A Message to Garcia (Up Close and Personal)

Elbert Hubbard’s A Message to Garcia (1901) is an incredibly meaningful document in the lives of generations of United States Naval Academy graduates (like me), as it has long been used as an early and important part of the Plebe Summer training curriculum. It’s fundamental message? When you are a given a job to do, you just go and you get the job done. End of story.

Seems pretty obvious on some plane, but the language of the piece — not to mention the crucible within which most Naval Academy alumni first encountered it — leaves it looming large in our collective subconsciousness. In fact, there are few insults that sting as much as having a fellow member of the august Naval Academy community look you in the eye and say “message to Garcia” when you’re whining about not being able to get something done. It’s a powerful piece that resonates.

A couple of days ago, I was going through the database of rare books and documents contained in the Salisbury House Library, working to pull some records for an Iowa history project we’re working on. There was a long section in the database citing “Hubbard, Elbert” as the author of a variety of periodicals, books, or the initiator of various pieces of correspondence, including a hand-made Christmas Card sent to Carl and Edith Weeks, who built Salisbury House.

It took a few seconds for the proper neurons to close, and for me to realize that this was actually the author of A Message to Garcia. So I scrolled back up into the database, and discovered that we have five rare copies of early versions of this formative masterwork here at Salisbury House, along with scores of other tomes by its author. Hubbard was an accomplished man, until tragically being killed (with his wife) in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. Carl Weeks admired him and his writing, and maintained correspondence with him for some period of time, and after his passing, continued what appeared to be an affectionate relationship with his son, Elbert Hubbard II, who provided Carl with some of his father’s original manuscripts.

Needless to say, it was a real treat for me to be able to grab a key out of my file cabinet, walk up a flight of stairs, and put my hands on some of these rare, early editions of A Message to Garcia, including a reproduction of the original hand-written manuscript provided to Carl Weeks by Elbert II. I reproduce some images below for those who have also been moved by the power of these words over the years. Enjoy!

Front cover of the 1901 edition; Fra Elbertus was a Hubbard pseudonym.

Front-page of the 1901 edition. Hubbard’s Roycrofters printed high-quality, limited edition books with exquisite designs and bindings.

First page of text of the 1901 edition. Much nicer looking than the smudged mimeograph version I first encountered in 1982!

A personalized manuscript portfolio provided to Carl Week by Elbert Hubbard II.

Cover page of the manuscript portfolio.

Certification of authenticity signed by Elbert Hubbard II.

First page of Hubbard’s hand-written manuscript of “A Message to Garcia.”

Last page of Hubbard’s hand-written manuscript.

9 thoughts on “A Message to Garcia (Up Close and Personal)

  1. I too share a strong appreciation for this piece, probably because you subjected me to it early on in my career 😉

    But one thing that must be understood about “the man who can carry a message to Garcia” is that there is a message. With such uncertainty in today’s business environment, a lot of our leaders are hesitant to make bold moves. They know they must send a message to Garcia, but they don’t know what that message is.

    So as much as we must look for employees who can carry a message to Garcia, we, as employees, must also be sure that there is a message to carry. Without that, all of our promptness, loyalty, and drive are a waste.

    • True true . . . . we spent a lot of time in leadership, law of armed conflict and ethics classes discussing the nuances of the “illegal order,” e.g. what are a soldier’s obligations when his or her superior directs him to do something that the soldier considers to be illegal or immoral? And it gets even greyer when it’s not illegal or immoral, but is just the wrong thing to do for tactical, strategic, business or other reasons . . . .

      • I think it goes one step further: it’s not just the nuances of an “illegal order” or a poorly thought-out order, but what if there’s not an order? What if there’s not a direction? It’s almost as if a general is making a strategic war decision and thinking “Well, I could engage the enemy and I’d probably win. But I could lose. And one way or the other, I’ll lose a lot of good men. I think I’ll wait for the enemy to act.” I think the failure sometimes rests with the leadership, not the message carrier.

  2. I have turned back to “A Message to Garcia” many times over the course of my career and I appreciate the message now more than ever. Thanks for sharing the photos… perhaps one of these early editions could make its way to the Naval Academy Museum!

    • I was planning to reach out to the Alumni Association . . . but forgot about the museum, which would definitely be the best place to see if we could get something. Great idea!!!

      I wonder if they still give “Message to Garcia” out during plebe summer? I could see it becoming a victim to changes in how management is taught these days . . .

  3. Eric, Can you provide a copy of the entire Message to Garcia from the book? If you have the images I can create the PDF. My wife and I used “Message to Garcia” in a conversation a few weeks ago. I am also seeing another version of it out there. “There’s NO TRY. It’s either DO or DON’T”

    • Next time I am up in the library, I will see if I can get some decent photos of the rest of the piece. We are de-installing an exhibition in there right now, so may be a couple of days before I can get it. I like the concept of “To Yoda, a message take you must!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s