Big Book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Off The Presses

The Year



Big Book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes Off The Presses

 Meanwhile, Bill had continued with the writing of the book. He would work up basic ideas on a yellow scratch pad and then, at the office in Newark, New Jersey, would stand behind his nonalcoholic and often unpaid secretary, Ruth Hock, dictating to her as she typed. As he went along, he checked the draft with the Akron and New York members, from whom he sometimes got "a real mauling." After completing Chapter 3, "More About Alcoholism," and Chapter 4, "We Agnostics," Bill "reached the famous Chapter 5," he recalls. "At this point we would have to tell how our program really worked.This problem really worried the life out of me." It was in this mood that Bill, "tired clear through," lay in bed at 182 Clinton Street with pencil and tablet in hand. Trying to focus his mind on the procedure that had evolved from the work of William James, the theories of Dr. Silkworth and the principles of the Oxford Group, Bill asked for guidance and began to write the Steps as he saw them. The words came swiftly and easily, and he was done in about half an hour. When he reached his stopping point, he numbered the Steps and found they added up to twelve. He brought them in to dictate to Ruth the next day.

     Ruth recalls that when he showed them to local members, there were heated discussions and many other suggestions. Jim B. opposed strong reference to God; Hank wanted to soft-pedal them; but Fizt M. insisted the book should be religious in tone and content. Ruth wrote Bill later about one meeting in the office: "Fitz was for going all the way with 'God'; you (Bill) were in the middle; Hank was for very little; and I trying to reflect the reaction of the nonalcoholic was for very little. The result of this was the phrase 'God as we understood Him,' which I don't think ever had much of a negative reaction anywhere." Bill later said these changes "had widened our gateway so all who suffer might pass through, regardless of their belief or lack of belief."    
Jim B. --- AA Pioneer

     While Bill was working his way through the main text, New York and Akron members were submitting their personal stories. It was felt that these would provide living proof that the program worked and "would identify us with the distant reader." In addition to Bill's and Dr. Bob's stories, the book eventually contained 16 stories from Akron and 12 from New York.

     Perhaps one of the most important contributions was "The Doctor's Opinion," by Dr. Silkworth, which appears at the very beginning of the book. The idea to include a chapter by a medical person had come from Dr. Esther L. Richards of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, to whom the mimeographed first two chapters had been sent. She wrote an enthusiastic letter in return and suggested getting "a number one physician who has a wide knowledge of the alcoholic's medical and social problems to write an introduction." Bill acted on the suggestion at once, and nine days later had Dr. Silkworth's manuscript in hand.

     Bill was worried about the reaction of organized religion. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, the highly respected minister of the Riverside Church (the Rockefeller family's church), warmly approved an advanced copy and promised to review the book on publication, thus virtually guaranteeing favorable interest in Protestant circles. And Morgan R., a new member, knew someone on the Catholic Committee on Publications in the New York Archdiocese. The committee gave the book a wonderful report, though they suggested some minor changes which Bill quickly accepted. The committee's informal endorsement allowed Bill to breath easier.

     Bill said that more than 100 titles were considered for the book. The title that appeared on the Multilithed copies was "Alcoholics Anonymous." The first documented use of the name is in a letter from Bill to Willard Richardson dated July 15, 1938, in which he uses it to refer to the movement. Among the other possible titles considered for the book were: "One Hundred Men," "The Empty Glass," "The Dry Way," "The Dry Life," and "The Way Out."

     The choices quickly boiled down to "The Way Out," favored by most in Akron, and "Alcoholics Anonymous," favored by most in New York. Bill asked Fitz M., who lived near Washington, D.C., to check both titles through the library of congress. Fitz wired back to the effect that the Library of Congress had 25 books entitled "The Way Out," 12 entitled "The Way,"and none called "Alcoholics Anonymous." That settled the matter. The title of the book quickly became the name of the Fellowship as well. Clarence S. later called himself the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, basing his claim on his being the first to use the name for a group. Which he probably was. But the fact is, the book Alcoholics Anonymous was already off the press, and the name had been used a year earlier to refer to the Fellowship as a whole.

     The final editing of the book was done by Tom Uzzell, a faculty member at New York University. He cut the manuscript by a third to a half and sharpened up the writing in the process. Dr. Howard, a psychiatrist in Montclair, New Jersey, who had received an advance copy, made an important contribution when he suggested there were too many "you musts." Bill credited him with putting the Fellowship on a "we ought" basis rather than a "you must" basis.

     When the forward was written, it contained a statement of purpose of the organization. These few sentences with a few changes and additions, became the "Preamble" read at the beginning of tens of thousands of AA meetings every day in the ensuing years.

The Big Book Tests The Waters

     Four hundred mimeographed copies of the Big Book manuscript are sent out for comments and evaluation by members, friends, and other allies. Among those making valuable contributions are a Baltimore doctor who suggests having a physician write the introduction (a job taken on by Dr. Silkworth) and Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick (below), the highly respected minister of Manhattan’s Riverside Church, who warmly approves of the book and responds with a positive review to be used as the Fellowship wishes.

Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick

     With the manuscript completed and edited, Hank and Bill took it to Edward Blackwell at Cornwall Press to be printed. There was only one problem they had almost no money. Blackwell helped them in two ways. First he agreed to print the book and to accept $500 all they could afford as a down payment. Second, he suggested an initial printing of 5000 instead of the high figure Bill and Hank were thinking of. (Bill never failed to express gratitude to Blackwell in later years, and AA continued to have the Big Book printed by Cornwell Press and its successor companies until the present time.) A price of $3.50 was decided on (rather high in 1939), and they chose the thickest paper in Blackwell's plant "to convince the alcoholic purchaser that he was getting his money's worth!" Bill said later. The original volume proved so bulky that it became known as the "Big Book."

First printing of Alcoholics Anonymous, April 1939

     As the pages came off the presses, they were bound in a thick, dark red cover embossed in gold. The book had been created from scratch in a single year by alcoholics who had no more than two and a half years' sobriety. Yet it turned out to be not only appealing and attractive, but incredibly powerful and lasting in its effectiveness. Almost everything the book has to say about alcoholics' problems and their recovery is still applicable today. As one speaker put it at the 50th Anniversary International Convention,

"For two thousand years before the Big Book appeared, there was no hope for the alcoholic. Since then, the Big Book has been ultimately responsible for the recovery of literally millions."

  Publication and Disappointment

     In April 1939, some 5,000 copies of the Big Book — titled Alcoholics Anonymous — roll off the press. After an anticipated Reader's Digest article fails to materialize and a radio broadcast results in no orders, sales are few and far between. This disappointment foreshadows a bleak summer for the New York fellowship. 

     But as the 5,000 copies of the Big Book lay stacked in Edward Blackwell's warehouse in April 1939, Bill and Hank's problems were only beginning. Each shareholder in Works Publishing Company received a copy of the book. But beyond that, they not only couldn't sell it, they weren't sure they could even give it away. An attempt to get an article in the Reader's Digest aborted, a national radio program by the immensely popular Gabriel Heatter had produced almost no results, and available funds reached their lowest and most desperate ebb. Alcoholics Anonymous seemed about to go under.

     Then, with four separate occurrences, the turning point came. First, Bert T. mortgaged his tailor shop to obtain $1,000 to keep A.A. afloat a few weeks longer. Second, in September, Liberty magazine ran an article on A.A. Third, a series of articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer brought a rush of new members and a rush of orders for the book. Forth, nationwide publicity followed John D. Rockefeller's dinner for Alcoholics Anonymous. An accounting showed that the publishing company was showing a profit about $3,000. Which had been spent on A.A. work at the office.

     When they heard that the book was making money, some of the stockholders, including Charlie Towns, began to ask for their money back. Something had to be done. Again, Hank and Bill turned to their pad of blank stock certificates. This time on a number of them they typed "Works Publishing, Inc. Preferred Stock, par value $100." With these in hand, Bill went to Washington, D.C., where some well-to-do members bought the new issue. With the $3,000 thus raised, Charlie Towns was repaid in full and the other grumbling stockholders received their money.
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