When Samuel Smiles was a schoolboy in Scotland, he was fonder of frolic than of learning. He was not a prize-winner, and so was not one of his teacher’s favorites. One day his master, vexed by his dulness, cried out, “Smiles, you will never be fit for anything but sweeping the streets of your native borough!” From that day the boy’s mates called him by the name of the street sweeper in the little town. But he was not discouraged.
“If I have done anything worthy of being remembered,” he wrote, more than sixty years later, when his name was known over the whole world, “it has not been through any superiority of gifts, but only through a moderate portion of them, accompanied, it is true, with energy and the habit of industry and application. As in the case of every one else, I had for the most part to teach myself…. Then I enjoyed good health, and health is more excellent than prizes. Exercise, the joy of interest and of activity, the play of the faculties, is the true life of a boy, as of a man. I had also the benefit of living in the country, with its many pleasures and wonders.”
When he was fourteen, he was apprenticed to a physician. In the intervals of his work, he sought to continue his education by reading. Books were expensive then, but several libraries were open to him.
The death of his father near the end of his medical course, and consequent financial reverses, made him hesitate as to the wisdom of finishing his studies. In speaking of this, he made mention for the first time of his indebtedness to his mother. “You must go back to Edinburgh,” she said, “and do as your father desired. God will provide.” She had the most perfect faith in Providence, and believed that if she did her duty, she would be supported to the end. She had wonderful pluck and abundant common sense. Her character seemed to develop with the calls made upon her. Difficulties only brought out the essence of her nature. “I could not fail to be influenced by so good a mother.”
But he was not to find his life-work as a doctor. For some years he practised medicine. Then he became editor of a political paper. Later, he was a railroad manager. Experience in writing gained in the newspaper office prepared him for literary work, by which he is best known.
These being the chief events and influences of his boyhood, the story of his most famous book, “Self-Help,” is just what might be expected. It is a story full of inspiration.
In 1845, at the request of a committee of working men, he made an address to the society which they represented, on “The Education of the Working Classes.” This excited such favorable comment that he determined to enlarge the lecture into a book. Thus “Self-Help” was written. But it was not to be published for many years. In 1854 the manuscript was submitted anonymously to a London publisher, and was politely declined. Undaunted, he laid it aside and began an account of the life of George Stephenson, with whom he had been associated in railway work. This biography was a great success.
Thus encouraged, he took from the drawer, where it had lain for four years, the rejected manuscript of “Self-Help,” rewrote it, and offered it to his publishers. It was not his intention, even then, to use his name as author, so little did he think of himself. But, listening to the advice of friends, he permitted his name to appear. Very soon he was famous, for thirty-five thousand copies were sold during the first two years. In less than forty years two hundred and fifty-eight thousand copies have been disposed of in England alone. American publishers reprinted the book almost at once, and it soon became a favorite in school libraries in many States. It was translated into Dutch, German, Swedish, French, Portuguese, Czech, Croatian, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Turkish, Danish, Polish, Chinese, Siamese, Arabic, and several dialects of India.
But the author did not look on the fame and fortune brought to him by his book as his chief reward. It had been his desire to be helpful to the plodding, discouraged men and boys. As he expressed it himself: “It seemed to me that the most important results in daily life are to be obtained, not through the exercise of extraordinary powers, but through the energetic use of simple means, and ordinary qualities, with which all have been more or less endowed.”
As his greatest reward he looked upon the grateful testimony of men of many countries who had been inspired by the book to greater effort, and so spurred on to success. An emigrant in New England wrote that he thanked God for the volume, which had been the cause of an entire alteration in his life. A working man wrote: “Since perusing the book I have experienced an entire revolution in my habits. Instead of regarding life as a weary course, which has to be gotten over as a task, I now view it in the light of a trust, of which I must make the most.” A country schoolboy received a copy as a prize, and his life was transformed by the reading. By perseverance he secured an education, and became a surgeon. After a few years he lost his life in an attempt to help others. Such testimonies as these made Mr. Smiles happy, and are a fitting memorial to him. He died in 1904, at the age of ninety-two.
How much more satisfying to look back on a life of such usefulness than to say, as Jules Verne, author of many books, was compelled to say, “I amount to nothing … in literature.”
—John T. Faris, D. D., in “Self-Help” published by Frederick A. Stokes Company, New York.
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Life’s battles thou must fight all single-handed;
No friend, however dear, can bear thy pain.
No other soul can ever bear thy burdens,
No other hand for thee the prize may gain
Lonely we journey through this vale of sorrow;
No heart in full respondeth to our own:
Each one alone must meet his own tomorrow,
Each one must tread the weary way alone
Ah, weary heart! why art thou sad and lonely?
Why this vain longing for an answering sigh?
Thy griefs, thy longings, trials, and temptations
Are known and felt by Him who reigns on high.