Monday, March 28, 2016


One of the publications I regularly check for Shaw-related essays is the Journal of William Morris Studies. The journal, which can be accessed freely on the website of The William Morris Society, often contains references to Shaw, whether because of their friendship or because of their shared interests (socialism, typesetting). The summer issue (2015) of the journal contains a brief reference to Shaw, quoted as saying that Ebenezer Howard was 

"One of those heroic simpletons who do big things whilst our prominent worldlings are explaining why they are Utopian and impossible."

These words are taken from a letter that Shaw wrote after Sir Ebenezer's death in 1928, addressed to A.C. Howard, his son. I guess he must have taken solace in the fact that someone like Shaw would say such things of his father. The letter has not been included, to my knowledge, in any of the collected Shaw correspondences, and is held as part of the Ebenezer Howard papers

Ebenezer Howard Grave

The Shavian twist, as usual, comes when we read the rest of the paragraph, which continues as follows: 

"And of course it is they who will make money out of his work."

Shaw is here probably referring to the success of Howard's inventions, like some printing machines for which he took out several patents. However, as many of you may know, Sir Ebenezer Howard is best known as the founder of the first "utopian" Garden Cities. Perhaps his ideas and prospects about these Garden Cities are best summarized in his Garden Cities of Tomorrow (1902), a thorough account of the different aspects that an ideal city should address. 

At any rate, what interests me the most about this quotation is not so much what it says or what it implies for the understanding of the figure of Ebenezer Howard. In this case, what I find of interest is that Shaw's words have been chosen to synthesize the spirit of Howard's urban dreams on countless occasions - thus indirectly conferring a great deal of authority to Shaw. 

Beevers, to begin with the obvious, quotes this passage in his critical biography of Howard. Likewise, the introduction to English Garden Cities published by English Heritage also chooses Shaw's words to epitomize the nature of Howard's plans. Even a recent article on an exhibition revisiting the legacy of William Morris mentions Howard twice, Shaw's words included. 

This is, in sum, another example of how Shaw manages to capture the elusive nature of human personality with his phenomenal command of words and ideas - perhaps he should have taken up playwriting!

Monday, March 7, 2016


A few weeks ago, I was reading some new publications in order to decide whether their references to Shaw would be of interest to readers of the Continuing Checklist of Shaviana. One such publication was Nimrod Tal's The American Civil War in British Culture: Representations and Responses, 1870 to the Present. In chapter 3, "British Intellectuals and Abraham Lincoln" we read that "Bernard Shaw saw a cult of Lincoln in England" (p. 95), although no source is provided either in the text or in a note.

I tried to search for the source of these alleged words by Shaw in my database, but I could not find anything vaguely related to a "cult."

Luckily for me, however, this notion of Shaw's acknowledgment of a "cult of Lincoln in England" is to be found in other publications on the subject. So, for example, Adam I. P. Smith, in his article "The ‘Cult’ of Abraham Lincoln and the Strange Survival of Liberal England in the Era of the World Wars," not only cites Shaw as the source of these words, but in a footnote he provides three references where I expected to find the sources I was looking for. 

The first one is Mark E. Neely's The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia, where we can read (p. 53) that "George Bernard Shaw told Lincoln collector Judd Stewart that there was 'a cult of Lincoln in England, received of late from Lord Charnwood's very penetrating biography.'"

The source of Shaw's words is further corroborated by some documents that have been recently digitized from the Files of the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection. These documents include a 1981 issue of Lincoln Lore, the Bulletin of the Louis A. Warren Lincoln Library and Museum, which was edited by the aforementioned Mark E. Neely. There, we read an almost verbatim reproduction of what he had written in his The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia: "George Bernard Shaw told Lincoln collector Judd Stewart that Charnwood's "very penetrating biography" created "a cult of Lincoln in England." 

Of course, although Shaw's opinion as quoted by Neely is plausible, we are still left with a personal record of a conversation of which there is no further evidence. Whether one chooses to take this with a grain of salt is a personal decision, but I cannot end this post without bringing to your attention the fact that Shaw read all the books about Lincoln we have just mentioned - and then some. 

If you search for "Lincoln" on the website of the National Trust Collections, and you limit your search to the items found in Shaw's Corner, you will find that Shaw owned copies of both Drinkwater's play and Charnwood's biography - as well as another biography of Lincoln by Basil Williams. 

Shaw may or may not have said that there was a "cult," but he was no doubt aware of the stature of Abrahm Lincoln as an icon of history and culture.