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A New Start

by Ronald R Johnson (

Lloyd C Douglas, circa 1911-1912. From a promotional brochure in his 1909-1915 scrapbook.

Something happened to Lloyd Douglas between 1912 and 1913. In the previous post I told you that, in 1912, he invested secretly in Roger Zombro by writing anonymous ads for him in the Daily Illini. Neither of the two men ever mentioned it, but I have a lot of evidence to back up that hypothesis. (I have included it in the booklet The Secret Investment of Lloyd C Douglas, available upon request.) Of all the evidence I have gathered, the most important is this: Douglas’s writing style changed between 1912 and 1913, the exact period during which the anonymous “Zom” ads began running in the student newspaper.

Douglas had always been a powerful writer, but his earlier essays were intense. His sense of humor shined through, too, but overall he came across as a very serious young man. In the fall of 1913, though, he began displaying a more relaxed, whimsical style that would characterize his writing for the rest of his life. He was still a powerful writer, but he exercised that power in a new way: through a nonchalant, humorous presentation somewhat like that of Mark Twain. Prior to this, he reached out and grabbed you by the lapels with his writing, but now he disarmed you with humor and casually persuaded you. I believe it was his anonymous work on the “Zom” ads that gave him this breezy new way of expressing himself; but even if I’m wrong about the cause, the effect is obvious. In 1913, Douglas found his voice as a writer.

And there was something else: prior to this, Douglas’s writing was religious. It was church-oriented. In 1913, he put that behind him. He spoke as one who was deeply acquainted with the day-to-day lives of real people, both students and faculty. He focused on the things that mattered to his readers.

We see his new style exhibited in a weekly column he wrote in the Daily Illini called “The Sunday Sermonette” (later changed to “The Weekly Sermonette”). He doesn’t sound like a young man anymore; he sounds like a wise older man with a sense of humor and a very light touch. There were flaws in these “sermonettes” – they were often paternalistic and somewhat patronizing – but they were popular and down-to-earth, and they set a course for all of his future writing. For example, when he moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1915, he started writing a weekly column in one of the local newspapers called, “The Saturday Sunset Sermonette,” aimed more at the townspeople than the students. The “sermonettes” in the Daily Illini set the pattern.

Here are some examples from the Daily Illini column:

On writing home to Mother: “If you wish to make a distinct hit with her, tell her how you are faring as to creature comforts. Since you came upon this planet, her chief concern has been your physical well-being. She was always glad, of course, when you exhibited any interest whatever in the development of your mind or the culture of your soul; but her first thought for you has always been cast in terms of food, clothes, shelter. Tell her where you are living. Draw a map of the house, showing the position of your room. Draw a diagram of the room, indicating doors, windows, closet, registers, book-cases – where you sit when you study, etc.” (“The Letter Home,” Daily Illini, Sunday, September 28, 1913, p. 4).

On rags-to-riches stories: “Reacting against an ancient notion that a man must be hereditarily rich and influential to achieve greatness, book markets of our country are glutted with biographies of eminent men who came up into positions of trust and honor from homes of poverty…. In view of the highly prosperous state of our civilization, perhaps it might be just as well to ease up a bit now on advice for the poverty-stricken and make some effort to provide an inspirational pabulum upon which the rich man’s son may feed” (“Washington,” Daily Illini, Sunday, February 22, 1914, p. 4).

On hanging out with the crowd: “The student who fails to provide for an occasional hour by himself becomes about as original and inventive in his thought and speech as the funnel of a phonograph” (“The Man Himself,” Daily Illini, Sunday, October 5, 1913, p. 4).

On rushing around campus, taking oneself too seriously: “Many people here, students and others, are afflicted with a ‘busy’ bee. They maintain the breathless attitude of one who leaps from an engagement brimful of crisis to another even more fraught with fearful consequences…. Cold-blooded as it sounds to say it, the world was hobbling along – handicapped, to be sure, but managing to struggle painfully along – before any of us arrived and it is… possible that the world may continue to do business when the grass is a foot high over the place where our tired bodies rest from their frenzied scramble to attend to so many important things at once” (“How Doth the Little Busy Bee?” Daily Illini, Sunday, April 26, 1914, p. 4).

These are just a few examples. A little later (the 1914-1915 school year), he also began writing “Pen Portraits” of the university’s top administrators. As with the “Zom” ads, he published them anonymously – only this time his identity was revealed. I’ll tell you about it in my next post.

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