Guest, Edgar A.
Guest, Edgar A. 1881-1959
(Full name Edgar Albert Guest) American journalist, and poet.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Guest was the foremost American writer of mass-circulation newspaper and magazine verse. Sentimental, homiletic, and inspirational, his work was not esteemed by serious readers of poetry, but enjoyed enormous success with the general public. Guest's poems proclaim and celebrate the domestic, industrious, patriotic, and religious virtues, and are characterized by common phrases, a folksy idiom, regular meters, word inversion, humor, nostalgia, and regular rhyme schemes.
Born in England, Guest was brought to the United States when he was ten, and began his writing career in 1895 at the age of fourteen when he was hired as a copy boy at the Detroit Free Press. He rose to cub reporter and began contributing verse soon after. He began a weekly column of verse and observation in 1904, which soon appeared daily, and at its height was syndicated in over three hundred papers. With his brother he published privately the first of the many collections of his verse. Soon, however, the Detroit Rotarians and then a commercial house began publishing them. He enjoyed commercial success throughout his life, appeared on radio in the 1930s and on television in the early 1950s, and was honored by the Boy Scouts of America in 1951 with the Silver Buffalo award. When he died in 1959, the flags of Detroit , by order of the mayor, were flown at half staff.
Throughout his career, Guest's work was uniform and predictable. No piece stood far above any other. The most significant work in Guest's canon, however, is the 1916 volume which propelled him to fame, A Heap o' Livin'. It touches on Guest's principle theme: celebrating domestic family life. His World War I volume of patriotic verses Over Here was distinguished by being bound in khaki and distributed by the army to the troops in Europe.
Critical ReceptionGuest's verse reflects the sensibility of his era, and is hardly read today. Those who enjoyed Guest's verses admired them for their sentiment and skill. Those who were dismayed by his success and found his verses banal were generally at a loss for comment, and in place of critiquing, resorted to parodying the verses and their values. Guest himself made no pretensions to poetry or sophistication but said he was "a newspaperman who wrote verse for folks."
Just Glad Things (poetry) 1911
A Heap 0' Livin' (poetry) 1916
Just Folks (poetry) 1917
Over Here (poetry) 1918
The Path to Home (poetry) 1919
When Day Is Done (poetry) 1921
All That Matters (poetry) 1922
My Job as a Father, and What My Father Did for Me (essays) 1923
The Passing Throng (poetry) 1942
Mother (poetry) 1924
Rhythms of Childhood (poetry) 1924
Friends (poetry) 1925
Home (poetry) 1925
What My Religion Means to Me (essays) 1925
Life's Highway (poetry) 1926
The Light of Faith (poetry) 1926
You (poetry) 1927
Harbor Lights of Home (poetry) 1928
Why I Go to Church (essays) 1929
The Friendly Way (poetry) 1931
Selected Poems (poetry) 1931
Faith (poetry) 1932
Collected Verse of Edgar A. Guest (poetry) 1934
All in a Lifetime (poetry) 1938
Between You and Me: My Philosophy of Life (essays) 1938
Edgar A. Guest Says It Can Be Done (essays) 1938
Poems of Patriotism (poetry) 1942
Today and Tomorrow (poetry) 1942
Living the Years (poetry) 1949
Favorite Verse (poetry) 1950
The Dial (essay date 1916)
SOURCE: A review of A Heap o' Livin', in The Dial, Vol. 61, November 2, 1916, p. 355.
[In the following excerpt, a reviewer warmly praises Guest's verse.]
There is one glory of the new poetry, and another of the old-fashioned sort, and another (it may be) of the kind that is neither poetry nor prose; for one form of verse differeth from another in glory. Without instituting invidious comparisons, one may heartily commend the style of verse that flows so readily from the pen of Mr. Edgar A. Guest, and one may at the same time rejoice that he has found leisure to provide rhymes for all his lines. He chooses the old familiar themes of domestic joys and sorrows, the ups and downs of life, the high hopes and the grievous disappointments common to our lot. Those who like Will Carleton and James Whitcomb Riley will not dislike Mr. Guest. His book, A Heap o' Livin' is by no means his first appearance in print, and to his old friends he needs no introduction. Let those who still have before them the pleasure of making his acquaintance try his quality in such poems of the present collection as "My Creed," "Spring in the Trenches," "The Other Fellow," "Father," and "Mother." The verses entitled "Canning Time" are savory of the autumn's fruitage. "Opportunity" surpasses the well-known older poem of the same name in that the knock at one's door is, with truth, represented as not a single and never-to-be-repeated summons. "At Sugar Camp" disappoints the New England reader in giving no hint of the sweet delights of maple-sugar making, though the glad freedom of the return to nature and the simple life is well depicted. Here and there the book shows a limping line, perhaps not oftener than in many a greater poet, but in some instances the limp could easily have been cured. In a writer so much to one's liking even slight blemishes cause regret.
Leonard Cline (essay date 1925)
SOURCE: "Eddie Guest: Just Glad," in The American Mercury, Vol. VI, No. 23, November 1925, pp. 322-27.
[In the following parody of an idealized biography of Guest, Cline alludes to Guest's verse in order to create his own rendition of Guest's life.]
Doty's drug-store has spawned prolifically in the last thirty years. Fecundated by Henry Ford, it has become a chain of stores from end to end of Detroit. The old place at Sibley and Clifford streets, where Mr. Doty himself used to compound prescriptions for our mothers, is probably gone now. Mr. Doty travels in Europe and vicarious hands paste the labels on the bottles. There is one-way traffic in Clifford street, and the brick residences that once bordered the adjacent avenues, each sedately aloof in its iron-fence enclosure, have given way to garages and motor salesrooms and rearing efficiency apartments.
It was in Cass avenue, five blocks north of Sibley, that I spent my childhood, and it was on Doty's marble that I spilled my first ice-cream soda. Summer and Winter, green and white, the years passed. When it was July Cass avenue would be the sleepiest street in Detroit. Once a morning John Blessed's grocery wagon would jog somnolently up the street under the maples. Blessed's delivery boy would let me ride with him now and then, and from his seat I learned how to drive a horse. At Doty's I would get off and have a soda. When it was January the sporting folk of Detroit, the horsemen, the noblesse, would have cutter races down Cass avenue from the Central High-school to Sibley. How merrily the snow flew! We children of the neighborhood would gather at the finish line and watch there until our paws got stiff with cold in our mittens and the hot baked potatoes that Ma put in our pockets had become quite frigid. Then we would go into Doty's and have a soda.
Who were we all, in those halcyon days? Philip Worcester and his sister Mabel; God knows where they may be now. And Hudson Pirie. Dear old friend! He and my sister and I were the whole membership of the White Swan Club, named for the laundry: Hudson was president, and Elizabeth was vice-president, and I was ex-president. And Hallie Burton and . . . and who besides? They are all grown, those brave fine children; they have carried their burdens with a grin; America is the richer and the world the wiser for them. As I muse with a tear in my heart the music of Eddie Guest comes singing:
Youth is the golden time of life, and this battered
old heart of mine
Beats fast to the march of its old-time joys, when
the sun begins to shine.
Eddie Guest! And he, in those sweet far years that are now but tenuous memories, tinted and fragrant—years when Ma and Pa and Granpa and my seven sisters and brothers did a heap o' livin' in that little gray brick cottage that shall always be home to me—he, in those years, worked at the soda fountain in Doty's.
From soda fountain to Parnassus, from potwasher to Poet of the Plain People, Poet of America indeed, whose books—I have the authority of his publishers, Reilly and Lee, for it—have sold more than a million copies! Never has Providence wrought its wonders in stranger and more romantic fashion. John Masefield, to be sure, swept out Luke O'Connor's barroom at one time; and Knut Hamsun, as we all know, was conductor on a Chicago street-car in the days before his triumph. But where is there another record of a soda fountain clerk becoming immortal! It is a story of indomitable will, the story of Eddie Guest. It never could have been written had there not burned in the soul of the man the challenging conviction that, as he phrases it, "No one is beat till he quits":
Fate can slam him and bang him around,
And batter his frame till he's sore,
But she never can say that he's downed
While he bobs up serenely for more.
We ignorant children, of course, discerned no least glare of celestial fire in the dark-haired, dreamful lad who mixed our chocolate and soda water and took our nickels. It remained for a humble book-keeper employed by the Detroit Free Press to be the first to recognize in Eddie those qualities of mind and spirit which have made him, as he is, the outstanding figure in our national literature—qualities
That all men picture when they see
The glorious banner of the free.
This was a book-keeper who, even in that Golden Age of Rum, preferred his ice-cream soda to his growler of bock, and regularly dropped in at Doty's on his way home, weary after a hard day of white collar toil.
One can imagine the scene. The book-keeper, honest fellow, sucking at his straw, twirling idly on his stool, gazing curiously at the industrious little shaver who polished the glasses on the other side of the counter. He was a self-made man, a Christian no doubt—one who had made his way dauntlessly against all adversity; self-educated, leaning on no one for support. He had himself all the high qualities that he admired in the dark-haired, serious boy who worked so earnestly while other lads his age frittered away their time in frivolities. He was a master of the science of book-keeping.
"Eddie," he said, putting his glass down and meditatively wiping a drop of cream from his beard; "Eddie, son, what do you expect to make of yourself in life?"
And Eddie, without ceasing his toil, replied, "God grant me the strength to do some needed Service. I pray for wisdom to be Brave and True, and for the gift of Clear Vision, so that I may see the Deeper Purposes and the Finer Significances of the tasks that are set me. To be content to keep on in the station where God has put me, to do always a little more than I am paid for, to get early to the job and never leave until the rest are gone. I may never be famous, but I'll not leave any sign of wrong behind me when I pass out."
Up from his stool jumped the book-keeper, and he stretched a white hand across the marble to the laddie, and he vowed then and there that the first opening for an office boy in the business department of the Detroit Free Press should go to Edgar Albert Guest. Who was there to witness the scene? I myself cannot remember having been there. Mr. Doty was probably dozing in the back room. They were alone, Eddie and the book-keeper, in that solemn and historic moment.
The words that Eddie said were from the bottom of his great heart. In almost all his poems the echo of them sounds; particularly in the noble "Plea" that dignifies the pages of Poems of Patriotism. And the book-keeper's promise was fulfilled when, in 1895, Eddie went on the pay-roll of the Detroit Free Press. He has been there ever since, not now indeed as office boy, but as staff poet.
There are apple-trees and sand-lot baseball games and country roads and swimmin' holes in Eddie Guest's memory of his boyhood, but the bustle of the downtown streets is his principal heritage of dream from those days. He was born on August 20, 1881, in Birmingham, England, and his parents brought him to the land of the free when he was ten. Through the public schools he made his studious way. The family, it appears, was not opulent, and Eddie began to work after school hours as soon as he was able. In 1895, as we have seen, he mixed his last soda, polished his last glass, and went to the Free Press.
His duties at first were arduous. One of them was marking the baseball scores on the bulletin-board in front of the Free Press Building. Attentively the serious little fellow studied the jostling morons who waited through the innings, and no doubt he wondered now and then how it would feel to be himself the hero they applauded. "Promotion," he told himself, "will come to me if I work unselfishly in my employer's interests. If I think less of what is in my envelope and more of my opportunity to serve, I will get there!" And sure enough, after two years of diligent and unwearying effort as office boy in the business department, Eddie was given his reward—promotion to the post of office boy in the editorial rooms!
Eddie's thoughts on this occasion were to become, later, that ode to "Promotion" which has inspired so many American youths to ever more assiduous toil:
Promotion comes to him who tries
Not solely for a selfish prize,
But day by day and year by year
Holds his employer's interests dear. . . .
The man who would the top attain
Must demonstrate he has a brain.
But not yet was that epiphany of beauty in Eddie's heroic spirit. He still had no idea of poetry. He confronted instead the problem of demonstrating that he was a useful lad, of winning still another promotion in another two years. Indeed, he told himself, I may even sometime be made a reporter! And so he buckled into his new job.
Craps he eschewed, it would appear; the cigarettes and the profanities and the viciousness of the other newspaper office boys never seem to have smirched him. He kept the paste pots full, he purveyed caramels for the switchboard gal, he saw that there was always an abundance of copy-paper on the desks. Early and late he worked; he did the tasks of two, of six, of a dozen ordinary office boys. And his joy can be easily imagined when one afternoon the editor summoned him and gripped his hand and said, "Eddie, I've been watching your career. Your intelligence and your devotion demand greater opportunities. Here's your chance, boy! You are promoted!"
And so, just as the Nineteenth Century which had cradled him was yielding place to the Twentieth...
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John Bakeless (essay date 1930)
SOURCE: "Laureate of the Obvious: Portrait of Edgar A. Guest," in Outlook and Independent, Vol. 155, No. 14, August 6, 1930, pp. 527-9, 556.
[In the following excerpt, Bakeless uses humor to criticize Guest's verse and its admirers.]
And, Mr. Sneering Critic, you certainly cannot disturb my peace of mind with your gibes and taunts unless you have my co-operation.
—From the prose writings of EDGAR A. GUEST
This article really ought to be entitled Profits from Poems, Reaching Results with Rhymes, Living on Lyrical Literature, or something like that, for Edgar A. Guest, the...
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J. P. McEvoy (essay date 1938)
SOURCE: "Sunny Boy," in Post Biographies of Famous Journalists, edited by John E. Drewry, The University of Georgia Press, 1942, pp. 128-45.
[In the following biographical sketch, McEvoy humorously and affectionately draws a portrait of Guest from glances at his life and verse.]
It takes a heap o' livin in a house t' make it home, . . .
Who wrote that? Does he believe it? And how does he get that way?
The answer to all these questions is Eddie (Edgar A.) Guest. He wrote it because he is Eddie. He wrote it about home because he hardly ever stirs out of it. He wrote it because he believes it; he believes it because he wrote it....
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Bruce Walker (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: "Edgar A. Guest," in DAC News, Vol. 80, No. 7, October, 1995, pp. 49-51.
[In the following excerpt, Walker relies on biographical information provided by Guest's grandson, Edgar A. Guest III, and from contemporaneous newspaper accounts to assess Guest's poetic legacy.]
"To his generation he was, through the lilt of his words, a bestower of pleasure, a kindler of hopes and an assuager of sorrow. "—The Detroit Free Press on Edgar A. Guest
A regular contributor to the DAC NEWS and Detroit Athletic Club mainstay, Edgar A. "Eddie" Guest endeared himself to thousands with his insightful and witty, yet...
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De Casseres, Benjamin. "The Complete American." In The American Mercury X, No. 38 (February 1927): 146.
Included in a series of iconoclastic parodies of renowned Americans, a short sketch of Guest humorously challenges the values and themes he wrote about.
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