Attitude of Platitude
How positive-mind pioneer Christian D. Larson combined soaring rhetoric with ethical compromises
The famous coinages of inspirational giant Christian D. Larson (1874-1962) appear everywhere: “be all you can be;” “attitude of gratitude;” “live the simple life;” “make yourself over;” and “live in the present.”
Today’s culture would sound differently without the influence of the twentieth-century motivational icon.
While displaying a serene demeanor and relentlessly upbeat tone, however, Larson pursued a dual existence as both a visionary author who shaped the language of self-help and a sharp-elbowed businessman who violated ethical boundaries in his publishing empire.
Born to Norwegian immigrant parents in the near-wilderness of northern Iowa in 1874, Larson had planned on a career as a Lutheran minister. But after a year at a Lutheran seminary in Minneapolis in 1894, he grew interested in Unitarianism, Transcendentalism, and the new mind-power philosophies sweeping the Western world, particularly following an experience of “cosmic consciousness” — the state of inner awareness and elevated perspective described by Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) and William James (1842–1910). In 1898 Larson moved to Cincinnati, where he began writing and publishing New Thought tracts — the umbrella term for the nation’s positive-mind theologies — and quickly burgeoned into one of the field’s most prolific and dynamic voices.
Some of Larson’s earliest writing featured phrases so widely adopted in general culture that their pen of origin grew obfuscated. They include “attitude of gratitude,” made famous fifty years after Larson’s death by Oprah Winfrey. Larson also coined the term “be all that you can be” generations before it became the ubiquitous recruiting pitch of the U.S. Army, now poised for a 2023 relaunch.
Larson’s “Promise Yourself” — a verse meditation on the power of determined cheerfulness — gained worldwide notice in 1922 when it was adopted as the credo of Optimist International, a philanthropic club similar to the Jaycees or…