Progress and Poverty
Henry George scribbled away with a fevered America outside the door, strikes and riots, many deaths and widespread destruction, with the US Army standing by. So, there may have been some urgency behind his pen, to explain to the world why this was happening. His young children would, at any time of night, see the light coming from his study, hear his pen scratching away, another long night in which their father was putting the world to rights, sentence by sentence. He would tell them little stories to help them understand the world-shaking ideas he was describing.
In March, 1879, with tears welling in his eyes, he planted the last full stop. He had written Progress and Poverty. He said:
And when I had finished the last page, in the dead of night, when I was entirely alone, I flung myself on my knees and wept like a child. The rest was in the Master's hands. That is a feeling that has never left me; that is constantly with me. And it has led me up, and up. It has made me a better and purer man. It has been to me a religion of which I never like to speak, or make any outward manifestation, but yet that I try to follow.
No publisher would take the book; they couldn’t fail to see the quality of the work but they couldn’t see any sales in it.
Henry George wasn’t going to stop now. Things were getting tight for him again, the gas inspector’s job wasn’t bringing in as much as hoped, but he got some money together, probably borrowed, and set out with friends to make up the plates and print it up himself. They were joined in the effort by an old printer who offered his services for free on condition that, one day, George would deliver his funeral oratory, as he had famously done years before upon the death of another printer when no clergyman was available. George was delighted to agree to these terms.
Henry George Jnr says one of the copies Henry George sent to his father in Philadelphia, and wrote:
This I know, though neither of us may ever see it here. But the belief that I have expressed in this book - the belief that there is yet another life, for us - makes that of little moment.
For $3 a copy, he had soon sold enough to cover the cost, which was enough to push an already interested New York publisher to take HG’s plates and bring the book out in a $2 edition. Henry George moved his penniless family to New York. And then nothing much happened for a good while.
Gradually, in an America gripped in a deep recession, the book began to chime with people, those confused masses of people, people ready for an explanation of what had happened to them and why fortune had so shunned them. That sounds a lot like now, when you think about it. Of course, it’s exactly like now. More later about now.
Once ignited, the book exploded in America and in Britain, where it caused huge debate. Translations were made into many languages and this book was an international bestseller, in an age where there couldn’t have been that many international bestsellers.
But Henry George still never quite had enough money, he was still borrowing. At last someone paid for his ticket somewhere, and the family too. An Irish newspaper in New York sent him as a reporter to Ireland and Scotland. He had written in Progress and Poverty about Ireland, saying:
I have been looking over the literature of Irish misery. It is difficult to speak in civil terms about the complacency with which Irish want and suffering is attributed to overpopulation.
He had continued to champion the struggles of the Irish, producing a pamphlet in their support. Though he travelled as a reporter, and would send reports, he went, of course, as the author of Poverty and Progress. Giving a public lecture in Dublin, he sent his audience crazy, and he’d had to prevent them unharnessing his cab horse in order to drag his cab through the streets themselves.
He crossed to England, and addressed huge assemblies in Scotland. Returning to Ireland, he managed to get himself arrested and locked up a couple of times.
When he returned to New York, it was as an international celebrity, with big public dinners, speeches, big cigars. At this moment, he was widely discussed in the world, his ideas spreading like fire. He allowed himself a moment of contentment, saying:
I could die now and the work would go on. It no longer depends upon one man. It is no longer a 'Henry George' movement a one man movement. It is the movement of many men in many lands. I can help it while I live; but my death could not stop it. The Great Revolution has begun.
And we say it still is, begun.
Henry George didn’t sit around for very long feeling content. He belonged to the world now, and he gave himself, speaking and writing without pause. Professor Robert Andelson said:
The rest of Henry George’s life was one great crusade for social justice, at the end of which he literally martyred himself by campaigning for public office against his doctors’ urging. In the midst of the campaign he died, and was spontaneously accorded the greatest funeral that New York City had ever witnessed.
The book was selling even faster in Britain, where he had become a household name following his tour of Britain in 1882. In 1883, 2,000 copies of Progress and Poverty were distributed free in Britain. When The Times gave it a five column review, in a sell-out edition, George knew that the book had made it. There’s no doubt that this book was a sensation at the time; but it mysteriously has no place in history.
He had lectured up and down Britain tirelessly, really sending crowds wild as he had in Dublin, and providing great fortitude and vision to the political organisations which were gathering. The book, of course, was essential reading for everyone in politics at this time. The mystery there is the kind of politics which would follow in decades ahead, given this apparent mass consciousness of George’s ideas, but more about that later.
It is hard to try and visualise the kind of impact this book was having, echoing everywhere through every strata of society. It was translated into French and German, and there was an international hubbub about it. For many, the book was like a trumpet call to the sunlit uplands, announcing an age of longed-for justice. This book was rocking the world for a while.
A different angle came from Albert Nock, who puts its vogue in the whole English speaking world as being wholly that of an instrument of discontent, but he says:
Even so (to a person who has had any experience at all of the human race), the fact that a solid treatise like Progress and Poverty should have had an aggregate sale running well over two million copies is almost incredibly fantastic; yet that is what it had.
It really couldn’t have been a very good book deal because, amidst all his fame and success, in October, 1883, Henry George wrote this note for his wife on their anniversary, leaving it for her to find in the morning:
It is twenty-three years ago tonight since we first met, I only a month or two older than Harry, and you not much older than our Jen. For twenty-three years we have been closer to each other than to anyone else in the world, and I think we esteem each other more and love each other better than when we first began to love. You are now ‘fat, fair and forty,’ and to me the mature woman is handsomer and more lovable than the slip of a girl whom twenty-three years ago I met without knowing that my life was to be bound up with hers. We are not rich — so poor just now, in fact, that all I can give you on this anniversary is a little love-letter — but there is no one we can afford to envy, and in each other’s love we have what no wealth could compensate for. And so let us go on, true and loving, trusting in Him to carry us farther who has brought us so far with so little to regret.