Messages and Messengers

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   December 13, 2018

Here and there in your life, you may have come across the expression “A Message to Garcia.” It’s one of those phrases useful in such a wide variety of situations that the original meaning has largely been forgotten. Those words became a cultural icon after appearing as the title of an essay, published in 1899, by Elbert Hubbard, a very well-known American writer of his time. The essay took its inspiration from a supposedly true episode of the Spanish-American War involving the need of the U.S. President (McKinley) to communicate with Garcia, a leader of the anti-Spanish guerillas known to be somewhere on the island of Cuba. In those days communication in such circumstances still required hand-to-hand delivery.

But, although it mentions them briefly at the beginning, the essay is not really about McKinley, or Garcia, or even about the messenger, a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army named Andrew Rowan. According to Hubbard’s very unreliable account, Rowan, having accepted the assignment, succeeded, over a period of weeks, in locating Garcia, delivering the message, and eventually getting safely out of Cuba. But what “A Message to Garcia” is really about – and some may think it takes rather too many words to drive home this point – is that what this country needs are men (women were hardly yet considered for such roles) who take orders, no matter how concise, without question, and then go ahead on their own initiative and carry them out.

Unfortunately Elbert Hubbard himself (together with his wife and 1,196 other people), was ultimately the victim of a man who was also very purposefully carrying out what some might have considered questionable orders – in this case, a German U-boat captain named Schwieger, who in 1915 sank the British liner Lusitania. On board there were 128 Americans, including the Hubbards. At that point the U.S. was – and remained for another two years – a neutral country. But those people had never received, or had ignored, another important message – one prominently posted by the German government, warning that British ships were liable to destruction, and that passengers on them travelled at their own risk. To emphasize the relevance of this message, it was published in American papers immediately below the Cunard Line notice of Lusitania sailings.

But if you are looking for examples of messengers and the risks they run in delivering their messages, I can think of none more vivid than what occurs in Act II, Scene 5, of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Despite their mutual attraction, Antony has left Cleopatra in Egypt, where she is Queen, and gone to Rome – promising to return to her. In this scene, a messenger arrives from Rome with news for Cleopatra, which he knows will upset her. So he begins his “message” with supposedly good news – that Antony is well, and on good terms with his erstwhile antagonist Octavius, the new Caesar. But Cleopatra is suspicious, and keeps alternately promising rich rewards if his news is good, but threatening dire punishment if it’s not.

Finally the terrible words are drawn out of him: “Madam, he’s married to Octavia (Caesar’s sister).” At this, Cleopatra flies into a rage, repeatedly assaults the messenger, and draws a knife, at which he flees from the scene, crying, “What mean you, madam? I have made no fault… To punish me for what you make me do seems much unequal.”

Since then, “killing the messenger,” Has become another familiar catch-phrase – so much so that I played on it in one of my own Pot-Shots epigrams, which says:


This brings me to a messenger I know very well – namely myself. I have made a whole career out of writing short messages, otherwise known as epigrams. And here’s a complaint, which I have long nourished:

Although I’m often asked which are my most popular messages, nobody ever asks about the LEAST popular ones. It happens that I once conducted a comparative popularity test, based on mail-order sales to hundreds of customers, over several months, of 1,000 of my messages (words only). The result was to me quite astonishing, and perhaps you can offer some explanation. Out of those 1,000 pearls of wisdom, only ONE was not bought by a single person. I will leave you with it (or it with you):



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