All Commentary
Thursday, August 1, 1996

Berton Braley, Commercial Poet

Braley Was a Dedicated Philosopher of Freedom

Mr. Baker is a patented inventor and writer living in Moundsville, West Virginia. His work has appeared in Liberty magazine.

Although Ludwig von Mises called the twentieth century “the age of the dictators and tyrants,” it should also be remembered as the century that produced the greatest philosophers of freedom. One of the most tenacious and better known (but almost entirely forgotten today) of those thinkers was Berton Braley (1882-1966).

In 1923, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin called him “the most widely read American poet of today.” The Brooklyn Eagle declared him “the most prolific verse writer in America today.”[1] His obituary in the New York Times reported that he had written “verses by the thousands, short stories by the hundreds and books by the score.” A newspaper in Portland, Oregon, added: “. . . let anyone say `Berton Braley,’ in the average crowd of regular Americans and it’s dollars to doughnuts that he’ll poll a larger number of hands than any of the well known old masters. . . .”[2]

Braley began his brilliant career as a reporter in Butte, Montana—first for the Inter-Mountain, then for the Evening News. There, he was able to observe the gold and silver miners working in the “mile-high-and-mile-deep” city. This experience cultivated a respect for the working world and for human achievement that would shine throughout his writings. His poem “The Power Plant” begins:


Whirr! Whirr! Whirr! Whirr!

The mighty dynamos hum and purr,

And the blue flames crackle and glow and burn

Where the brushes touch and the magnets turn.[3]

He was definitely a contrast to the “cultured” writers of his day.

Both his writing and his actions reflected his belief that anything is possible. His “educators,” after all, had told him that it would be “impossible” and “unprecedented” to play football and to finish three and a half years of high school in only two years, but he did.[4]

He sold ten “Mining Camp Ballads” to the Saturday Evening Post in 1909 and decided to leave Butte for the major leagues of writing. He moved to New York City and became a full-time freelancer. Over the years, his work also appeared in Coal Age, Engineering Journal, Forbes, Atlantic Monthly, American Machinist, Nation’s Business, Iron Age, The Century, and “nearly every major popular magazine of his day.”[5] For three years the Newspaper Enterprise Association circulated “Berton Braley’s Daily Poem.” He reported on World War I for Collier’s and even wrote poems about the World Series.

Artistic Commercialism

Unlike many artists, Braley had no objections to making money for his work. He never forgot that working people make it possible for artists to be artists. He commented in his biography, Pegasus Pulls a Hack: Memoirs of a Modern Minstrel:

I have been called a “prostitute” by several critics and amateur poets—never by a professional. . . . I honestly believe that sound commercialism is the best test of true value in art. People work hard for their money and if they won’t part with it for your product the chances are that your product hasn’t sufficient value. An artist or writer hasn’t any monopoly. . . .

If the public response to his artistry is lacking, he’d do well to spend more time analyzing what’s the matter with his work, and less time figuring what’s the matter with the public. . . .

Genius doesn’t starve.[6]

Few artists of any kind have respected their public as much as he respected his.

Braley also remembered that the source of wealth was not just labor, but the human mind. In “Enchanted Machines,” he wrote:

Enchanted, in fact, with the only true magic—

The magic that lives in the Brain,

By which man has banished his drudgery tragic,

The sweat and the toil and the strain,

The magic that, seeking new visions, new courses,

Knows not what “Impossible” means,

The magic that harnesses infinite forces

And builds these Enchanted Machines!

He also sang of “The Thinker,” “Adventurers of Science,” and “The Electrician.”

The mind was the source of his success. Braley looked at the world the same way that his heroes did. He was a keen observer with an Ayn Rand-like ability to see greatness in things which appeared to be simple and dull. He wrote about “The Telephone Directory”:

What is there seeming duller than this book,

This stolid volume of prosaic print?

And yet it is a glass through which we look

On wonderland and marvels without stint.

He combined this with the quick-wittedness of a Johnny Carson. He participated in a limerick contest in 1925 with 200 versifiers at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. He was given the first line and won first prize with this effort:

There was an old fellow named Bryan,

Whose voice was forevermore cryin’

Do you think that my shape

Was derived from an ape?

Well, I think Charlie Darwin was lyin’.[7]

And all of his writings demonstrated a thorough knowledge of the language that would amaze any English teacher.

He knew that the beneficiaries of a free-market system were the people and that the beneficiaries of the New Deal would be the bureaucrats. His poem “Business is Business” finishes with: “`Business is Business,’ the Big Man said, / `And that business is to serve.”’ His New Deal Ditties were published in 1936 and included poems like “The Little Tin Gods” (in Washington) and “Three Little Bureaucrats,” written in a Menckenesque tone. In “Fresh Every Hour,” he wrote about a problem which has plagued almost every democracy in history:

Election promises, glibly spoken,

Are easily made—and easily broken.

They’re frail and fragile and slightly brittle,

So why complain if they crack a little?

Unfortunately, his “ditties” emphasized the negative case against socialism more than the positive case for capitalism.

Verse and Virtue

Even in his sixties, Braley remained prolific. He worked for an advertising agency until 1952. He summarized: “I’ve done greeting cards, mottoes, calendars, and bridge scores. I’ve written verse for about every type of trade journal there is, sung of machine tools, electric toasters, coal breakers, Mergenthalers, vacuum cleaners, ships and shoes and sealing wax.”[8] He liked the “`free’ in freelancing”[9] and made the most of that freedom. In 1955, he estimated his output at “11,000 verses, several hundred short stories, and many articles. . . .”[10]

Berton Braley was a dedicated philosopher of freedom. He was fascinated by the Industrial Revolution and understood its implications. He equally understood the impracticality and the immorality of socialistic programs like the New Deal. He held his highest regards for the individual who displayed the virtues of courage, honesty, fruitfulness, and perseverance—whether the person was a farmer, a pioneer, an engineer, a waiter, an industrialist like Henry Ford, or a doctor “At a War Hospital.” In his poem “Why Not?”, he asked:

The spirit of man is not wrapped in the shroud,

Why shouldn’t the soul of a mortal be proud?

1.   Berton Braley, Virtues in Verse, ed. Linda Tania Abrams (Milpitas, Cal.: The Alantean Press, 1993), p. viii.

2.   Ibid.

3.   Ibid., p. 4. Subsequent quotations of Braley’s verse are also from Virtues in Verse.

4.   Ibid., p. 111.

5.   Ibid., p. ix.

6.   Ibid., pp. 128, 147.

7.   “Berton Braley, Poet Dies at 83,” New York Times, January 27, 1966.

8.   Ibid.

9.   Braley, p. 160.

10.   New York Times.