Skip to main content
No. 882:
Smiles' Self Help

Today, we read a handbook on how to be a rugged individual. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The search for new stories drives me deeper and deeper into the stacks of our library -- into the dust of seldom-visited shelves. Yesterday I found an old book -- its yellowed pages coming unstitched. It hadn't been checked out for 18 years.

It was Samuel Smiles's book, Self Help, first published in 1859. This was the heavily revised 19th printing with lots of new material. By 1908 Self Help had been reprinted 56 times, and it wasn't done yet. This forgotten book was very popular in the age of the industrial giant and the self-made man.

Smiles wrote biographies of the great engineers who'd used steam and steel to build that empire. This book is Smiles's summa theologica. It would be far out of place in our current shelves of self-help books. Its full title is Self Help; with illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance. The frontispiece predictably quotes Shakespeare:

To thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Of course that's good advice. It's valid on a level so elementary that we all too easily forget it.

Smiles goes on to tell one Horatio Alger story after another. To read his book, you'd soon believe that every great man of the early 19th century had been born poor, worked as a tradesman, then shaped himself into greatness -- without any outside agency.

This particular copy carries an inscription: "Walter Jennings With the regards of his friend S. Morehouse December 25. 1871." So, who were Jennings and Morehouse?

Walter Jennings, it turns out, was a 13-year-old schoolboy at Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, Connecticut. Sturgis Morehouse had graduated from Hopkins back in 1848. Maybe he was giving this Christmas present on behalf of his young son, Samuel.

Jennings grew up to become a character right out of Smiles's book: President of the National Fuel Gas Company, Director of the Manhattan Bank, collector of expensive art. He died in 1933.

Young Samuel Morehouse became a corporation lawyer to the big utility companies. He died of overwork in 1931. Both men, it seems, shaped their lives on Smiles's vision.

And we're left to weigh the terrible thin line that divides good thinking from its own grotesque. I'll read a line from Smiles. It is filled with good, and filled with dangerous naivete. I leave you to draw whatever conclusion you might.

Self-discipline and self-control," says Smiles, "are the beginnings of practical wisdom; and these must have their root in self-respect. Hope springs from it -- hope which is the companion of power, and the mother of success; for whoso hopes strongly has within him the gift of miracles.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Smiles, S., Self Help; with illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perseverance. New York: Harper & Brothers, Pubs., 1871.

S.C. Morehouse, Noted Lawyer, Dies. New York Times, Aug. 14, 1931, p. 17.

Jennings, Walter. Dictionary of American Biography, Under the Auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies. Vol. 10, New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1928-1958.

I am grateful to several people at the UH Library, especially Martha Steele; and to several archivists in the New Haven area, especially John Heath at the Hopkins School, for their help in tracking the Morehouses.