“Our amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism.”
By Maria Popova
The second half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of amateur press associations (ASAs) — small groups of writers, often without professional training, who would produce individual articles, pamphlets, or magazines mailed to all other members of the association; in other words, a progenitor of subscription-based blogging, and yet another example of primitive versions of modern social media. The first such group to become a formal organization was the National Amateur Press Association, founded on February 19, 1876, in Philadelphia. Over the century that followed, NAPA went on to produce a series of wide-ranging and intelligent articles spanning politics, language, religion, literary criticism, and more, including NAPA vice-president H. P. Lovecraft’s famous advice to young writers. For the first time in the history of mass media, a small group of dedicated writers had pulled into question the distinction between “journalists” and “amateurs,” a line all the more profoundly blurred today.
The desire to write for publication is one which inheres strongly in every human breast. From the proficient college graduate, storming the gates of the high-grade literary magazines, to the raw schoolboy, vainly endeavoring to place his first crude compositions in the local newspapers, the whole intelligent public are today seeking expression through the printed page, and yearning to behold their thoughts and ideals permanently crystallized in the magic medium of type. But while a few persons of exceptional talent manage eventually to gain a foothold in the professional world of letters rising to celebrity through the wide diffusion of their art, ideals, or opinions; the vast majority, unless aided in their education by certain especial advantages, are doomed to confine their expression to the necessarily restricted sphere of ordinary conversation. To supply these especial educational advantages which may enable the general public to achieve the distinction of print, and which may prevent the talented but unknown author from remaining forever in obscurity, has arisen that largest and foremost of societies for literary education The United Amateur Press Association.
Amateur journalism, or the composition and circulation of small, privately printed magazines, is an instructive diversion which has existed in the United States for over half a century. In the decade of 1866-1876 this practice first became an organized institution; a short-lived society of amateur journalists, including the now famous publisher, Charles Scribner, having existed from 1869 to 1874. In 1876 a more lasting society was formed, which exists to this day as an exponent of light dilettantism. Not until 1895, however, was amateur journalism established as a serious branch of educational endeavour. On September 2nd of that year, Mr. William H. Greenfield, a gifted professional author, of Philadelphia, founded The United Amateur Press Association, which has grown to be the leader of its kind, and the representative of amateur journalism in its best phases throughout the English-speaking world.
Lovecraft offers a necessary disclaimer to the term “amateur,” reminding us that it is a distinction of motives rather than of competence — those who pour countless hours and endless heart into the publication do it for love rather than for commercial gain:
In many respects the word ‘amateur’ fails to do full credit to amateur journalism and the association which best represents it. To some minds the term conveys an idea of crudity and immaturity, yet the United can boast of members and publications whose polish and scholarship are well-nigh impeccable. In considering the adjective ‘amateur’ as applied to the press association, we must adhere to the more basic interpretation, regarding the word as indicating the non-mercenary nature of the membership. Our amateurs write purely for love of their art, without the stultifying influence of commercialism. Many of them are prominent professional authors in the outside world, but their professionalism never creeps into their association work. The atmosphere is wholly fraternal, and courtesy takes the place of currency.
Today, the spirit Lovecraft describes endures online, where countless brilliant “amateurs” craft with love havens of knowledge and stimulation around their passions — like Joe Hanson in science, Tina Roth Eisenberg in design, John Ptak in history, Christopher Jobson in art, Dan Colman in education, Emily Spivack in sartorial history, and many more. To be an “amateur,” in that sense, seems to be to avoid work by doing what you love.