The truth about David Grayson

Below is the text of the talk I gave at the Jones Library March 12 on David Grayson, the writer of nine books on simple living that sold over 2 million copies in the first half of the 20th century. The true identity of David Grayson was a secret for 10 years, but 100 years ago this month, an Amherst resident named Ray Stannard Baker revealed that he was the author.

We are here to honor an Amherst writer who, a century ago, was more popular than either Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost. He spent a lot of time in this library, and although he’s not well known today, his books still have something important to teach us.

He used the pen name David Grayson, and a lot of readers were curious about who he really was. One hundred years ago this month, his true identity was revealed after 10 years of secrecy and speculation.


Our story begins in 1906, when the editors of a popular magazine called McClure’s were sitting around and panicking over what would fill the next issue. A desperate cry went out to writers for whatever they could contribute. One of them had been writing his private thoughts and experiences in notebooks for many years, never planning to publish them, and he answered the call.ik

He transformed these sketches into personal essays and invented the pseudonym David Grayson because it seemed like “a homely name that suited the subject matter.” He didn’t use his real name because he wrote hard-hitting journalism in the same magazine and didn’t want to confuse readers.

David Grayson portrayed himself as a well-read man who has left the city to live on a farm. He likes to walk around visiting people and meeting strangers. He patiently observes the ways of his rural neighbors, and shows respect for the humblest of citizens. In the words later attributed to Will Rogers, he never met a man he didn’t like.

The stories were a mixture of essay, philosophy, and quiet humor. They frequently cite the Bible, Shakespeare and Marcus Aurelius. They had a straightforward, colloquial style, and resonated deeply with people going through the challenges of industrialization and urbanization.

One reviewer wrote, “Those who read Grayson with sympathy and enlightenment are strangely conscious that here is a loyal, familiar and well-approved friend. Here is a man who has thought our thoughts for us, and who has given the soul of those thoughts their appropriate body in words.”

The author himself wrote much later that the stories “helped make people understand and enjoy their lives a little more deeply and fully, by presenting the beauty of neighborliness, the richness of the quiet life, and the charm of common things.”

The fictional David Grayson became a celebrity, and the actual writer admitted that he was a just a little jealous of his alter ego. Letters poured in to the magazine addressed to Grayson, and they are housed right here, in the Special Collections department.

One correspondent wrote, “Permit me, a humble clerk, to express my appreciation and thankfulness and tell you what an inspiration such writing is.”

Many of these letters will be on display here in Special Collections. My favorite of these letters came from George C. Baldwin of Springfield, Mass., who wrote in 1916, “To bring quietness to the heart in these days of storm, hopefulness in the heart of discouragement, sane practical wisdom into the fog of madness, and to do these with the sunniest, sweetest, most delicate humor, why, what could a man want more?”

Dan O’Brien wrote from Shanghai, where he was stationed on an American ship: “You have made me forget for a time that I was in a place where dreamers are not wanted.”

G. W. Elderkin of Pasadena wanted to know if the writer of “Adventures in Contentment” was a regular church-goer (he was not). Elderkin wrote, “He comes nearer to being a real Christian than anyone I know.’

Louis Eytinge of Arizona wrote, “Anytime you come out this way, drop off the trail and stop at my camp.”

Many of the letters came from nostalgic elderly people, students, men who missed rural life, and women with romantic fantasies. Many were addressed to “David” or “Dear Friend.” Dorothy Verall of Illinois wrote, “I wish if you are ever in Chicago that you would let me talk with you.” Another woman wrote, “David dear! Do you know how I love you? Take me with you when next you go on The Friendly Road.”

The David Grayson stories continued to appear in McClure’s, and later in the American magazine. They were collected in several books, such as “Adventures in Contentment,” which came out in 1907. “Adventures in Friendship” was published in 1910, the same year the writer moved to Amherst.

The publishers of the magazines responded to all the letters, saying that the David Grayson stories are “partly fiction and partly fact.” They wrote that the writer “lives on a small New England farm” and “as a letter-writer he is quite hopeless.”

David Grayson clubs sprang up, their members known as “Graysonians.” There’s a wonderful brochure from a Graysonian club that’s in a display case here. A Florida club wrote, “A true Graysonian will stop and retrace his steps to help an unknown brother find a lost bolt, and then drive out of his way to take this unknown brother home. He will give a hearty handshake when introduced to a stranger, and he will smile into the face of the sorrowing one with a smile of sympathy and understanding.”

Not everyone liked the David Grayson books. The misanthropic H.L. Mencken wrote, “Mr. Grayson’s sentimentality often descends to the maudlin. I fail to respond to his enthusiasm for yokels, his artful forgetfulness that the country is dull, dirty and uncomfortable, and that countrymen are stupid and rascally.”

There were ultimately nine David Grayson books, and they sold over 2 million copies. They were popular all over the English-speaking world, and one of them went through 40 printings even in Britain. They were translated into French, Czech, Norwegian, and even Braille. A magazine ad for his books called him “America’s most popular philosopher.” The president of the Mormon church bought 400 copies of “Adventures in Contentment” to give to members of the Tabernacle Choir.

There was a lot of speculation about who David Grayson really was. A similar literary mystery occurred in 1996, with the anonymous publication of “Primary Colors,” a cheeky narrative of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. That mystery didn’t last nearly as long as the puzzle of David Grayson’s identity, which has been called the longest-kept secret in modern literary history.

Some readers grew impatient. Dorothy Seward of Nebraska wrote to the publishers, “You are doing readers a flagrant injustice unless you tell them who David Grayson is. We can’t wait another year to find out. Some of us will explode!” A Seattle resident named W. H. G. Temple wrote to David Grayson simply, “Are you real or imaginary?”

There were at least six David Grayson imposters, one of whom convinced a woman to marry him by telling her that he was the famous author. It was an early form of identity theft. In Denver, detectives and newspapermen confronted a man who gave lectures as David Grayson, and showed him a telegram written by the real publishers.

In 1924, a man visiting an Arkansas town claimed to be David Grayson, cashed a bad check and disappeared. In 1935, a man in Indiana was involved in a car accident and gave his name as David Grayson, with an address in Amherst, Mass.

Other people, including a Maine writer named David Gray and an Atlanta attorney actually named David Grayson, issued statements saying they did not write the famous stories. One of Grayson’s books was called “Hempfield,” and many people thought it was written by a Hempstead, N.Y. writer named Walter Dyer, who tearfully maintained that it was not.

Charles Collins of Greensburg, Pa. wrote to the publishers suggesting that they offer a prize to anyone who reveals David Grayson’s true identity.

But by 1913, the secret was leaking out. The New York Post speculated, correctly, about David Grayson’s true identity. Geneva Smith of Frankfort, Mich. heard this rumor and wrote to the publishers, “Please tell me the truth about the matter. We can’t quite believe it. We think he must be a MAN of greater age and he must have lived that very life on the farm.”

The publishers responded with a non-denial denial. “The author of the David Grayson articles has never given us permission to reveal his identity,” they responded. “Of course, you hear all sorts of rumors.”

When Ray Stannard Baker admitted in March 1916 that he had written the David Grayson stories, ending 10 years of anonymity, many people couldn’t believe it. Baker was a well-known writer whose indignant, crusading style seemed far removed from the pastoral, gentle Grayson.

One of Baker’s daughters wrote that David Grayson fans would knock on the door of their house on Sunset Avenue to see if it was really true. Some were upset to find that Baker, unlike Grayson, lived in a town instead of in the country, and had a wife and family. “David Grayson has no right to have a daughter!” one said. It was as if David Grayson was the real writer and Baker was the impostor.

Book News Monthly wrote, “There was an apparent discrepancy between the character of David Grayson, the idler by woodland brooks, the poet of the open road, the philosopher of that deepest contentment in life which may be had by the lowest or the highest, and that of Ray Stannard Baker, the skilled journalist, the investigator thick in the hurly-burly of life and affairs.”

Baker was a worldly man. He had walked from Ohio to Washington, D.C. in 1894 with a group of protestors during an economic depression. He covered the bloody Pullman railcar strike that same year, and the McKinley-Bryan presidential campaign in 1896. He documented the exploitation of African-Americans in Georgia, who were arrested on trumped-up charges and sent to work on for-profit chain gangs. He interviewed socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs, meatpacking tycoon J. Ogden Armour, and inventor Thomas Edison. He was there with Guglielmo Marconi during the first trans-Atlantic radio communication.

But he had spent much of his childhood in a frontier settlement in Wisconsin, where he mixed with lumbermen, rogues and native tribes. He spent some of his early adult years in Chicago with very little money, perhaps contributing to his later empathy for people in distress.

In 1910, Baker moved to Amherst. It was actually his fourth attempt to get out of New York City and reclaim the rural life of his boyhood. Although he left Amherst to serve President Wilson during the first world war, he continued to live here until his death in 1946, which was front-page news in one New York newspaper. Baker’s brother Hugh was the president of Mass. Agricultural College, which became the University of Massachusetts, in the 1930s and 40s.

Ray Stannard Baker was a trustee of this library from 1929 until his death. He wrote most of his Pulitzer prize-winning biography of Wilson here, and much of the furniture in the curator’s office was originally his. Baker is buried in Wildwood Cemetery, but he made it clear that he did not want a tombstone. After titles such as “Adventures in Contentment,” “Adventures in Friendship” and “Adventures in Understanding,” when Baker died he had been compiling notes for a new David Grayson book to be called “Adventures in Mysticism.”

Baker wrote that during his arduous travels as a journalist, his life was pure toil, but writing the private sketches that became the David Grayson stories gave him release and joy. Coming to Amherst gave him the chance to live out the persona of David Grayson that previously he had lived in his mind only. He was an avid beekeeper and cultivated a fruit orchard, and kept hens. His book “Under My Elm” gives a detailed account of the economics of growing onions.

Here’s what Baker wrote about his double life: “Every man should have two occupations, else he cannot succeed, one by which he earns his bread, one by which he serves a greater purpose. I am a farmer, but I am also a reporter of life.”

Yet there is evidence that he wishes that readers had paid more attention to his reporting. He wrote later in his life: “At the time, I certainly felt that the articles I was writing under my own name were of far greater importance than the David Grayson sketches. I felt that I was reforming the world!” To explain why he separated his two personas, he wrote, “To confuse the issues with my adventures in such a different field seemed downright folly.”

So, was Baker a journalist who secretly wanted to be a farmer or a farmer who masqueraded as a journalist? Here I’ll quote from an address given by Frank Prentice Rand in this library on Founder’s Day 55 years ago: “David Grayson was no myth. He was a real man; indeed, he was perhaps THE real man. If anyone was wearing a mask, it was the journalist who rubbed shoulders with the celebrities of the day.”

Rand concluded his address about David Grayson with this: “His prescriptions, taken from nature and the great books, were not always profound. They may have been intuitive rather than intellectual, but they provided for hungry hearts and minds something in the way of rational uplift. If there is such a thing as salvation on earth, not only among men but among nations, and if there is such a thing as recovery from this feverish disease of modern life, certainly the way and the prescription are to be found in the books of David Grayson.”

This tribute to Baker appeared in the Amherst newspaper: “Like the bees he kept, Mr. Baker stored a wholesome sweetness. It is something for Amherst people to cherish that such a man chose to spend the best years of his life among us and to leave with us the rich heritage of his memory.”

To Tell the True Author

Who remembers the TV game show “To Tell the Truth”? Three people would claim to be a person who did something unusual, and a panel would try to guess which one was telling the truth and which two were impostors.

At the end of each segment, the host would say, “Will the REAL so-and-so PLEASE STAND UP!”

David Grayson event website graphicThis Saturday, the Jones Library in Amherst is hosting a revival of “To Tell the Truth.” I am participating  in this program, which is about an immensely popular writer who was the center of a literary mystery 100 years ago. He was an Amherst resident who went by the name David Grayson, and he was a champion of simple living. Readers loved his books, but virtually no one knew who he really was.

“David Grayson Revealed” will start at 10:30 in the Special Collections area on the second floor of the library. The program will mark the 100th anniversary of the month when the true identity of David Grayson became known, after 10 years of secrecy and speculation.

I will give a talk on Grayson and his writings to lead off the program, and read from his first book, “Adventures in Contentment” (which gave this blog half its name). Then three people will portray actual writers from a century ago, only one of whom wrote the David Grayson books. I’m using male pronouns here, but one of the three is a female writer who should not be ruled out!

There really were David Grayson impersonators, at least six of them. One convinced a woman to marry him based on this false identity. One of Saturday’s “contestants” will portray one of these impostors.

Afterwards, I will give a talk on the actual person who wrote the David Grayson books, and  read from “Under My Elm,” about a beloved tree that still stands near his house on Sunset Avenue in Amherst. The program was organized by Cynthia Harbeson, the library’s curator of special collections.

In Grayson’s books, he portrays himself as an educated man who leaves the city to live on a farm. He observes with amused detachment, patience and understanding the ways of his rural neighbors. He champions “the beauty of neighborliness, the richness of the quiet life, and the charm of common things.”

David Grayson deserves a place in Amherst’s pantheon of great writers, alongside Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. Here are some unusual details about him:

  • His nine books sold over 2 million copies, some going through 40 printings in England, and were translated into many languages, even Braille.
  • The persona of David Grayson was created in 1906 when a magazine was desperate to fill the next issue, and a writer threw together a story based on his personal diaries.
  • The actual writer admitted to being jealous of his alter ego, who got more attention than the journalism published under his real name.
  • David Grayson is the opposite of Emily Dickinson, Amherst’s most famous writer, who was unknown in her lifetime; Grayson was world-famous in his lifetime but is little-known today.
  • Thousands of people wrote letters to the fictional David Grayson, many addressing him like a close friend. Some of these letters, which are housed at the Jones Library, will be on display Saturday.

Look for more details about David Grayson in an article I wrote that is scheduled to appear in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Amherst Bulletin this Friday. And please come to the library on Saturday morning to see David Grayson’s true identity revealed!

New readers of this blog can click here to access a quick overview of more than 150 past posts in 13 categories, including simple living, frugality, cooking, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.



‘The joys of simple pleasures’

Standing Hat Book Cane 300 dpi“So often we think in a superior and lordly manner of our possessions, when, as a matter of fact, we do not really possess them, they possess us.”

This post is composed of morsels of wisdom from “The Friendly Road,” written by Amherst resident David Grayson in 1913.

“There is a supreme faith among common people — it is, indeed, the very taproot of democracy — that although the unfriendly one may persist long in his power and arrogance, there is a moving Force which commands events.”

Grayson’s books are seldom read today, but they were well-known all over the English-speaking world in his lifetime, selling about 2 million copies.

“I think sometimes that people literally perish for want of a good, hearty, whole-souled, mouth-opening, throat-stretching, side-aching laugh.”

David Grayson was a pseudonym for Ray Stannard Baker, a well-known muckraking journalist. His real identity was a secret for 10 years, and was revealed only after imposters started giving lectures as David Grayson, as I describe in this previous post.

“Isn’t it the strangest thing in the world how long it takes us to learn to accept the joys of simple pleasures?”

Grayson’s books included “Adventures in Contentment,” “Adventures in Friendship,” “Adventures in Understanding” and “Adventures in Solitude.” They were the inspiration for half of this blog’s name.

“Thank God, we are beginning to learn that unity is as much a law of life as selfish struggle, and love a more vital force than avarice or lust of power or place.”

Baker, who was born in 1870, lived in many places during the first half of his life, but settled down in Amherst in 1909 (three years after he started writing as David Grayson) and lived here until his death in 1946.

“In a world so completely dominated by goods, by things, by possessions, and smothered by security, what fine adventure is left to a man of spirit save the adventure of poverty?”

David Grayson came into being because the editors of the magazine where Baker worked were desperate for copy, so he refashioned some sketches he wrote for his own amusement, and never expected them to be popular. I had a similar experience when I created the Amherst Bulletin police log 20 years ago, as I describe here.

“The important thing to me about a road, as about life and literature, is not that it goes anywhere, but that it is livable while it goes.”

Amherst’s most celebrated writer, Emily Dickinson, was unknown in her lifetime but is world-famous now. David Grayson was world-famous in his lifetime but is seldom read now.

“Believe me, of all people in the world, those who want the most are those who have the most. These people are also consumed with desires.”

Thousands of people wrote letters to David Grayson. One wrote, “You have said what I have thought and heard and felt but couldn’t express.” Another wrote, “Yours was a new gospel of life to us, urging to beauty, simplicity and the commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest things that come nearest happiness.”

“He considered himself poor and helpless because he lacked dollars, whereas people are really poor and helpless only when they lack courage and faith.”

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick overview of more than 140 past posts in 13 categories, including simple living, frugality, living without, gardening, cooking and climate change.




Helen Nearing’s good life

144 helen nearing 1She never ate a hamburger, never took an aspirin, and never used a credit card. For most of her adult life, she had no telephone, radio or television.

Helen Nearing (1904-1995) was the life partner of Scott Nearing, and together they set the standard for self-sufficiency and simple living. When I wrote about Scott’s influence on my life in a previous blog post, I didn’t give Helen her due. She was a remarkable person in her own right.

Helen Nearing was an author, farmer, carpenter, house designer, violinist, stone mason, and a gracious host to people seeking wisdom and life direction by visiting her and Scott. In her life, she showed that you can always do more than you think you can.

“The value of doing something does not lie in the ease or difficulty, the probability or improbability of its achievement, but in the vision, the plan, the determination and the perseverance, the effort and the struggle which goes into the project,” she wrote. “Life is enriched by aspiration and effort, rather than by acquisition and accumulation.”

Helen Nearing cover 2012She was born Helen Knothe in Ridgefield, N.J. to a well-to-do family of vegetarian free-thinkers. She was a bookish and introverted girl, and trained as a classical violinist. After high school Helen traveled around the world and became close to Hindu philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti. At age 24, she met Scott Nearing, an economics professor who at 45 had made himself unemployable because of his socialist-pacifist views.

In 1932, they left New York City and moved to rural Vermont, buying an old wooden house on 65 acres of poor land for $1,100 (they didn’t marry until 1947 and did not have children). Using a small legacy from Helen’s former suitor who had died, they bought a farm nearby, and she designed the stone house they built there. She had learned no skills for living off the land.

“I matured in Vermont from an inexperienced, naive, dependent girl into a tough and sturdy homesteader with many trades at my fingertips,” she wrote. The Nearings made the small amount of money they needed from making and selling maple syrup.

It wasn’t an easy life. They grew most of their own food, cut their own wood for heat, and fasted one day a week and for 10 days once a year. There was no electricity. They had a truck but didn’t use any farm machinery.

“I came to relish privations,” Helen wrote. “I preferred our sparsely furnished, gaunt, uninsulated farmhouse to the comfortable, cluttered and carpeted, overheated suburban homes I had known.”

Helen&ScottIn 1953, when skiing entrepreneurs discovered their corner of Vermont, the Nearings moved to  the coast of Maine, built a new stone house, and switched their cash crop to blueberries. In 1954 they wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” (from which this blog gets half its name). It didn’t get a lot of attention, but in the early 1970s it struck a chord with baby boomers and sold over 250,000 copies.

Here’s a video about them, made in 1977, that includes footage of their appearance at an Amherst conference on alternative energy. I was there and had the opportunity to meet them.

As many as 2,300 people a year who showed up at their home, usually unannounced. Since Scott was often away lecturing, and was apt to assign chores to visitors when he was there, Helen served as the main host.

Helen and Scott saw woodShe was a prolific cook and food preserver, and in 1980 published “Simple Food for the Good Life: An Alternative Cook Book.” It includes recipes for such delicacies as Miracle Mush (apples, carrots, beets and nuts), Wheaties (flour, margarine, cottage cheese) and Seaweed Pudding (dried seaweed, jam, sour cream). She said their diet consisted of 35 percent fruit, 50 percent vegetables, 10 percent protein and 5 percent fat. Scott, died shortly after his 100th birthday, said he hadn’t seen a doctor in 60 years.

Helen_Nearing[1]Helen lived alone on the Maine farm for 12 more years, with help from friends and neighbors. She spent some winters in Florida, and reluctantly got a telephone, before she died in an auto accident at age 91. In 1992 she published a memoir of her life with Scott and his death called “Loving and Leaving the Good Life.” She made this video called “Conscious Living, Conscious Dying.”

Helen Nearing sought a higher standard of life, not a higher standard of living. She was a mentor to people who wanted to learn how to grow food organically, live in harmony with nature, and learn the benefits of healthy living.

For readers who are new to this blog, here’s an index/reference guide to more than 100 posts in 12 categories, such as frugality, gardening, cooking, fruits and vegetables, life lessons and climate change.





An anthem for simple living

Did you ever hear a song that perfectly represents your aspirations? For me, that song is “Simple Living,” written by Massachusetts’ own Fred Small.

Fred_SmallSmall is now a Unitarian minister in Cambridge and a climate activist (a link to his latest song is at the end of this post). He recorded “Simple Living” in 1991, when he was a singer/songwriter with a flair for topical issues.

The song begins with a recitation of the distractions and excesses of modern life, and his frustration that he can’t get beyond them:

“Too many words, too many sounds
Too many attractions turn me around
Too many miles in a chrome cocoon
I can’t get anywhere; I can’t see the moon

Too many commercials, too many lies
Too many celebrities I don’t recognize
Too many brand names, too many magazines
I got so much sensation I can’t feel a thing.”

Then we hear stirrings of Small’s future advocacy of a transition to a fossil-fuel-free economy:

“Too many things we just throw away
If we put it in the garbage, we’re gonna eat it someday
We turn on the lights and a river dies
We turn the TV on to see an eagle fly.”

Small then turns to the meaninglessness of many people’s jobs, and their yearning for connectedness:

“Too much work with nothing to do
Too many dreams that never come true
Too much hurting without a second glance
Too much desperation they call romance.”

Small changes his perspective to conclude the song, focusing not on the alienation of modern life but on how he plans to get beyond it. He wants to concentrate on real relationships with people, opening himself up to nature and the oneness of humanity:

“Gonna take this life, pare it to the bone
Baby when you knock, baby I’ll be home
I’ll make my breakfast, sweep the floor
Open the window, unlock the door

Turn off the video, the audio too
Open my eyes, take in the view
See the divine in the veins of a leaf
In the hands of a beggar, in the eyes of a thief.”

0507_fred-small UU pastorAlmost 25 years after he recorded “Simple Living,” Small has adapted an old sea shanty for the movement to encourage Harvard and other institutions to divest their stocks and bonds in fossil fuel companies. “Leave It in the Ground” refers to the imperative that we can’t dig up all the coal, oil and gas that the companies have identified, if we want to avert a climate catastrophe. The photo shows him in his minister’s robes.

My favorite Fred Small albums are titled “I Will Stand Fast” and “No Limit.” The former addresses South African apartheid and the rescue of Danish Jews in 1943. The latter includes “Everything Possible,” perhaps Small’s best-known song, and one about a big-time college basketball coach who quits to become a school bus driver.