The Legacy of a ‘Positive Thinker’
It was the ultimate insult. In the early 1960s, the editors of the radical literary quarterly Dissent hosted a small conference in New York City with bestselling therapist Erich Fromm to discuss the Frankfurt School philosopher’s new manifesto of “ethical Socialism.” At one point, socialist icon and presidential candidate Norman Thomas, “sharp-witted in his age,” recalled editor Irving Howe, exclaimed to the author, “Erich, it’s a nice piece of writing and I don’t disagree with a word, but you know, to me it reads like a sermon by Norman Vincent Peale!”
Red with anger, the analyst stalked out.
Thomas’s barbed appraisal reflected a widely held attitude among intelligentsia — enduring to this day — that the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale (1898–1993), author of the 1952 landmark The Power of Positive Thinking, was an apostle of fluff. Comparisons to Peale were a scarlet letter of unseriousness.
Yet the Dutch Reformed minister and mega-selling author, whose book marks its 70th anniversary this year, has outlasted in readership nearly all of his contemporaries who promulgated a message of therapeutic practicality, including Fromm and once-popular religious writers Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen.
Indeed, Peale’s 70-year-old volume, on its publication spending an unprecedented ninety-eight weeks at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, this year rose to number two on Publishers Weekly’s list of religion bestsellers. Simon & Schuster has rereleased several of Peale’s titles.
Yet the man who lodged the term “positive thinking” into the American psyche was pained by his lack of acceptance among lettered peers. In actuality, Peale was a widely read attendee of Boston University’s School of Theology who headed one of America’s oldest pulpits at Marble Collegiate Church on New York’s Fifth Avenue from which he collaborated with Freudian analyst Smiley Blanton in opening the innovative Religio-Psychiatric Clinic in 1937.