Thursday, August 26, 2010

Bronze Statue of Max Erhmann, 1872-1945, who wrote the Desiderata, unveiled today, August 26, 2010, in Terre Haute, Indiana

Max Erhmann, 1872-1945, who wrote the Desiderata had a bronze

statue of him unveiled Thursday, August 26 at 4:30 pm, in Terre Haute,

Indiana, USA, his hometown, with segments from his 1927 poem on the

sidewalk as well. A big day in Terre Haute it was ......
honoring the guy who told us to take it easy.

from the Terre Haute paper by Mark Bennett

August 26, 2010

B-Sides: Be careful when you’re being cheerful

Mark Bennett

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — One word can make a big difference.

To a court defendant, the difference between “guilty” and “not guilty” could be a lifetime. If you tell a friend to “share your truffles” but they hear “share your troubles,” you might get an earful of bitterness instead of a mouthful of chocolate.

Today, as Terre Haute commemorates the work of hometown poet Max Ehrmann with the unveiling of a statue and plaza at the Crossroads of America, the closing lines of his masterpiece remain misunderstood by millions of adoring fans worldwide, thanks to one word.

In his 1927 poem “Desiderata,” Ehrmann offered advice, consolation and encouragement, using just 314 words. The confusion centers around the 310th.

Ehrmann ended “Desiderata” (which means “things desired”) with a harsh reality followed by a surge of hope: “With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” Sounds like a call to carry on joyfully and smell the roses, in spite of it all, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not the sendoff many “Desiderata” admirers remember. Instead, the version that adorned their college dorm room wall in the 1960s concluded with: “Be careful. Strive to be happy.” That sounds like a warning to look over our shoulders and around every corner as we pursue happiness.

So which word did Ehrmann actually use?


The “be careful” line emerged from one of the biggest mixups in literary history.

Ehrmann had “Desiderata” copyrighted in 1927. In Terre Haute, the poem soon became well-loved, but obscure to the rest of the world. Three years after Ehrmann’s death, his widow, Bertha Pratt King Ehrmann, published “Desiderata” and many of his other works in a 1948 compilation book, “The Poems of Max Ehrmann.” Critics raved about it, but fame and fortune eluded his family.

Instead, the watershed moment in the popularity of “Desiderata” happened unwittingly in Old Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore.

The rector at the church in the late 1950s, the Rev. Frederick Ward Kates, often placed mimeographed booklets containing his favorite poems and stories in the pews for the parishioners. In a 1976 interview with the Washington Post, Rev. Kates guessed he probably found “Desiderata” in a magazine while reading in a Baltimore barbershop. He retyped “Desiderata,” put it on the cover of one of his booklets and distributed it to the congregation.

The booklet’s cover also carried the church’s letterhead, which included its founding date: “Old Saint Paul’s Church, A.D. 1692.”

That mimeographed copy of “Desiderata” soon spread beyond the church. Copies of that copy did not include an Ehrmann byline, and instead read, “Found in Old Saint Paul’s Church, Baltimore; dated 1692.” Those copies also transposed “be cheerful” into “be careful.”

In the tumultuous 1960s, the misattributed “be careful” version became a mantra for the counterculture movement. Greeting card companies used it. Ann Landers quoted it. It reached iconic status in 1971 when a disc jockey, Les Crane, recorded a Top 10 hit single of “Desiderata,” complete with a musical score and soaring background singers. It won a Grammy Award.

And it ended with Crane calmly advising the world to “be careful. Strive to be happy.” Crane apparently read from that copy-of-a-copy version, and assumed, like millions of others, that it had been written by an unknown 17th-century poet and passed down from one generation to another in Old Saint Paul’s Church.

Eventually, a copyright court case reaffirmed to the masses what Terre Haute and the literary world already knew: Max Ehrmann penned “Desiderata.” Unfortunately, the “Old Saint Paul’s Church” version persists, especially on the Internet. Punch up YouTube and you’ll find actors Richard Burton and Leonard Nimoy, among others, reciting “Desiderata” and urging us to “be careful,” instead of “be cheerful.”

There should be no doubts. During the “Max Ehrmann: A Recognition” celebration on June 24, 1945, at the Swope Art Gallery in Terre Haute, Ehrmann’s friend, Harry V. Wann, read the full text of “Desiderata,” with Max sitting and listening. A copy of Wann’s speech shows the final lines were, “Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”

Then, as Wann wrapped up his comments, he told the audience, “Terre Haute needs, for her own soul’s good, to cherish her gifted children and to reflect upon what they have done to make her just a little better, a little finer than she would have been without them.” Ehrmann died three months later.

The city will do just what Wann recommended at 4:30 p.m. today, with the unveiling of the plaza at Seventh and Wabash, featuring Ehrmann’s likeness and words cast in bronze. On a plaque embedded in limestone, visitors will read the words “be cheerful.” The site, created completely through donated money, time and materials, should make Ehrmann’s fellow Hauteans proud …

And cheerful.

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