Merry we meet - Merry we meet - Merry we meet
Max Ehrmann and the Desiderata
Written and compiled by George Knowles
During the hippy/peace era of the late 1960s the Desiderata was widely distributed in poster form as an inspirational lifestyle poem. It was made even more popular in 1971 when singer Les Crane used it to make a hit record and won a Grammy Award for the “best spoken word recording”. Later that same year it was published in the magazine Success Unlimited, which raised the issue of its history and legal copyright. Its history was subsequently traced back to “Max Ehrmann”, an American attorney and author who had originally penned and copyrighted the poem in 1927 as: “Go placidly amid the noise and haste”.
placidly amid the noise and haste
loud and aggressive persons
interested in your own career, however humble
kindly the counsel of the years
are a child of the universe
be at peace with God
all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams
A Poetic Philosopher
Born on the 26th September 1872, Max Ehrmann was the youngest of five children, his Sister Mathilda (Tillie) was the eldest, followed by three brothers – Charles, Emil and Albert. His father Maximilian Ehrmann and mother Margaret Barbara Lutz Ehrmann had immigrated to the United States in the late 1840s from Bavaria, Germany. Initially they lived in a small one-story brick house on North Fourth Street, Terre Haute, Indiana, from where Max Sr. was employed as a cabinetmaker customizing the interiors of Pullman rail carriages at the nearby Vandalia Railroad Yards. It was from such humble beginning that the Ehrmann family later prospered in wealth and influence.
Max Ehrmann began his early education at the German Methodist Church and the Terre Haute Fourth District School, from where his English teacher, Louise Peters, inspired his passion for reading and literature. In his journals Max later recorded: “I had a pleasant childhood in which my love of literature was also nurtured by my parents. Our family evening entertainment often consisted of reading aloud from works of Germany’s classics, and my father reciting poems from Friedrich von Schiller, the German poet, dramatist, philosopher and historian.”
After graduating from High School in 1890, Max moved on to study English at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. There he was elected into the Beta Beta chapter of the Delta Tau Delta (an influential college fraternity founded in 1858), he was also made student editor of the University’s newspaper, the Depauw Weekly. About his stay at DePauw University Max recorded in his journals: “While there, I contracted a disease I have never shaken off. That disease was idealism.”
Max Ehrmann circa 1984
After graduating from DePauw in 1894 with a degree in English, Max moved on to Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass, studying Philosophy and Law. While there he continued his association with the Delta Tau Delta and was made editor of its national magazine The Rainbow, at the same time he wrote articles and poems for various national magazines and local dailies, such as The Boston Herald. In 1898 he published his first book called A Farrago (a book of fiction). Later that year after completing his Law degree and being admitted to the American Bar Association, he was invited to run for the Indiana legislature, however, he chose to return home to Terre Haute and there took up a position as the Deputy State Attorney for Vigo County, Indiana.
By this time his brothers had built a formidable family Business Empire. Charles, the eldest who had started out as a meat packer, now owned the Ehrmann Meat Packing Co. He then bought a Coal Mine, which became the Ehrmann Coal Co. and to accommodate his workers he platted the community of Ehrmandale in the nearby Nevins Township of Terre Haute. He was also the President of the West Terre Haute State Bank and the Central Building and Loan Association.
Meanwhile his brother Emil, who had dropped out of High School early and worked as a traveling salesman for garment maker Charles Zimmerman (the inventor of bib overalls), later with his brother Albert, founded the Ehrmann Manufacturing Co. specialising in work clothing. Housed in a purpose built three-story building at 929-933 Wabash Ave, it soon became one of the three biggest employers in Terre Haute’s then-booming garments industry. Emil also bought the former site of Fort Harrison, famous for a battle victory during the Indians Wars of 1812. Then in disrepair, he spent a considerable sum of money restoring and improving the property’s buildings with hopes of turning it into a National Historic park, but sadly this never happen.
The old Ehrmann building now the Glidden furniture store
After serving two years as the Deputy State Attorney, Max joined his brothers growing Business Empire and worked for a number of years as their Business Attorney and credit manager. However his heart was never in such work, for he was more interested in writing and philosophy, and when not working, spent much of his time attending to the Terre Haute Literary Society. Despite having published six books without much success, at the age of 40, supported by his brothers who continued to helped him financially, he left the family business to concentrate full-time on his writing career.
As a writer and author, Max wrote more than 20 books and pamphlets, and frequently contributed essays and poems to local newspapers and national magazines. However, during his own lifetime only one of his poems had gained some moderate success, it was called "A Prayer" and was written in 1903 (see below). Much later, mainly through the efforts of his late wife Bertha, the "Desiderata" (above) first written in 1927, gained him widespread acclaim and achieved the recognition he so deserved.
me do my work each day; and if the darkened hours of despair overcome me, may I
not forget the strength that comforted me in the desolation of other times.
This poem A Prayer, while never as famous as the later Desiderata, has an equally interesting history. Sometime around the turn of the century 1900, Max was staying in a hotel while visiting friends in Columbia, South Carolina, and while there caught and suffered with a bout of typhoid fever. Late one sleepless night he heard the faint sound of laughter and music coming from a dance across the street, and being far from home in a strange environment was struck by the loneliness he felt, and so he wrote A Prayer.
First published in 1903, a year later a framed copy of A Prayer was hung in the Indiana State Building of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, from where it was later stolen. The resulting flurry of publicity brought it to the attention of the general public. Later in 1909, A Prayer was read during the opening address of the United States Senate (most likely by Ulysses Grant Baker Pierce, a Unitarian minister who served as Chaplain of the Senate from 1909–1913). It was then printed in the Congressional Record on the 14th of February 1909. It was not until the late 1960s when due to the re-publication of the Desiderata, it too was retrieved from obscurity and regained its popularity.
Toward the end of his life on the 03rd June 1945, Max married his long-time companion Bertha Pratt King, founder of the King Classical School in Terre Haute. Sadly however, just three months later he passed away on the 09th September 1945, and was later interred at the Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute.
The final resting place of Max Ehrmann, and later his wife Bertha
Bertha Pratt King Ehrmann
Bertha Pratt King was born on the 05th February 1879. Her wealthy parents Charles P. King and his wife Sarah (Richmond) King owned a flourishing knitting company and Saxony Mill in Little Falls, New York. Afforded a good early education, she later entered the prestigious women’s college, Smith College in Northampton, Mass. After graduating with a degree in 1901, she became active in the suffragette movement and lectured widely addressing the challenges facing women in the early 1900s.
In 1904 Bertha relocated to Terre Haute as a private tutor to the children of a prominent family. A year later she co-founded a private day school with Mary Sinclair Crawford, initially known as the “King-Crawford Classical School”, it was later renamed the “King Classical School” in 1916. She also wrote a book called: The Worth of a Girl (published by Thomas Y. Crowell & Co - 1916), in which she highlighted women’s early equality issues, stating:
“I believe the solution of every girl’s problem is that, just like her brother, she should prepare for some useful work. Like the boy when prepared she should go out and look for a job. Her choice of work is what she likes and what she is trained for. Men no longer own all the jobs. We know now that all work is human; that no work belongs to a man because he is a man nor to a woman because she is a woman. Work belongs to the man or woman who can do it best, and the joy of reward belongs to that man or woman.”
After the death of her husband Max in 1945, Bertha continued to live in the home they had shared at 524 S. Sixth St, Terre Haute, and dedicated the rest of her life to promoting and republishing his works. In 1948 she published a collection of his poems as: The Poems Of Max Ehrmann, which included the Desiderata, she also wrote his biography: Max Ehrmann: A Poet’s Life (1951), and then edited and published his journals as: The Journal of Max Ehrmann (1952). Bertha died at St. Anthony’s Hospital, Terre Haute on the 16th January 1961, and later laid to rest next to her husband Max at the Highland Lawn Cemetery in Terre Haute (photo above).
The History, Myth and Copyright issues
Max Ehrmann’s most famous poem the Desiderata (a Latin term meaning “things to be desired”) was originally published as Go Placidly Amid The Noise And Haste, to which the legal copyright notice was dated the 3rd January 1927 (number 962402). At about the same time, Max wrote a note in his journal stating: “I should like, if I could, to leave a humble gift - a bit of chaste prose that had caught up some noble moods.”
Later in 1933, Max included a copy of the Desiderata in a Christmas message to his friends, however he failed to append the copyright notice. One of these eventually found its way to a Merrill Moore. In 1942, by then a United States Army psychiatrist in World War II, Moore began to correspond with Max and revealed that he had distributed some 1,000 copies of the Desiderata while working in civilian practice in Boston. Further letters between them revealed that he also requested and received permission from Max to distribute the Desiderata to soldiers as part of his treatments. Later in 1944, Moore wrote again, this time from the South Pacific, stating that he continued to use the poem in his work.
Quotes from their correspondence:
a letter dated 20th July 1942, Moore identified himself as a
practicing psychiatrist on active duty with the U.S. Army.
Quoting from his correspondence, “I Think you should know that nearly
every day of my life I use your very fine prose poem Desiderata in my work--here
I have found your philosophy useful and have given away a thousand copies in the
last few years. A patient, a
depressed woman, gave it to me once several years ago with no address
Another written quote by Moore, “I have distributed the beautiful copies which you sent me and want to thank you for them again. I know that I shall carry Desiderata with me when I get there (E. Indies). I shall have it multigraphed for distribution to the soldiers if you have no objections.
Ehrmann’s response in 1942 was: “Yes, of course, you may distribute multigraphed copies of Desiderata to the soldiers. I am happy to have at least this small part in your splendid work.” Moore to Ehrmann at Thanksgiving, November 1944, “Also, I use Desiderata liberally and always find it helpful. Like a panacea (it cures everything) it should be bottled and sold as DR. EHRMANN’S MAGIC SOUL MEDICINE!!! I am continuing to use your priceless prose poem in my work.”
After Max’s death in 1945, his widow Bertha published the Desiderata with other works in a collection entitled The Poems Of Max Ehrmann (1948), at the same time she renewed the copyright notice both in 1948 and 1954. When Bertha died in 1962, the copyright and ownership of the Desiderata was bequeathed to her nephew Richmond Wight, who in turn later sold it for an undisclosed sum to Robert L. Bell of the Crescendo Publishing Company in 1971.
In 1959 a myth concerning the antiquity of the Desiderata began to circulate when the Reverend Frederick Kates, rector of the Old St. Paul’s Church in Baltimore, Maryland, produced some 200 copies of the poem, together with others, for distribution among his parishioners. However, he reproduced his copies of the poems on Church headed paper monogrammed with “Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore A.C. 1692”, the date the Church was founded. This led to the belief that the Desiderata was of the same age. In the years that followed as copies of the Church headed poem was passed on from friend to friend and re-copied, so did the myth and antiquity of the poem prevail.
Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore
After the death of Adlai Ewing Stevenson on the 14th July 1965 (the 31st Governor of Illinois, and twice the Democratic Party candidate for President in 1952 and 1956), a copy of the “Church headed” Desiderata was found on his bedside table. It is believed he thought it a genuine old poem dated as headed in 1692, and had intended to use it in his Christmas cards later that year. The discovery of the poem and the following publicity further enhanced the fame and myth of the Desiderata, which throughout the late 1960’s was widely distributed as an inspirational lifestyle poem and reproduced on posters, plaques and greeting cards.
Inspired by one such poster, the singer Les Crane used the words of the Desiderata in his 1971 hit record, for which he received a Grammy award for the “best spoken word recording.” It was also re-published in the August 1971 issue of the magazine Success Unlimited, owned by the Combined Registry Co. This caused Robert L. Bell, who had earlier bought the copyright from Richmond Wight, to filed a copyright infringement suit against the Combined Registry Co. In 1975 the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois decided in favour of the Combined Registry Co. Bell then took the case to 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, but they confirmed the earlier Courts decision. Bell tried again, this time at the U.S. Supreme Court, but they declined to hear the case.
The question now remains, is the Desiderata still in the public domain?
It would appear from their ruling that the U.S. Federal District Court (Bell v. Combined Registry, Co.) supported the fact that in 1942 Max Ehrmann had given Merrill Moore permission to use the Desiderata “gratuitously and without mention of copyright notice”, therefore Ehrmann had forfeited his right to have the copyright protected, and that the “Abandonment of Copyright” decision was valid. Later the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld that decision. However, Mr. Bell, owner of the copyright until his death in 2009, did succeed in winning copyright claims in other jurisdictions of the United States. As a result, the singer Les Crane had to pay royalties on his use of the Desiderata. So, beware if you intend to publish it for self-gain or profit?
Recognition and Commemoration
In 1937 Max Ehrmann was awarded a “Doctor of Letters” honorary degree from DePauw University, and as a member of the University’s “Delta Tau Delta” college fraternity, he was given the fraternity’s highest alumni award, and elected to the Distinguished Service Chapter. This award is only bestowed on alumni who have been actively loyal to the fraternity for at least twenty years, rendered some unusual service to the fraternity or division thereof, and evidenced personal characteristics and habits which have been and are “worthy of all acceptance” by the fraternity and society at large.
Max Ehrmann sculpture at the Crossroads of America
More recently on the 26th August 2010 a sculpture by noted artist Bill Wolfe in honour of Max Ehrmann, the “Poet Laureate of Terre Haute”, was unveiled and dedicated in a public ceremony at Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue (known as the “Crossroads of America”) in Terre Haute. During his life time Max had often sat at this corner to gather inspiration from the city life around him. The bronze life-size sculpture features Max seated on a park bench with pen and paper in hand writing, and excerpts from the Desiderata embedded on plaques in the walkway around it. Another plaque and bench is located at the Poplar Street entrance of the Vigo County Public Library.
The entrance of Vigo County Public Library in Terre Haute.
Such is a fitting tribute, Max Ehrmann himself once stated: “Perhaps even when I’m dead, some browser in libraries will come upon me and, seeing that I was not altogether unworthy, will resurrect me from the dust of things forgotten.”
First published on the 03rd February 2012 © George Knowles
Best wishes and Blessed Be
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Many of the above biographies are briefs and far from complete. If you know about any of these individuals and can help with additional information, please contact me privately at my email address below. Many thanks for reading :-)
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