Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Boreham on the Need for Heroes

People Need Heroes
F W Boreham amplified his thoughts on the human passion for personalities when saying, “Men must have heroes, and if they cannot get the best, they will readily make shift with the best that they can get.”[1] The role of heroes in society, added Boreham, becomes more evident in turbulent times for “in days of crisis and tumult, strong personalities become emphatic, and the field of vision becomes dominated by a few commanding figures”.[2]

Boreham and Hero Worship
So important was this theme that Boreham confessed, “I had it in my heart to write a book [entitled] On heroes and hero-worship. But taking a mean advantage of the circumstance that [Thomas Carlyle] arrived on this planet nearly a century before I did, he forestalled me and published the book thirty years before I was born.”[3] Carlyle influenced Boreham’s views about the importance of heroes. However, recognizing that one’s choice of heroes is usually a matter of personal taste, Boreham said that if the task had fallen to him, “I should have given short shrift to some of his heroes, and, to redress the balance, should have included some over whom he has passed in silence”. While Boreham did not write a book entitled, On heroes, many of his editorials were written about his heroes, he devoted two biographies to two of his heroes—George Augustus Selwyn and The man who saved Gandhi (based on the life of Boreham’s mentor, J J Doke)—and five of his books are collections of essays (reworked editorials and sermons) on the lives of people whom Boreham venerated.[4]

Boreham Pantheon
Boreham’s pantheon of heroes was broad and included the warrior-heroes, navigators and sea dogs that dominated the attention of the early Victorians. However, his heroes were mainly drawn from those who had made their mark in literature, politics, the church, science and invention and exploration.[5] The people he extolled were those who represented such virtues as endurance and constancy (James Watt),[6] courage and patience (Samuel Morse),[7] magnanimity (John Motley),[8] triumph over adversity (Robert Louis Stevenson)[9] and self-effacement (Catherine Blake).[10] While Boreham was intentional about telling the stories of Australian heroes, he did not appear to be attentive to the “new race of heroes” that Australians were discovering on the sporting field and in the bush.[11]

Power of One
Writing on the anniversary of the death of Lord Lister, Boreham indicated the importance of one significant person when he said, “Men of such a mould are the glory, not only of a nation, but of all mankind; and it is fitting that on every suitable occasion, we should recall their heroic achievements and acknowledge their incalculable debt under which they have placed us”.[12] Similarly, in describing the impact of Ambrose on Augustine, Boreham acknowledged, “It often happens that the biggest thing in even the biggest city is the commanding personality of one man”.[13] Boreham added that Augustine’s “hero-worship was intensified by the intimate experience of contact and conversation”, thus demonstrating the influence of personal contact between a hero and a hero-worshipper.

Ongoing Influence
While recognising the influence of a hero while they are living, Boreham curiously remarked that “many a man does his best work AFTER he is dead…. No man likes to feel he dies when he dies”.[14] Boreham developed this thought in his writing about heroes in an editorial on the influence of John Bunyan: “In 10 days he was dead. But, as so often happens, his death made little difference to him. It was merely an episode in his triumphal progress. In reality he was never so much alive as he is today. His books represent his most imposing monument; and, in the writings of those who have modelled themselves on his perfect style, he lives a thousand lives, quite anonymously but with tremendous effect”.[15]

Lighting a Torch
As with John Bunyan, Boreham believed that “a great spirit often does his best work not in his own proper person, but by means of the disciples and students who rise up to succeed him and carry on his work”.[16] Expanding on this theme, Boreham said, “History abounds in illustrations of the way in which a master, by personal contact with a disciple, will light a torch that illumines the world with a brighter light than he himself has ever been able to radiate”.[17] Boreham believed a hero’s influence often was conveyed quite unconsciously, but at other times influential personalities such as Charles Simeon profoundly impressed John Wesley and William Wilberforce through an intentional commitment to fire the imagination of his students with a noble cause.[18]

Hero Worshippers
While Boreham wrote editorials about the need for heroes, he also addressed the subject of hero-worshippers. These are the people, who in speaking or writing about their heroes sow within their hearers and readers the seeds of heroism. Writing about Richard Hakluyt, the Oxford lecturer in geography and cosmography from the sixteenth century, Boreham said:

“And does not the hero worshipper who takes the trouble to transmit to posterity his veneration for his idol pass the spirit of heroism, like a flaming torch, from one generation to another? It is the vital principle out of which the shining web of history is spun. An earnest man conveys the fire that burns within his own breast to the pages on his desk, and, just as fire communicated to paper spreads the conflagration to everything that the paper touches, so the reader who picks up these inspired pages falls under the influence of their radiance and their warmth. How many have become pilgrims through reading the story of Bunyan’s pilgrimage? How many have made the greatest of all confessions through reading the Confessions of St. Augustine? How many apostolic acts have been inspired by the Acts of the Apostles? And, by the same token, how many gallant souls have done a brave day’s work for England through perusing the Voyages written by the sixteenth century rector?”[19]

One detects within this editorial an insight into the motivation of Boreham that in writing passionately about his heroes he was seeking to transmit “the spirit of heroism” to his readers.

National Heroes
Along with the new appreciation of history in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Davison observes that the “traditional resistance to hero-worship seems to have weakened” with interest being focused by the media and motivational agencies on ordinary Australians such as bushfire fighters.[20] This resurgence of interest appears to vindicate Boreham’s move to focus on Australian heroes whose lives were more within the reach of his readers in terms of the context of their exploits and the virtues they embodied.

Geoff Pound

Image: Nelson Mandela, a popular hero.

[1] Boreham, Mercury, 8 December 1923.
[2] Boreham, Mercury, 8 December 1923.
[3] F W Boreham, When the swans fly high (London: The Epworth Press, 1931), 145-146. The book Boreham refers to is Thomas Carlyle, On heroes, hero-worship and the heroic in history (London: Ward, Lock & Co Ltd, 1841).
[4] These books are A bunch of everlastings, A handful of stars, A casket of cameos, A faggot of torches and The temple of topaz.
[5] A survey, undertaken by the author, taking a sample of sixty-eight biographical editorials drawn from Mercury editorials in the 1940s and 1950s, investigated the fields in which Boreham’s subjects (heroes) had made their mark. It revealed that literary heroes were most prominent—(forty-four percent), followed by political heroes (thirteen percent), heroes of the church (ten percent), inventors (nine percent) and explorers (six percent). Other heroes listed came from the spheres of art, medicine, history, war, philosophy, drama, education and social justice. (The high proportion of literary heroes in Boreham’s Mercury editorials in this period was affected by his other role as a contributor to the Literary Supplement of the Age.)
[6] Boreham, Mercury, 26 September 1925.
[7] Boreham, Mercury, 18 July 1936.
[8] Boreham, Mercury, 30 May 1925.
[9] Boreham, Mercury, 11 July 1936.
[10] Boreham, Mercury, 13 August 1949.
[11] For example, Manning Clark includes in ‘the new race of heroes’ bush people like Jim Jones and Ned Kelly who defied the authorities, Australian cricket heroes (such as Warwick Armstrong and Donald Bradman) who conquered their British opponents and AFL footballer Roy Cazaly. C Manning H Clark, A history of Australia, 1916-1935. vol. 6. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1987), 208-209.
[12] Boreham, Mercury, 10 February 1951.
[13] Boreham, Mercury, 28 August 1948.
[14] Boreham, Mercury, 10 October 1942; Age, 11 November 1950.
[15] Boreham, Mercury, 31 August 1946.
[16] Boreham, Mercury, 26 May 1945; Age, 17 March 1951.
[17] Boreham, Mercury, 28 August 1948.
[18] Boreham, Mercury, 13 November 1948.
[19] Boreham, Mercury, 23 November 1946.
[20] Davison, The use and misuse of Australian history, 25-26.