Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Stealing Poetry in North Platte, Nebraska

The P&PC Office has been a little bit ... let's say ... irregular in the frequency of its postings of late, but there's good reason for that, dear reader: we've been in the process of temporarily relocating our offices to Washington, D.C., where we'll spend the Fall 2015 semester doing research at the Library of Congress thanks to the generosity of a five month-long Kluge Fellowship and, of course, Willamette University, which granted us a semester-long leave. (You'll no doubt hear more about the nature of our research in the coming weeks, but you can get the gist of it here, in a posting we wrote while doing preliminary research on site last Fall.) So, the past month or so has been full of details details details having to do with the move: staffing the office in Oregon, finding new digs in D.C., and embarking on a six-day, five-night, 2,800-mile road trip with a (rented) minivan full of essentials, non-perishables, and the two P&PC Office cats. It was a long ride—kind of like doing the Oregon Trail in reverse but without all the wagons, dysentery, and barrels of salted pork—featuring stops in Boise (Idaho), Rock Springs (Wyoming), North Platte (Nebraska), Iowa City (Iowa), and Bowling Green (Ohio) and made somewhat more bearable by the fact that we've been watching Hell on Wheels and, for much of the trip, riding along the route of the transcontinental railroad including passing Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah. But now we're finally in D.C., settled in to our awesome pad across the street from Lincoln Park in Capitol Hill, and more or less installed at our work space in the Kluge Center. The picture of the capitol you see above is the last sight on our daily commute before we disappear into the Library to work.

While stopping in the booming metropolis of North Platte on the way here, we had the pleasure of staying at America's Best Value Inn, an independently owned, 1950s-style motel that we'd recommend to anyone passing by not just because of its cleanliness, affordability, and level of hospitality, but because of the poem "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" (pictured here) that they've got tacked to the wall in each of the motel's 33 rooms. Here's the text of that verse:
Is anybody happier because you passed his way?
     Does anyone remember that you spoke to him today?
The day is almost over, and its toiling time is through;
     Is there anyone to utter now a kindly word of you?
Can you say tonight, with the day that's slipping fast,
     That you helped a single brother of the many that you passed?
Is a single heart rejoicing over what you did or said;
     Does the man whose hopes were fading, now with courage look ahead?
Did you waste the day, or lose? Was it well or sorely spent?
     Did you leave a trail of kindness, or a scar of discontent?
As you close your eyes in slumber, do you think that God will say,
     "You have earned one more tomorrow by the work you did today." 
If you Google the poem, you'll find several versions of it in circulation (this is a shortened version), and you'll also find that there's some dispute as to its author and title. The America's Best Value Inn version attributes it to John Hall. It's been attributed to John Kendrick Bangs. It's been credited to "anonymous" and has oftentimes appeared with no byline at all. To P&PC ears, it sounds exactly like the "people's poet" Edgar Guest (pictured here), and, indeed, it's most frequently attributed to him directly or metonymically via Guest's publisher the Detroit Free Press. (For more on Guest's amazing and ongoing presence in popular culture, see P&PC postings here, here, here, here, and here.) Over the years, it's appeared as "The Day's Results," "The Day's Work," "At Day's End," "Is Anybody Happier," and "Consider Today." In the world of popular poetry, such authorial confusion, editing, and re-titling is a common thing; see, for example, the poetry of Rod's Steakhouse upon which we, uh, ruminated several years ago.

In our estimation, "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow" is most likely by Guest, and while we haven't found the issue of the Detroit Free Press in which it perhaps originally appeared, it most likely dates to 1916 or 1917, and its publication history is a miniature portrait of just how widely such verse circulated. In January of 1917, it appeared in The Journal of Zoophily, "published monthly under the auspices of the American Antivivisection Society, combined with the Women's Pennsylvania Society for the Preservation of Cruelty of Animals." The Lather, put out by the Wood, Wire, and Metal Lathers International Union, printed it in 1918. The Los Angeles School Journal and The Bessemer Monthly (put out by the Bessemer Gas Engine Company) printed it in 1919. The Gospel Messenger, The Sabbath Recorder, and the Southern Telephone News printed it in 1920. The Chamber of Commerce and State Manufacturers Journal of Scranton, Pennsylvania, printed it in 1921, The Plasterer in 1922, Vision: A Magazine for Youth in 1932, The Railroad Trainman in 1935, and American Flint in 1950. It continues to be reproduced in books and on web sites today.

You get the idea: the poem going by the title "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" has appealed to a wide audience—labor unions, religious folk, youth, animal lovers, civic stakeholders, etc.—for a long time. All the same, after leaving North Platte, and as mile after mile of blacktop ran beneath the dignity of our (rented) minivan, we began to wonder if the version of the poem at America's Best Value Inn tell could tell us anything more about how popular the poem continues to be and how audiences today respond to verse that moves them. So when we got to D.C., we gave the Inn a jingle and talked for a while with the owner Dave.

Dave opened the Inn in 1988 and almost immediately posted copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" in each of the motel's 33 rooms. He doesn't remember where he found the poem, and he doesn't know anything about the author, and neither of those things seem to matter much to him. But he did tell me that, over the years, the motel has sustained an average annual occupancy rate of 60-70%. So, you can do the math by yourself at home: at an average of 22 rooms per day (65% occupancy), that means that at least 8,000 motel guests (a conservative estimate of only one person per room) have the opportunity to encounter the poem in a single year. Calculate that number over the 27 years the hotel has been open under Dave's management (the "poem era"), and you discover that more than 216,000 people have seen "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" just in the rooms of  America's Best Value Inn alone.

But—we began to think halfway through our conversation with Dave—just because someone in a hotel room has the opportunity to read a poem doesn't mean he or she has actually read it, or read it with any semblance of seriousness, right? That's when Dave spoke up, as if anticipating our question. Once or twice a day, he said, people walk in to the main office and ask for a copy of the poem; he's got a stack of them behind the desk to give out for free. What's more surprising than that—especially considering the poem's content—is that every day poems go missing from one to two of the motel's rooms, so frequently that the maid carts carry stacks of replacement poems alongside shampoo bottles and tissue boxes. So, once again, let's do the math. If someone steals a poem from the hotel room every day, that's 365 copies stolen over the course of the year—or nearly 10,000 copies that have been stolen since the beginning of the poem era at America's Best Value Inn! Combine those 10,000 copies with the 10,000 or more that Dave has given away at the front desk during that time, and you've got 20,000 copies of "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?" that people have read and considered closely enough in their motel rooms to take certain and definitive action. How's that for concrete evidence of the poem's continued appeal?!

So, Dave's inn has poems on the walls, poems on the maid carts, and poems at the front desk. He's given or lost 20,000 copies of that poem over the past 27 years, and over the phone he seems more than okay with it all, though he does say that, from time to time, someone will call or approach him because they've been offended by "Have You Earned Your Tomorrow?," thinking that Dave was in some way prejudging them and telling them to be better hotel guests. But Dave says he's not judging them—not even the folks who steal copies, it seems. Rather, he says the poem's title isn't a judgment or warning but a question, just the way it reads. "I'm wanting them to ask it themselves," he says in that matter-of-fact way that Midwesterners have, like it's meat and potatoes for dinner again. Meat, potatoes, and poetry.