Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
Self-Help
By Josiah Gilbert Holland (1819–1881)
 
[Plain Talks on Familiar Subjects. 1865.]

LABOR, calling, profession, scholarship, and artificial and arbitrary distinctions of all sorts, are incidents and accidents of life, and pass away. It is only manhood that remains, and it is only by manhood that man is to be measured. When this proposition shall be comprehended and accepted, it will become easy to see that there is no such thing as menial work in this world. No work that God sets a man to do—no work to which God has specially adapted a man’s powers—can properly be called either menial or mean. The man who blacks your boots and blacks them well, and who engages in that variety of labor because he can do it better than he can do anything else, may have, if he choose, just as sound and true a manhood as you have, not only after he gets through the work of his life, but now, with your boots in one hand and your shilling in the other. There is very much dirtier work done in politics, and sometimes in the professions, than that of blacking boots; work, too, which destroys manhood, or renders its acquisition impossible.
  1
  If I have attained the object of this lecture, I have presented to you, and impressed upon you, certain important and intimately related truths, which I will briefly recount:  2
  First. That the faculty of self-help is that which distinguishes man from animals; that it is the Godlike element, or holds within itself the Godlike element, of his constitution.  3
  Second. That God gives every man individuality of constitution, and the faculty to achieve individuality of character, through an intelligent selection of food for the nourishment, and labor for the discipline and development of his powers.  4
  Third. That those counsels which convey to young persons, indiscriminately, the idea that they can make anything of themselves that they choose to make, are pernicious, from the fact that many will choose to make of themselves that for which Nature never designed them, and will thus spoil themselves for the work to which their individualities are adapted.  5
  Fourth. That a man can never be well-made who is not, in reality, self-made; whose native individuality is not the initial and the dominant fact in his development.  6
  Fifth. That it is a mistake to suppose that a man, in order to be self-made, must necessarily seek the peculiar development that will prepare him for professional or political life.  7
  Sixth. That no man has a right to be engaged in a calling or profession in which he occupies an inferior position, while there exists a calling or profession in which he may occupy a superior position; and that no man is respectable when out of his place, however respectable the place he occupies may be.  8
  Seventh. That a man without a title is greater than a title without a man; and that a self-made man may occupy, in honor and the noblest respectability, the humblest place in the world, if its duties are only those for which God designed his powers….  9
  I account the loss of a man’s life and individuality, through the non-adaptation or the mal-adaptation of his powers to his pursuits, the greatest calamity, next to the loss of personal virtue, that he can suffer in this world. I believe that a full moiety of the trials and disappointments that darken a world which, I am sure, was intended to be measurably bright and happy, are traceable to this prolific source. Men are not in their places. Women are not in their places. John is doing badly the work that William would do well, and William is doing badly the work that John would do well; and both are disappointed, and unhappy, and self-unmade. It is quite possible that John is doing Mary’s work and Mary is doing John’s work.
 Of all sad words of tongue or pen,
The saddest are these: ‘it might have been.’”
  10
  Now, I do not suppose we shall ever get the world all right on this matter. I do not suppose that all men will find the places for which they were designed, or that, in many instances, Maud will marry the Judge: but an improvement can be made; and if an improvement ever shall be made, it will be through the inculcation of sounder views among the young….  11
  If there be one man before me who honestly and contentedly believes that, on the whole, he is doing that work to which his powers are best adapted, I wish to congratulate him. My friend, I care not whether your hand be hard or soft; I care not whether you are from the office or the shop; I care not whether you preach the everlasting gospel from the pulpit, or swing the hammer over the blacksmith’s anvil; I care not whether you have seen the inside of a college or the outside—whether your work be that of the head or that of the hand—whether the world account you noble or ignoble: if you have found your place, you are a happy man. Let no ambition ever tempt you away from it, by so much as a questioning thought I say, if you have found your place—no matter what or where it is—you are a happy man. I give you joy of your good fortune; for if you do the work of that place well, and draw from it all that it can give you of nutriment and discipline and development, you are, or you will become, a man filled up—made after God’s pattern—the noblest product of the world,—a self-made man.  12
 
 
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