Zig-Zag-and-Swirl: Alfred W. Lawson's Quest for Greatness

Zig-Zag-and-Swirl: Alfred W. Lawson's Quest for Greatness

by Lyell D. Henry

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Alfred W. Lawson (1869–1954) was a professional baseball player, inventor of the airliner, leader of a movement in the 1930s calling for the abolition of banks and interest, and founder of a utopian community, the so-called Des Moines University of Lawsonomy. This unusual institution, constantly embroiled in controversy in the 1940s and early 1950s, was dedicated not only to teaching Lawson’s novel religious and scientific ideas but also to initiating a reform of human nature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781587291081
Publisher: University of Iowa Press
Publication date: 04/01/1991
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 356
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Lyell Henry is professor emeritus of political science at Mount Mercy College. He is also the author of Was This Heaven? A Self-Portrait of Iowa on Early Postcards (Iowa, 1995) and of articles on various topics of American popular culture. He lives in Iowa City with his wife, Gretchen, and two cats.

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University of Iowa Press

Copyright © 1991 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-466-2

Chapter One


"Well, this is getting back to Nature. Now I have to depend upon a horse to work with instead of the electrical engine, which I invented in England."

With this ponderous and improbable utterance, Lawson's father, Robert Henry Lawson, begins a brief soliloquy presented immediately after the curtain rises on Lawson's play, Childhood Days of Alfred Lawson. The setting for the scene is the small farm outside of Detroit to which the Lawson family has moved from Windsor, Ontario. Resting his pitchfork against the barn, Lawson senior continues his musings about life down on the farm, letting the audience know that farming is neither his occupational preference nor the principal calling which brought him and his family from Canada to the United States: "I wonder what that devil of a Bishop meant when he told me that this would be a nice easy Diocese for me to build up. He must have thought that I was a gorilla." Then comes the peroration, redolent of the anguish felt by many a man whose life has not met the expectations of his younger years: "What would my aristocratic associates at Oxford think of me now, with nine children and a horse, cowand a goat to feed?"

Into these infelicitous lines Lawson squeezed the principal claims which he made in many other places about his father's background: that the elder Lawson had studied at Oxford, was at first a mechanical engineer, had subsequently become a minister of the gospel, and throughout, was an inventor, who had an early "electrical engine" to his credit. In a speech made very late in life, Lawson made another entry in his father's résumé, now averring that the father had also been a successful Shakespearean actor. As a condition for marriage, however, Mary Anderson demanded that Robert Henry Lawson give up acting and put his theatrical talents to better use as a preacher. It was then, if Lawson's account is accepted, that Lawson senior, in order to meet this condition, prepared for a new career. He "studied at Oxford University," from which institution he "received a diploma." However, alumni records today reveal no one named Robert Henry Lawson having ever been a student at Oxford University.

If the educational and professional background of Lawson's father remains quite uncertain today, at least Lawson's claim that his father broke new career ground when he became a farmer in the United States seems plausible. It also is likely that farming really did not suit his taste, because a year later, according to Lawson, the family moved into Detroit, where the father-again, by Lawson's account-opened a one-man factory for the weaving of rag carpets. Lawson always added "in order to earn an honest living," as if to imply that the elder Lawson still remained far from the occupation and style of life to which his attainments entitled him. Lawson recorded that his father also preached occasionally as an assistant minister in a Disciples of Christ church in Detroit. Doubtless, however, those former "aristocratic associates at Oxford" would have continued to arch their eyebrows in contemplation of Robert Henry Lawson's final station in the New World.

But for young Alf, as he was then called, there was much in his childhood circumstances which he later recalled as having been a blessing. In particular, he thought, the necessity to play his part from the age of four in his large family's struggle for existence gave him good work habits, a wide practical experience, and a well-grounded understanding that all honest work is honorable. Lawson frequently ticked off with pride the varied jobs of his childhood and adolescence; included were newsboy, bootblack, "chief mechanic" in his father's carpet factory, painter in a furniture factory, stave-maker, farm hand, hotel bellhop, blacksmith's assistant, and door-to-door sewing machine salesman. This work also helped to build up Lawson's body. "So at the age of fifteen he was like a young race horse and more powerful in muscular development than most men," he later wrote.

Even more important in formative effect, however, was the clean living which the circumstances of his youth supplied. Although Lawson lived in a city which eventually became huge, he always stressed that in his days there, Detroit was only a small city of 79,000. He therefore felt no qualms about claiming to have had a childhood close to nature and characterized by all the advantages which Americans have frequently attributed to rural and small-town upbringing. Describing himself in the third person (a frequent Lawson mode), he rhapsodized as follows: "He lived upon nature's best products-fresh air, raw foods and pure water. He ate no meat, drank no booze and smoked no dope. He lived a clean natural life in every way. Thus he developed a powerful body of marvelous dexterity." And of course, in this bucolic life, which permitted no idleness and was free from vicious influences, he was enabled to grow in moral uprightness.

Although Lawson's purpose is celebration of the virtuous beginnings of the First Knowledgian, thus far his description of his childhood reads precisely like the standard account given by many a self-made man who traced his later success to an identical wholesomeness of his start in life. But beyond this initial coincidence, little else which Lawson recalled about his earliest days matched the specifications for an ideal childhood found in advice manuals for ambitious youths. This would not be surprising if one could accept Lawson's claim that, as a child, he was already a unique moral personage, the First Knowledgian inchoate. In young manhood and early middle age, however, Lawson proved to be as ardent a practitioner of the entrepreneurial ethic as any other American of his generation. When seen against the background of Lawson's later entrepreneurial pursuits, his childhood deviations from the standard prescriptions for success take on considerable interest and are worth exploring further.

Lawson's recollections of his relations with his mother, for instance, certainly did not jibe with the specifications found in the literature of the gospel of success. Irwin Wyllie, in his study of the self-made man doctrine, wrote as follows about the key role of mother in the life of the successful man, as described in this literature:

When the boy ventured into the world his memories of home and mother were supposed to be a source of powerful influence on his future. Poverty and rural surroundings might school him in virtue, but the schooling was often harsh. Not so with the lessons learned at mother's knee. Of all the external influences leading young men into the byways of success, none had greater honor in the cult of self-help than that of mother....

Lawson, however, never pontificated about priceless lessons learned at mother's knee. Instead, his recollections of his mother centered on the occasions in his very early youth when his mother had "lied" to him. They weren't very big lies-in fact, one "lie" was the Santa Claus story-but Lawson claimed that never afterward did he feel he could trust his mother (or his father, either, for that matter). He also recalled that his "mother had a fault; she accepted gossip without substantiation, as many women do." When he got into trouble at school, which was frequently, his mother was readier to accept the teacher's or the principal's account than his. Finally, on several occasions Lawson let slip in passing his belief that his mother favored both his younger and his older brothers over him. Withal, Lawson assured his readers, he still loved his mother, but this filial protestation could not cover over the feelings of resentment and grievance which were obviously there.

Wyllie also noted that "according to most self-help advocates a young man who moved away from his parental home was not doomed thereby to lose forever the blessings of female comfort and counsel, for they assumed that a young man with ambition would marry." Lawson vigorously disagreed. What he dissented from was not the logic of the argument that one must marry in order to have "the blessings of female comfort and counsel." Rather, he apparently believed that those blessings were nonexistent in marriage. In an amazing scene in his play, Childhood Days, Lawson has his married brothers and sisters bicker about which partner gets the worse deal in marriage! All agree that marriage is a horrible trap for one or both partners. Lawson indicated his views directly in an impromptu speech given near the end of his life: "Oh, God, it's awful when these women get hold of you and you have to come to time." Significantly, he recalled how his father had "come to time" by succumbing to the prenuptial demands of his mother: "So the poor devil had to become a preacher in order to marry her." Lawson then added, "But you know, Alfred Lawson made up his mind that he was going to go as a bachelor all his life. He went, I think, seventy years as a bachelor, and God, how he enjoyed life." Very late in life Lawson did finally marry but only "to do some good for humanity"-that is, to let his genes pass on to children. Lawson had one son and one daughter, both born when he was in his seventies.

On the surface, the basic facts about Lawson's schooling would appear to square perfectly with the specifications found in the doctrine of the self-made man. According to Wyllie, proponents of this doctrine recommended a basic grade school education, some specialized technical training, and lots of experience in the "school of hard knocks." In form, at least, Lawson followed the prescription to the letter. He attended public schools in Detroit through the primary grades, completed an industrial training course in coat making between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, and throughout and later, acquired practical experience by working at numerous jobs, as he was so fond of pointing out. Lawson's views on education also seemed to be-again, on the surface-the correct ones for the self-made man. Always contemptuous of the usual college education as not only worthless but harmful, Lawson preferred as alternatives experience and the untrammeled exercise of his own mind. Throughout his life he ranted about the unwise substitution of "theory" for "provable facts," a common prejudice among self-made men of his day.

Yet a closer look shows that Lawson's schooling and views on education did not fully match those of the self-help model, after all. Unlike proponents of the model, Lawson was contemptuous not only of higher education but of formal education at all levels. Reading and writing were the only valuable things he got in grade school, he recalled; even arithmetic was worthless, because it was nothing but a skill employed by "the financiers" in their gigantic con game. His teachers, like teachers at all levels of education, taught nonsense or worse, he believed, expecting students to swallow their lies with no questions asked.

Because Lawson constantly challenged the authority of his teachers, he was frequently in trouble in school. In act 3 of Childhood Days, the school principal, having come to the Lawson home to complain to Alfred's mother about her son's conduct, says, "Alfred, the teachers all say that you are the most unruly pupil that has ever attended the Tappan School, either now or during the past." The principal's first charge against Alfred runs as follows: "From the teachers' reports you apparently assume that you are there to instruct the teachers, instead of the teachers being there to instruct you. Yes, it is reported that you frequently question the teachers' statements as though they were falsehoods." Relations with schoolmates were no better, either. Lawson confessed in other writings that school for him was "just one fist fight after another."

Thus, Lawson did not exhibit as a schoolboy any of the traits called for by advocates of the self-made man philosophy. He lacked completely the disciplined application, the dutiful acceptance of adult tutelage, and the focus on preparation for the future which were essential parts of that philosophy's educational prescriptions. Not even his suspicion of the value of book learning and "theory" remained within the considerable latitude permitted or recommended in the self-help model.

If the schoolboy Lawson had been so fortunate as to live in this present age of great enlightenment, he would undoubtedly have been labeled a behaviorally disordered student, and at that point specialized staff skills and services costing thousands of dollars of public money would have been brought to bear on his case. In Lawson's day, however, no refined apparatus for bringing unruly students to heel was available. This meant that those on all sides simply had to sweat out the great unpleasantness. Both Lawson and the school authorities doubtless felt that a great trial by ordeal had ended when Lawson left school forever at the age of twelve.

In the same year, Lawson ran away from home. This, too, was not in keeping with the prescriptions for the self-made man. According to the model identified by Wyllie, leave-taking was to occur at the propitious moment when the aspiring lad was fully prepared to make his way in the world. It is hard to see Lawson as that lad at the age of twelve. He certainly had acquired the ability and willingness to work at low-level jobs but, on the threshold of adolescence, he lacked the intellectual preparation, self-discipline, and clear focus on the future which were parts of the specification for success. Moreover, Lawson's reasons for leaving were purely negative: to escape the authority of adults. It is not surprising to find that he identified as the precipitating event an action taken by his mother: "But when his mother punished him for something he did not do because she accepted a gossiping woman's tale against his word then he decided that he would leave home and travel."

When in later years Lawson pursued his career in New York, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Detroit, he was acting in conformance with the self-made man philosophy, which recommended that boys leave their small town or rural settings for the greater opportunities offered in cities. At the time of his initial leave-taking, however, Lawson had no specific geographical or career destination and cannot be cited as one who escaped from small-town confinement and humble obscurity by the prescribed route.

Within two years of his running away, Lawson returned to his parents' home and submitted to their insistence that he enroll in an industrial training course. Attendance in this course was apparently no more to his liking than attendance in grade school had been. At least once, he ran away again. His parents' constant pleas to return and complete the program of training eventually prevailed, however, and at the age of seventeen he finished an industrial course in clothing design and coat making. Because Lawson listed coat making among the jobs of his youth, possibly he actually secured employment in this line of work after leaving the training program. If so, he could not have stayed with it long, because in his late teens, he claimed, he also was following other lines of work and soon entered full-time into baseball. In sum, it seems unlikely that he ever saw industrial training as crucial preparation or practical grounding for a successful start in life; probably it was never more to him than something done to placate parents. So much, then, for one more specification by the authorities on success which Lawson failed to take to heart.

Because his parents were godly people, Lawson recalled attending religious services regularly and often in his youth at the Disciples of Christ church where he claimed his father was a sometime preacher. He also attended Sunday school classes at a nearby Episcopal church. (Although Lawson told of his baptism at the former church, in a biographical sketch prepared later in life, he identified himself as an Episcopalian.)

Regular church attendance and youthful piety were de rigueur, of course, in the accounts which successful men of the rags-to-riches school gave of their childhoods. Lawson's account of his religious experiences in his youth was of a totally different character, however. Lawson never even hinted at having a shred of conventional piety as a boy; religion was one more area of life subject to his across-the-board challenge to all authority and to his determination to reach his own conclusions in all matters.


Excerpted from ZIG-ZAG-AND-SWIRL by LYELL D. HENRY, JR. Copyright © 1991 by University of Iowa Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Prologue: “Yes, Alfred William Lawson is God's great eternal gift to man”
Part One: Seedtime of a Self-made Man
1. Childhood Days
2. The Magic Man of Baseball
3. Born Again
Part Two: Fanning the Aeronautical Blaze
4. Aircraft Industry Builder
5. The Columbus of the Air
Part Three: From Aviator to Avatar
6. The Wizard of Reason and the Origin of Lawsonomy
7. The New Emancipator and His Perfect Economic Plan
8. The Man of Destiny and the Direct Credits Crusade
9. The First Knowledgian and the Upgrading of Humanity
Part Four: Utopia in Des Moines
10. Toward the Self-perpetuating Social Body
11. Alma Mater of the New Species
12. Collapsing Equaeverpoise
Part Five: Lawsonian Legacies
13. The Last Knowledgians
14. Lawson and America
Notes and Sources

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