Selling Irish history & politics books: Hackett & Creel

In November 1922 journalist Francis Hackett wrote a letter to his brother, Edmond Byrne Hackett, to complain about the poor sales of The Story of the Irish Nation, which The Century Co. had published in March. “The Irish book sold 1,143 copies. Awful,” the author wrote. “Two people could help to sell it. One is George Creel, who sold his own book and knows the machinery. The other, Miss Lucile Erskine, worked to sell Ireland for Ben Huebsch.”[1]Francis Hackett to Byrne Hackett, Nov. 16, 1922, in Brick Row Book Shop records (New York, N.Y.), 1913-2015, Box 63, Folder 1. The Grolier Club. Assistance and digital scans provided July 18, 2022, … Continue reading

Ben Huebsch in 1918 passport photo.

Huebsch, a New York City publisher, released Hackett’s Ireland, A Study in Nationalism in 1918, a year before Creel’s Ireland’s Fight for Freedom arrived from Harper & Brothers. Many similar books competed for the attention and dollars of American readers during Ireland’s revolutionary period. Author and critic Edmond Lester Pearson included both the Hackett and Creel books in his November 1919 roundup of Irish titles for the Weekly Review. He described Hackett’s book as a “moderate” account of contemporary conditions, while Creel’s was a “vehement attack upon England,” quoting from a New York Times review.[2]Ireland”, The Weekly Review, Nov. 15, 1919. See “Mr. Creel’s View on Matters Connected with Ireland’s Fight for Freedom”, The New York Times, Aug. 10, 1919.

As with today’s instant political books, the success or failure of this genre usually depends on a combination of reviews and advertising, the author’s personal promotion, and how quickly or slowly new developments age the content between the covers. Creel and Hackett are a good examples. I’ll take the former first.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent Creel to Ireland in February 1919 after Sinn Féin candidates elected to the British Parliament in December 1918 instead convened as Dáil Éireann in Dublin. Creel had just finished his duties as head of the Committee for Public Information, the Great War propaganda arm of the American government. His report to Wilson said the Irish separatists would accept some form of dominion status, but only if granted within the next few months. Otherwise, Creel insisted that hardline republican sentiment would take hold.[3]Francis M. Carroll, American opinion and the Irish question, 1910-23 : a study in opinion and policy, Dublin : New York, Gill and Macmillan ; St. Martin’s Press, 1978, p. 196.

George Creel in 1917.

Creel, an American journalist before he took the Wilson administration post, serialized his views about Ireland through the New York Sunday American, and an article in Leslie’s weekly. Ireland’s Fight for Freedom debuted in July 1919. The author described the 250-page book, “this little volume,” as designed to “furnish the facts upon which an honest and intelligent answer” could be found to the Irish question.[4]George Creel, Ireland’s Fight for Freedom, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1919, p. xiv.

Creel became “one of the more unlikely Irish apologist,” historian Francis M. Carroll has written. As part of the book promotion, Creel spoke at Irish Progressive League meetings. But he also continued to support Wilson, the League of Nations, and criticized several Irish American leaders.[5]American opinion, p. 144.  This drew an attack from the New York City-based Gaelic American, which republished Creel’s Leslie’s piece, then blasted it as “an absurd and fantastic misrepresentation of the Irish movement in America.”[6]George Creel Attacks Irish American Leaders”, The Gaelic American, Aug. 16, 1919, p 3.

A Study in Nationalism

The Hackett brothers each emigrated from Kilkenny at the turn of the 20th century. As Francis pursued a journalism and literary career, Byrne became a bibliophile, eventually opening shops in New York City and near the campuses of Yale and Princeton universities in Connecticut and New Jersey, respectively. Both brothers corresponded with Ben Huebsch, whose papers are held at the Library of Congress. Letters from Francis, the younger sibling, date to 1907, when he was a reporter and editorial writer at the Chicago Evening Post.

Ireland: A Study in Nationalism developed when Francis returned home in 1912-13 to care for his ailing father. It took him years to complete. He wrote to Huebsch from Kilkenny:

I have completed no work yet. Time dissolves like snow in Ireland. The hours are like flakes falling into a river. They disappear with an appalling softness.[7]F. Hackett to B Huebsch, Nov. 11, 1912, from 20 Patrick St., Kilkenny, Ireland, in Ben Huebsch Papers, Library of Congress.

Hackett nevertheless gave his publisher an assessment of Ireland two years before Parliament passed the Government of Ireland Act, then immediately suspend it due to outbreak of world war on the continent:

Home Rule is taken for granted already, and the Nationalists are tired of it all. Ireland is in a bad way with the Catholics in control of education and with no conscious about it. … Catholicism is ruining us. It favors our tendency to follow the line of least resistance, to repress and to negative. Ireland is comparatively crimeless, comparatively harmless. It gets drunk, men and women, and it backbites a lot, but it is negatived (sic) by the church.

Economically, the land acts favor the farmer, but the farmer is abysmally ignorant and conservative. He is Ireland, and his soul will have to be ripped up, plowed, harrowed, before anything can happen. And it will be a long fight.[8]Ibid.

When Hackett finally delivered the manuscript to Huebsch, the author wrote:

This book, finished since conscription was enacted (January 1916,) has been in hand for four years. It’s aim is to tell Americans the facts in the Irish case, the explanation of those facts, and a way of reconstruction. Besides being critical, it aims to be impartially informative, so that the Americans may judge the case for itself, on the merits.[9]Undated, unaddressed page with chapter headings similar to those in published book. The handwriting is consistent with other letters from F. Hackett, though I am not a handwriting expert. Huebsch … Continue reading

Huebsch did not publish Ireland until 1918. The reason for the delay is unclear. Hackett dedicated the book to his late father, “who loved and served Ireland.” The author soon began lecturing about Ireland in Chicago, Boston, and other cities. “In fact, demand for addresses on the subject are so numerous that were it not for his duties as an editor at the New Republic, Mr. Hackett could spend most of his time on the platform,” Publisher’s Weekly reported.[10]”Personal Notes”, The Publisher’s Weekly, April 12, 1919, p. 1011.

Other Ireland books

As noted above, the market for Irish books was crowded. In his 1919 roundup, Pearson also identified as pro-nationalist P. S. O’Hegarty’s Sinn Fein, an Illumination, (Maunsel, 1919); Francis P. Jones’s History of the Sinn Fein Movement and the Irish Rebellion of 1916, (Kenedy, 1917); and Shane Leslie’s The Irish Issue in its American Aspects (Scribner, 1917), “a brilliant discussion by a moderate Sinn Feiner.” For the “British and Unionist point of view,” Pearson recommended Phillip G. Cambray’s Irish Affairs and the Home Rule Question, (Murray, 1911) and Ian Hay’s The Oppressed English, (Doubleday, 1917).

But “for one book, if you can read but one,” the reviewer recommended Edward R. Turner’s Ireland and England in the Past and Present, (Century, 1919). In Pearson’s view, the University of Michigan professor of European history “tried to write an impartial study of the whole question. … He truly says that in America the whole question is usually discussed by extremists, and, of course, extremists will not like his book.”

True enough, as Pearson’s Weekly Review piece spread more widely through daily newspaper syndication, Turner’s book was savaged by the Irish National Bureau, the Washington, D.C.-based propaganda operation of the Friends of Irish Freedom. The Bureau published a 16-page pamphlet that declared the purpose of Turner’s book was:

…to induce American people to take the views of a certain class of English imperialist, to induce them to look kindly on a surrender of all those principals and purposes for which they poured out blood and treasure in the late war, to lead them to look with favor on English world-hegemony. In the pages of this book liberty, self-determination, independence seem to be matters for contempt, for ridicule, for things loathsome and to be avoided.[11]Daniel T. O’Connell, “Edmund Raymond Turner of the University of Michigan: Apostle and Apologist of Reaction,” Irish National Bureau, Washington, D.C., December 1919.

Hackett’s second book

In 1920, more than a year after the first Dáil and the war in Ireland growing more brutal, Hackett released an Irish Republic Editionof Study in Nationalism. While he originally favored dominion home rule, his later editions “bent the argument to support independence,” Carroll has written.[12]American opinion, p. 236. Hackett cited Creel’s book in the bibliography of his Irish edition. That summer, Hackett returned to Ireland for a reporting trip with his wife, Danish writer and illustrator Signe Toksvig. They witnessed British police and military atrocities and other impacts of the war.

Francis Hackett in 1935.

When they arrived back in America, Hackett wrote an October 1920 syndicated newspaper series and articles for the New Republic based on his observations. “A great change has taken place in the morale of the Irish people since I last visited here in 1913,” he wrote. “The pre-war Ireland is gone, never to return.”[13]“Erin Prosperous Writes Hackett”, Boston Post, Oct. 5, 1920. Hackett and his wife also testified before the pro-nationalist American Committee on Conditions in Ireland in November 1920.

By spring 1921, shortly before the truce, Hackett was thinking about a new Irish book. He wrote to Huebsch with a proposal to repurpose some content from A Study in Nationalism:

I don’t want to urge you to take it, and I can understand your feeling disinclined to do it, but if Ireland is petering out I want you to let me use whatever of the material I can and see if I can’t get out another book, and take my chance somewhere else. This won’t effect my feelings about you as publisher and as friend, but I feel I’m a fool not to sow another Irish crop–if necessary in fresh ground.[14]F. Hackett to B Huebsch, May 4, 1921, Huebsch papers.

Hackett’s second Ireland book, Story of the Irish Nation, took shape as a 1922 series for the New York World. He detailed the long arc of the island’s troubled history rather than a rehash of his 1920 reporting and public testimony. He mailed another letter to Huebsch about getting $2,000 from the World, and he promised to repay a $500 debt to the publisher. Hackett also revealed his plans to turn the series into the second Ireland book:

I have decided to give the history to the Century Company. I have made no contract with them as yet but the want it. They are willing to give me all foreign rights and a flat 15%, and are willing to get behind it in a commercial way. I am going to try them on this in the hope we will clean up enough money to be able to go to Denmark (his wife’s homeland).”[15]F. Hackett to B Huebsch, Jan. 28, 1922, from New York City, Huebsch papers.

Century published Story of the Irish Nation in March. Reviewers generally praised the book that summer, including a full-page feature in the New York Times by American writer and diplomat Maurice Francis Egan.[16]”Happy Times and Dragon’s Teeth in Ireland”, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, June 18, 1922. By November 1922, when Hackett wrote to his brother, conditions in Ireland were much different than when the book . The Irish Civil War, sparked by the Dáil’s split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, erupted after the book release. Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins both died in August, and IRA “irregulars” and Free State troops committed atrocities at least as worse as during the war against Britain.

Given the fratricide and the Irish Free State constitution set to take effect in December 1922, Francis suggested to Byrne that Story of the Irish Nation “might begin to move.” He lamented that Century, his new publisher, “has no invention, but is faithful and plodding.” He also believed, “The Catholics, the K. of C., the A.O.H., are the people who would buy my history if they ever got started.”[17]Francis Hackett to Byrne Hackett, Nov. 16, 1922, in Grolier Club archives. “K. of C.” is Knights of Columbus. A.O.H. is Ancient Order of Hibernians.

But Francis Hackett knew better. Only days before writing to his brother, he mailed a letter to Huebsch. Hackett wrote wrote: “My Irish history fell in between the Republic and Free State squarrel (sic) and got mashed to nothing.”[18]F. Hackett to B. Huebsch, Nov. 2, 1922, in Huebsch Papers.

***

See my American Reporting of Irish Independence series, which I am currently developing into a book. 

References

References
1 Francis Hackett to Byrne Hackett, Nov. 16, 1922, in Brick Row Book Shop records (New York, N.Y.), 1913-2015, Box 63, Folder 1. The Grolier Club. Assistance and digital scans provided July 18, 2022, by Meghan R. Constantinou, librarian, and Scott Ellwood.
2 Ireland”, The Weekly Review, Nov. 15, 1919. See “Mr. Creel’s View on Matters Connected with Ireland’s Fight for Freedom”, The New York Times, Aug. 10, 1919.
3 Francis M. Carroll, American opinion and the Irish question, 1910-23 : a study in opinion and policy, Dublin : New York, Gill and Macmillan ; St. Martin’s Press, 1978, p. 196.
4 George Creel, Ireland’s Fight for Freedom, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1919, p. xiv.
5 American opinion, p. 144.
6 George Creel Attacks Irish American Leaders”, The Gaelic American, Aug. 16, 1919, p 3.
7 F. Hackett to B Huebsch, Nov. 11, 1912, from 20 Patrick St., Kilkenny, Ireland, in Ben Huebsch Papers, Library of Congress.
8 Ibid.
9 Undated, unaddressed page with chapter headings similar to those in published book. The handwriting is consistent with other letters from F. Hackett, though I am not a handwriting expert. Huebsch Papers.
10 ”Personal Notes”, The Publisher’s Weekly, April 12, 1919, p. 1011.
11 Daniel T. O’Connell, “Edmund Raymond Turner of the University of Michigan: Apostle and Apologist of Reaction,” Irish National Bureau, Washington, D.C., December 1919.
12 American opinion, p. 236.
13 “Erin Prosperous Writes Hackett”, Boston Post, Oct. 5, 1920.
14 F. Hackett to B Huebsch, May 4, 1921, Huebsch papers.
15 F. Hackett to B Huebsch, Jan. 28, 1922, from New York City, Huebsch papers.
16 ”Happy Times and Dragon’s Teeth in Ireland”, The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, June 18, 1922.
17 Francis Hackett to Byrne Hackett, Nov. 16, 1922, in Grolier Club archives. “K. of C.” is Knights of Columbus. A.O.H. is Ancient Order of Hibernians.
18 F. Hackett to B. Huebsch, Nov. 2, 1922, in Huebsch Papers.

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