Alfred W. Lawson's Quest for Greatness
Publication Year: 1991
Published by: University of Iowa Press
Alfred William Lawson has been much on my mind since I began the research for this book a full dozen years ago, but he has been in my mind far longer than that. My awareness of Lawson dates back to the 1940s and early 1950s, when I was growing up in Ames, Iowa, and Lawson was promulgating his unusual doctrine...
Prologue: “Yes, Alfred William Lawson is God’s great eternal gift to man”
Wartime jitters, the growing Soviet menace, and the commie-whooping of Senator Joe McCarthy were not the only things roiling the calm of Des Moines, Iowa, during the 1940s and early 1950s. A vexation closer to home was the Des Moines University of Lawsonomy. Coming into being without warning in 1943 on the campus of the former Des Moines University, this mysterious institution with the odd...
Part One: Seedtime of a Self-made Man
Alfred William Lawson was born in London, England, on March 24, 1869, the sixth of nine surviving children of Mary Anderson Lawson and Robert Henry Lawson. Three weeks later the Lawson family set sail for Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Within another three years the family had crossed the Detroit River to take up residence on the outskirts of Detroit...
1. Childhood Days
"Well, this is getting back to Nature. Now I have to depend upon a horse to work with instead of the electrical engine, which I invented in England." With this ponderous and improbable utterance, Lawson's father, Robert Henry Lawson, begins a brief soliloquy presented immediately after the curtain rises on Lawson's play, Childhood Days of Alfred Lawson. The setting for the scene is the small farm outside of Detroit to which...
2. The Magic Man of Baseball
In the final scene of Childhood Days Lawson gives a dramatic account of "how he secured his first professional engagement" in baseball. As the scene opens, several citizens of an unspecified town talk excitedly about a baseball game in progress. It happens that the local nine have miraculously held a professional "league team" to a no-run standoff through eight innings. A young farmer asks, "Who's pitching...
3. Born Again
Although Lawson found many good things in his life in baseball—camaraderie, travel, the joy of playing a game he loved—there were, alas, some things on the debit side, too. His baseball cronies proved to be a seedy and dissipated lot. Earning more money than he had ever earned before, the eighteen-year-old Lawson began to discover, with the help of his associates, many new ways to spend his money. He acquired...
Part Two: Fanning the Aeronautical Blaze
Vincent J. Burnelli's career as an aviation designer was long and distinguished; included among the more than eighty aircraft patents which he had to his credit were the flying wing concept and the retractable landing gear. Born in 1895, Burnelli had started in aviation in 1914, when both he and aviation were very young. As he looked back in retirement, many gratifying recollections came to mind, especially of his experiences during...
4. Aircraft Industry Builder
The year 1908 was an auspicious one in the infancy of American aviation. On July 4 Glenn Curtiss was awarded the Scientific American trophy for achieving a one-mile flight in his plane "June Bug" at Hammondsport, New York. Down at Fort Myer, Virginia, on September 9 Orville Wright made the first public demonstrations of flight in one of the Wrights' airplanes, remaining in the air a little under...
5. The Columbus of the Air
Armistice Day, 1918, as Vincent Burnelli later recalled, brought high spirits and bedlam to Green Bay. Uppermost in Burnelli's mind on that day, however, was the question of what would happen to the Lawson Aircraft Corporation. He and the other employees had good reason for concern. The company's financial backers had been fetched by the opportunity...
Part Three: From Aviator to Avatar
No sooner had Lawson returned from the great flight of his airliner than he eagerly added to all the burdens awaiting him a true labor of love—the writing of a celebratory account of the flight, of its place in aviation history, and of his life and ambitious plans. The Airliner and Its Inventor, Alfred W. Lawson was self-published by Lawson in 1921 under the name of "Cy Q. Faunce." (The choice of pseudonym was apt; say "Cy Q. Faunce" rapidly...
6. The Wizard of Reason and the Origin of Lawsonomy
Anyone looking into Born Again and Lawson's magazine editorials will quickly spot Lawson's fascination with movement. "To learn how matter was forced to move about in space eternally," Lawson later acknowledged, was "uppermost in [Lawson's] mind, almost from the day of his birth." He found nothing mysterious about...
7. The New Emancipator and His Perfect Economic Plan
"In order to thoroughly understand ECONOMICS one must know something about PHYSICS," Lawson confided in a speech delivered in 1935. Through his plumbing of nature's physical laws, he added, he had come to see that economics was a "side partner" of physics—or as he said on another occasion, "physics and economics...
8. The Man of Destiny and the Direct Credits Crusade
In the last chapter of Direct Credits for Everybody Lawson called on readers to join him in the effort "to promote and educate everybody to want and vote for Direct Credits" and ended with a hopeful forecast: "We shall now see how many will join the movement to make Direct Credits for Everybody a live issue that will work constantly for everybody's good. I predict that when everybody understands this...
9. The First Knowledgian and the Upgrading of Humanity
By the mid-1930s, Lawson's accumulated lofty self-appraisals already pressed hard against the outer limits of greatness imaginable for a mere mortal. Even so, he was nowhere near the end of hatching either prodigies or claims; indeed, he was only at the threshold of completing and publishing what he considered his intellectual masterpiece, the Lawsonomy trilogy. As...
Part Four: Utopia in Des Moines
By 1943, Lawson had determined a plan of action and begun its implementation. By his claim, he inspected the campuses of thirty defunct colleges or universities in the quest for a site for his new community. Whether he actually did carry out such an exhaustive search is not known, but it is certain that he had decided by then to locate his community on a campus of a former college or university. His...
10. Toward the Self-perpetuating Social Body
"So, balancing all things as a whole, this writer decided that the State of Iowa would be as favorable a spot as any from which to inaugurate the birth of a new species," Lawson proclaimed in a June, 1944, issue of Benefactor. Chief among the factors he cited as giving the edge to Iowa was the state's location: "The State of Iowa is situated in about the center of the most progressive nation on Earth." On this...
11. Alma Mater of the New Species
The tax assessor of Des Moines, Bert Zuver, was perplexed. At the request of the Board of Assessment and Review he had come to the Des Moines University of Lawsonomy on May 27, 1948, to inspect the premises and form a judgment about the institution's eligibility for the tax exemption which had been requested every year since 1944. Assisted by two deputies, he made an inspection tour, during which, as he later wrote in his report, "we gave particular...
12. Collapsing Equaeverpoise
On several occasions in the early 1950s Lawson professed to be pleased with the way things were going at DMUL. He had long since ceased to reside there. Removing his family to Columbus, Ohio, sometime in the mid-1940s, Lawson had returned to the road in his familiar pattern of incessant wandering. However, in testimony before a United States Senate subcommittee in 1952, he disclosed...
Part Five: Lawsonian Legacies
"New-as-tomorrow" was how the advertisements whooped up the Park Fair Shopping Center at its gala opening in Des Moines in November, 1957. As it happened, the ballyhoo was right on the mark. The Park Fair, the first enclosed shopping mall to go up in Iowa, really did give a clear foretaste of a coming transformation of the face of America. Air-conditioned and...
13. The Last Knowledgians
Every day thousands of travelers on U.S. Highway 94, passing just outside of Sturtevant, Wisconsin (near Racine), notice a large, long billboard proclaiming "The University of Lawsonomy." An occasional traveler, finding curiosity piqued, leaves the highway at the next exit and drives back a short distance on a frontage road in order to take a closer look. He or she reaches what appears to be a farmyard...
14. Lawson and America
"I have worked like hell for the United States, and I am going to as long as I live," an impassioned Lawson told Senator Moody in 1952. But was this the same Alfred Lawson who had already logged so many years claiming to be the benefactor and servant of all of humanity? The pronouncements and reform goals served up by the First Knowledgian had always been global, even cosmic in scope...
Notes and Sources
Page Count: 356
Publication Year: 1991
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