Webster spent thirty-six years on his dictionary, Stephenson, to perfect his locomotive, labored for fifteen years. Harvey worked for eight years before publishing his work on the circulation of the blood, then had to wait twenty-five before the theory was finally accepted. Cyrus Field spent a decade of heartbreaking setbacks before the transatlantic cable was laid; everyone lost faith in the idea except him, but he believed that instantaneous communication across oceans was a necessity, not an option. The great violinist Gerardini was asked how long it took him to learn to play. His answer: twelve hours a day for twenty years. On his 'genius', Dickens said this: "My own invention, such as it is, I assure you, would never have served me as it has but for the habit of commonplace, humble, patient, toiling attention."
Thoreau's first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, sold so poorly that the publishers returned most of the copies to him. He wrote in his diary: "I have nine hundred volumes in my diary, seven hundred of which I wrote myself." A few years later came the success of Walden.
Many know the story of Carlyle's History of the French Revolution: the manuscript was lent to a friend, who left it lying on his floor. A maid took it as kindling for the fire, and it went up in flames in a minute or two. Though a great blow, Carlyle went back to his books and spent several more months to rewrite the work, better than the original. The 'ease and grace' of Rousseau's style was obtained, Marden says, "only by ceaseless inquietude, by endless blotches and erasures."
One more: Columbus was rejected by scores of kings, queens and nobles before finding the sponsorship to sail to the New World.
Marden says, "Show me a really great triumph that is not the reward of persistence." Genius, when you look more closely at it, usually turns out to be the sum of uncommon dedication to a task.
Vocation and calling
While lauding a university education and the refinements it can produce in a person, Marden criticises the gap between the high ideals of the student years and the cynicism of later adult life. He counsels against graduating students simply taking the highest paid job. An education should be considered a 'sacred trust' not to be looted for your own monetary ends but to be put into the service of humankind. As he puts it: "There is something infinitely better than to be a millionaire of money, and that is to be a millionaire of brains, of culture, of helpfulness to one's fellows, a millionaire of character".
Don't enter a profession just because it is respectable, he suggests, or because one of your parents succeeded in it. "The world does not dictate what you shall do", he points out, "but it does require that you be a master in whatever you undertake." With definiteness of aim, or the knowledge that what you are doing is worth your time you will excel in the task. A job may earn you money, but a vocation earns your self-respect.
Orison Swett Marden has for a long time been better known as the founder of Success magazine, which was recently resurrected. The current publishers pay due respect to Marden, and hopefully there will be a swing back to recognition of his writing and discovery of his books by the general public. Copies of Pushing To The Front are not hard to track down on the internet, but tend to be expensive. If you are serious about building up your success library, however, it is worth the money. These volumes are something to hold on to. It is easy to see how the book electrified audiences of its era, for you cannot come away from its pages without being inspired to greater things, or to stick at what you have embarked upon.
The style of Pushing To The Front, though tremendously enjoyable, is not as old-fashioned as you would expect - many of Marden's comments could have been made by someone writing today - and in terms of quantity of good content it dwarfs most of today's self-help and success literature. We have had space here to look at only Vol. 1, for instance, and even that peremptorily. Marden's references to unfamiliar people will have you reaching for your biographical dictionary, and you will be provided with a history lesson alongside the motivational class.
"The world does not demand that you be a lawyer, minister, doctor, farmer, scientist, or merchant; it does not dictate what you shall do, but it does require that you be a master in whatever you undertake."
"Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great."
Orison Swett Marden
Marden was born to New Hampshire farmers in 1850, but both his parents died before he was seven and he lived in a number of foster homes. He managed to go to college, graduating in Law from Boston University in 1871 and gained further degrees (LLB and MD) from Harvard University. He had also studied at Andover Theological Seminary and at the Boston School of Oratory.In his college days he had worked in catering and hotels, and became an investor in a resort area of Rhode Island. This was followed by a purchase of a chain of hotels in Nebraska, then a stint as a hotel manager in Chicago. In 1890, one of his hotels burned down and a smallpox epidemic ruined the rest of the rest of his business.
Back in Boston, Marden put together his collection of inspirational stories and notes and, influenced also by Emerson, Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Phillips Brooks and New Thought writers, published the first version of Pushing To The Front in 1894. The retailer JC Penney was among the many who ascribed their success to reading the book. In 1897, Marden founded Success magazine, which gained a circulation of half a million copies. Though publication ceased in 1912, six years later he revived the magazine. He died in 1924.
Marden was a prolific writer, averaging two books a year. Titles include Every Man a King, Not The Salary But The Opportunity, Peace, Power and Plenty, Success Fundamentals, and The Victorious Attitude. For an introduction to Marden's thought, see Real Success: Based on the Writings of Success Magazine Founder Orison Swett Marden, by former Success editor Ken Shelton.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2021
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