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Essay

In Search of “Desiderata”

The tangled story behind a most popular poem.
“Desiderata” LP cover. Image courtesy of Daniel Nester.

You remember “Desiderata.” Maybe you heard its sweet strains on the radio. Or you recall key phrases—“you are a child of the universe” or “be gentle with yourself.” Chances are you have an aunt who hung a plaque of the poem set in calligraphy, its first words, “Go placidly,” standing out in decorated capitals. Or maybe we’re just talking about my aunt.

One of the most popular—dare I say best-selling?—poems of the 20th century, “Desiderata” is unabashed in its New Agey wisdom. “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence,” it begins. In the current age of portentous manifestos, “Desiderata” serves as a template for making grand statements we can all up-vote.

The poem’s origin story seemed murky from the start. Some held that it was written during the late 17th century by an anonymous Baltimore cleric. Others have regarded it as a kind of folk wisdom, an authorless credo that popped up at some point around the Summer of Love. But it was created in the American heartland in 1927 by an Indiana-born poet-lawyer, the son of German immigrants. Its author, Max Ehrmann, was never part of the poetry establishment.

What fascinates me is how “Desiderata” became a meme before the word was coined, how it went viral the analog way, transmitted through the culture by way of churchmen and statesmen, hippies and Hollywood actors, and one dedicated widow. Loosely translated from Latin as “things desired,” “Desiderata” is still sought out, imprinted on shower curtains, made into picture books for dog lovers, quoted on Twitter. Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean, has the entire text of the poem tattooed on his back.

How popular is “Desiderata” today? Just ask the Internet. In his new book, David Orr claims Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” is “the most widely read and recalled American poem of the past century.” He cites results from the now-defunct Google Insights to compare scaled rankings of searches, in which the Frost poem comes out on top over T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Orr and others might be surprised to find that, using Google Trends, the current tool that gauges interest in search terms since 2004, “Desiderata” edges out “The Road Not Taken” (49 to 43 in weighted scores) and leaves other poems in the dust. That’s just math.

All this shouldn’t be such a surprise. For nearly 90 years, Ehrmann’s “Desiderata” has gone placidly amid all the noise and haste, finding peace in silence, telling us to strive to be happy.

The sun is about to set in Terre Haute, and I’m standing at an intersection called the Crossroads of America. I’ve come to Indiana on a pilgrimage of sorts, and my first stop is Max Ehrmann at the Crossroads, a 2010 sculpture of the author of “Desiderata.”

I’m here to meet Mary Kramer, executive director of Wabash Valley Art Spaces, which led efforts to bring the Ehrmann statue to town. An artist herself, Kramer arrives with a packet of Ehrmann-related goodies: prints of “Desiderata,” news clippings, and a CD of readings and lectures.

I sit on a bench next to a bronze Max Ehrmann. Bill Wolfe’s statue depicts him with a writing pad; scrawled in his cursive is the last line of Ehrmann’s poem “Terre Haute”: “Here is the world in miniature.” His legs are crossed, his left arm stretched behind my back. I take a selfie next to his face to mark the occasion.


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To my left, a brass plaque displays the complete text of “Desiderata,” referred to as Ehrmann’s “timeless masterpiece.” Individual lines from the poem appear in small plates along the surrounding sidewalk. I snap photos of each one. “As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons” sits proudly in sunshine. “Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness” broods in the shade.

The degree to which one reveres “Desiderata” is related to the age one first encounters it. A fully formed adult, with a life’s worth of doubt and cynicism, may see the poem as trite or preachy. A younger person reads the same poem and might regard it as rules for living. When I asked people about “Desiderata,” poet friends used words such as sermon and Hallmark card treacle. A couple didn’t even consider it a poem. The non-poets, however, largely had fond memories of “Desiderata.” A former colleague tells me how, as a child, his stern businessman father read the poem from a picture book as a child. A college friend confesses she hung it on her wall next to a Stevie Nicks poster. A former student of mine just spotted it taped inside a car shop’s bathroom stall.

I first read “Desiderata” when I was 14—the perfect age. My Aunt Chrissy wrote out the entire poem in perfect Palmer Method cursive on the inside of an eighth-grade graduation card. My aunt, a pure product of the 70s, recited it to me as if attending high mass in a room full of David Bowie and Led Zeppelin records. I tacked a broadside of the poem to my bedroom wall, next to posters of Loni Anderson and Prince.

“Desiderata” offered advice for living as I moved into adulthood. The line “be yourself” seemed simple, obvious even. Another forecasted the jealousies, bred in high school cliques, that dogs me well into middle age: “If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.” Alongside rock lyrics, it was one of the first non-biblical texts I took as Bible truth.

How did “Desiderata” go viral? There are several explanations. Shortly after finishing the poem in 1927, Ehrmann sold autographed prints and cards. In 1933, “Desiderata” ran in the New York Times as part of its “Queries and Answers” feature, “designed to assist in the location of complete versions of poems and their sources.” But it wasn’t until 1956 that the poem got rolling. That year, the Rev. Frederick Ward Kales, a rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Baltimore, included the poem in a compilation of inspirational texts during Lent. Someone mimeographed the poem and removed, inadvertently or not, the credit to Max Ehrmann. In its place ran a line about the church’s beginnings: “Old St. Paul’s Church. A.D. 1692.” Copies of the poem made its way across the country, and somehow this last line was transposed to form the credit line “Found in Old St. Paul’s Church, Baltimore: dated 1692.” People took this to mean—and still do—that the poem was found in the 17th century. (The mimeographed church copies are also responsible for textual errors that persist to this day, most famously changing one of the last lines of the poem, “Be cheerful,” to the more ominous “Be careful.”)

The following story, though, is not in dispute. On July 14, 1965, Adlai Stevenson, former Democratic presidential candidate and US Ambassador to the United Nations, died in London. Syndicated columnist Betty Beale, a friend of Stevenson’s, found a marked-up copy of “Desiderata” on Stevenson’s bedside table. Stevenson’s plan, Beale wrote, was to include “Desiderata” on his 1965 Christmas card. In her next column, Beale shared this information and quoted from the poem, saying that it was found in Old St. Paul’s. Her follow-up column corrected the mistake and clarified that Max Ehrmann was the author of “Desiderata,” but the confusion stuck. Perhaps people wanted to believe this truly was a piece of American wisdom literature from the 17th century.

The poem’s popularity grew. Department stores offered commemorative prints “from a marked page on Adlai Stevenson’s bedside table.” In 1968, Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy recited the poem on an LP and called it “Spock Thoughts”; two years later, the psychedelic band Brian Davison’s Every Which Way recorded the song “Go Placidly.” Head shops sold posters featuring “Desiderata,” the most famous one accompanied by Beat-era photographer Larry Keenan’s black-and-white image of his brother standing alone on a California beach.

Hollywood got in on the act as well. My favorite “Desiderata” episode features Lorne Greene, of Bonanza fame, who read the poem on the Johnny Cash Show in 1970 wearing a leisure suit. Before Greene reads the poem, he performs a cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” A close second: Joan Crawford appearing on David Frost’s show that same year. Crawford, seated, recites the lines from a framed print on her lap. Frost and director Robert Gist look on, smoking cigarettes. Greene doesn’t mention the poem’s title at all; Crawford tells the audience “Desiderata” was “found in Old Saint Paul’s, Baltimore, dated 1692.”

In 1971, Fred Werner, a seasoned TV composer who had worked with Leonard Bernstein, met with the poet Steve Kalinich, a friend who had written lyrics for the Beach Boys. Werner wanted to discuss a project that included setting “Desiderata” to music.

That particular project fell through, but Werner couldn’t get “Desiderata” out of his mind. Then one day, the words “you are a child of the universe” “almost jumped off the page and sang themselves,” Werner said. A song-poem was born.

Werner selected Les Crane to narrate. Crane, a former TV talk show host whose show went up against Johnny Carson’s in the mid-1960s, was known as the “bad boy of late-night TV” for his interviews with Bob Dylan and Malcolm X. Werner’s composition included a gospel choir and harpsichord. “Desiderata” entered the Billboard charts in October 1971 and peaked at number 8 by December 10. The subsequent LP, which featured a poster of the poem, won the 1971 Grammy for Spoken Word Recording.

With this, we have reached peak “Desiderata.” Crane’s record catapulted the poem into the stratosphere. But it bears mentioning that the first pressings of the “Desiderata” LP did not mention Max Ehrmann as the poem’s author. The credit on the album label: “Produced by Fred Werner and Les Crane for Old St. Paul Productions.”

Something as popular and ubiquitous as “Desiderata” begs for a parody. In 1972, 11 months after Les Crane’s LP was released, Tony Hendra, the first editor of Harvard’s National Lampoon, wrote “Deteriorata.” Hendra is best known for his role as the band manager Ian Faith in the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. “I remember it very clearly,” Hendra wrote to me in an e-mail exchange. “It took about an hour.”

Hendra’s parody sharply deflates Ehrmann’s aphorisms: “Know yourself; if you need help, call the FBI” and “the universe is laughing behind your back.” The National Lampoon had recently secured its first album deal, so Hendra set out to create a musical parody. A young Christopher Guest wrote the music, which features a 20-year-old Melissa Manchester: “You are a fluke of the universe,” she sings.

In a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Les Crane said he preferred the National Lampoon parody to his original. “I can’t listen to it now without gagging,” he said of his recording.

“The flip side of the thrilling innovation, rebellion, liberation and experimentation of the late 60’s appeared to be the banalities and limp nostrums of ‘Desiderata,’” Hendra wrote to me. But I can’t help but think of something else Hendra once wrote, in his 2005 memoir, Father Joe: “Parody is also a way of owning and containing what you were once in awe of.” 

I went to Indiana in part to answer one question: who was the man behind “Desiderata”? At the Vigo County Historical Society, I sift through boxes of Ehrmannia: news clippings, thank-you cards, prints autographed by the poet. The portrait I put together of  is of an earnest, wholesome, serious-minded man, concerned with how one should live and whether his writing would live on.

Max Ehrmann

                                                                                         Dust jacket photograph of Max Ehrmann. Source Wikipedia

 

Ehrmann came from an immigrant family. His father, Max Sr., emigrated from Bavaria in the late 1840s, settled in Terre Haute, and married fellow Bavarian Margaret Lutz. They had five children. Decades later, the family would learn that the Ehrmann side of the family in Bavaria was Jewish, but they did not know this at the time, and the five Ehrmann children were raised as Methodists, attending Sunday school and catechism. Max Sr.’s woodworking business flourished. The three older Ehrmann brothers went into businesses—coal mines, manufacturing. Max Jr. was different. As a teenager, he recalls in his journals, “I became self-conscious and began to look at the world as a storehouse of wonderful things.”

He attended nearby DePauw University, where, as he once said in an interview, “I contracted a disease which I have never shaken off. The disease was Idealism.” He read Wordsworth and Emerson and “resolved not to embrace the conventional aim of life,” which was “to become rich.”

Ehrmann then went to Harvard for graduate study to focus on philosophy and law. He attended lectures by George Santayana and William James. After graduating, he moved back to Terre Haute, where he served as deputy state’s attorney for two years, then as credit manager and attorney at his brothers’ overalls factory. He continued to write plays and poems, published books and pamphlets. After ten years, he left work to concentrate on his writing. His family supported him.

Ehrmann might be best remembered now as a sentimentalist, but he was thoroughly engaged in the world. Washington University historian Leigh Eric Schmidt included Ehrmann’s story in his 2005 book Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality. In his research, Schmidt discovered Ehrmann counted among his friends Eugene V. Debs, five-time Socialist Party presidential candidate. Ehrmann broke ties with Debs when the union leader spoke out against US involvement in World War I. Ehrmann wrote pieces that advocated for sex education as early as the 1910s. Far from being some New Age solipsist, he was a “diehard progressive whose passion for metaphysics was always balanced by critical engagement in political life,” Schmidt writes.

Ehrmann, who wrote “Desiderata” when he was 55, sensed his writing didn’t fit the times. “This mania to be clever!” he wrote in his journal in 1921. “How easy to fall into this Wilde, Shaw, Chesterton, Vogue, Smart Set, Vanity Fair intellectual asininity!”

Ehrmann remained a bachelor for most of his life. He married Bertha Pratt King, a Smith College graduate and suffragette, in June 1945. Ehrmann died three months later. King inherited her late husband’s copyrights and dedicated the rest of her life to advancing his legacy. She published a collection of Ehrmann’s poems, journals, and biography and sent copies to US senators, Supreme Court justices, university presidents, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Bertrand Russell. Many wrote back with praise, which King collected in a one-page flyer for “Desiderata,” offering parchment copies or three cards for $1.

“This Desiderata moved me very deeply,” Columbia professor Mark Van Doren wrote. “I am proud to have it in this beautiful form.”

“Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery,” writes Ehrmann in “Desiderata.” I’ve always felt this was the poem’s oddest line. But the affairs of “Desiderata” have always been surrounded, if not by trickery, by legal entanglements.

“Desiderata” was first registered in the US Copyright Office in 1927. In 1933, Ehrmann sent the poem out as a Christmas card, without a copyright notice. Merrill Moore, an Army psychiatrist during World War II, handed out, with Ehrmann’s permission, an estimated 1,000 copies of “Desiderata” over the years while in civilian practice in Boston.

That last detail is crucial because it’s one of the instances the US Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals cites as evidence of Ehrmann’s expressed forfeiture of copyright. A 1975 lawsuit was filed by Robert L. Bell of Crescendo Publishing against Combined Registry Company, publishers of Success Unlimited magazine, which released “Desiderata” in August 1971 without attribution to Ehrmann. In the late 1960s, Bell purchased the author’s rights to “Desiderata” from Richard Wight, Bertha Pratt Ehrmann’s nephew.

The court ruled against Bell, citing an abandonment of the copyright. The Supreme Court declined to hear Bell’s appeal. Over the years, Bell had sued and given legal notices to dozens, from Warner Brothers, who released the Les Crane single, to the company behind the ubiquitous posters featuring Larry Keenan’s melancholic photo.

Bell continued to assert that he owned the copyright to “Desiderata” until his death in 2009.

A 1977 Washington Post article reported that St. Paul’s Church received about 40 calls a week from people asking to see the original copy of “Desiderata.”

“We still get a few,” said Lynn Calvarese, the parish assistant, when I recently called. “The people who call are generally not very internet-savvy.” Around Christmastime, the inquiries tick upward. Each caller genuinely believes a poem was carved on Saint Paul’s wall in 1692. Never mind that the church hadn’t been built yet or that no one would refer to having a career, as the poem does, the same year the Salem witch trials were held.

“I had one person the other morning come up to me and asked if the church was open,” Calvarese says. “She wanted to go inside and see ‘the Desiderata’ on the wall. I told her how it wasn’t there, wasn’t ever there. She was heartbroken.”

I walk past the former site of the Ehrmann Manufacturing Company, Max’s brothers’ factory. Now empty, it’s slated to be the new home of the Vigo County Historical Society. I imagine Max at his desk, checking credit histories, thinking about the poems he would write when he got home. Ehrmann writes in his journals that sometimes, after closing the office where he worked as deputy state’s attorney, he “opened all the windows, burned incense and read Emerson, Amiel, Maurice De Guérin, or some other book of sweeter air.” It reminds me of nights as a teenager, when I stared at my “Desiderata” poster, then my window, wondering how I should live my life.

I look out the window of my hotel room. My view overlooks the Crossroads of America. As I draw the shade closed, I can see Ehrmann on his bench. He looks straight ahead, out to the world in miniature, desired things spelled out in each direction.

  • Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina...

Essay

In Search of “Desiderata”

The tangled story behind a most popular poem.
  • Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina...

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