As a Man Thinketh (1903) by James Allen

As a Man Thinketh (1903) by James Allen

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Most recent self-help books have been written by academics, which means they tend to be based on acquired knowledge rather than personal experience. This doesn’t apply to the self-help books of a century ago, which were generally written by enthusiasts who felt driven to pass on the secrets they’d learnt from the school of hard knocks. This certainly applied to James Allen, who was born in 1864 to a working class family in Leicester, an industrial city in the heartland of England. His mother could neither read nor write. His father had a menial job in a local mill, but was forced to emigrate to America in search of work when there was a recession in the UK textile trade. Two days after his arrival he was murdered by an unknown assassin. This tragedy forced James to leave school at fifteen to serve as the family’s solitary bread winner. To begin with he took a variety of low paying clerical jobs. But the young lad was bright and also ambitious, and his career blossomed when he secured a job as a writer for the magazine The Herald of the Golden Age, which was a journal of spiritual inspiration. This released the genie within. He started composing poetry, and wrote a semi-autobiographical book From Poverty to Power (1901). The next year he launched his own spiritual magazine The Light of Reason, which was later re-titled The Epoch. The next year he wrote All These Things Added, and also his third and most successful book.

As a Man Thinketh has remained in print ever since. It’s based on the Biblical text: ‘As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.’ One may reasonably surmise that Allen had a religious upbringing, for the book contains many biblical quotations, such as ‘Ask and ye shall receive.’  The work is little more than an essay, which can easily be read at a single sitting. It’s very much stream of consciousness stuff, peppered with misquotations which were probably half-remembered adages from his childhood training. But the advice he gives was heart felt. It wasn’t an immediate success, but the income from his other books and magazine sales made it possible for him to move to Ilfracombe, a delightful resort on the south-west coast of England. Here he spent the remainder of his life reading, contemplating, gardening, publishing The Epoch magazine and writing a quota of exactly one book a year.

As a Man Thinketh was written when he was 37, and didn’t become a success until after his untimely death eleven years later. Since then it’s been translated into five languages, and served as an inspiration for millions. It’s also been widely used by subsequent writers of motivational books, who have repeated his key messages. ‘Right thoughts and right efforts will inevitably bring about right results.’  ‘He who has conquered death and fear has conquered failure.’  Some today may think his text is dated, because it refers exclusively to men. (Anyone who finds this objectionable can obtain a feminist version written by Dorothy Hulst called As a Woman Thinketh.) I find this an unsustainable objection, because the edition I possess carries a foreword, written by the author, which clearly states that the objective of the book is ‘to stimulate men and women to

the discovery and perception of the truth that they themselves are makers of themselves.’

In many ways James Allen might be considered the European spokesman for the New Thought Movement, which started in American towards the end of the nineteenth century. He offered a blend of philosophical and spiritual self-improvement in a totally spontaneous and unpretentious manner. As his wife wrote after his death: ‘He never wrote theories, or for the sake of writing, but he wrote when he had a message, and it became a message only when he had lived it out in his own life, and knew that it was good. Thus he wrote facts, which he had proven by practice.’  One of those facts, which he’d learnt from his escape from poverty in an industrial weaving town to a position of comfort and ease in a fashionable seaside resort, was that ‘Man is the master weaver, both of the inner garment of character and the outer garment of circumstance.’

© Donald Norfolk 2010

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