How Benjamin De Casseres Built Authority 100 Years Ago: A Case Study for Modern Marketers

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One of my areas of academic interest is intellectual history – that is, the history of how ideas develop, change, and influence new ideas. As a grad student studying language and literature, I’m particularly interested in how the words we use and the texts we read facilitate conversations that last over generations.

As it turns out, Terakeet’s approach to building authority for clients actually parallels some things I’ve noticed in my academic research of hundred(ish)-year-old texts.

I’ll explain more about those parallels in a moment, but first I need to tell you about a man named Benjamin De Casseres.

About Benjamin De Casseres

De Casseres is a hard man to describe, partly because he actively eschewed description. One of his most popular books was titled Chameleon: Being a Book of My Selves, a collection of essays on various topics with complex, and sometimes contradictory, arguments. One thing that can be said is that De Casseres was one of the most well-known critics – of literature, theater, cinema, and society – in the U.S. during his lifetime.

De Casseres was most active from 1899 to 1945, during which he wrote articles, essays, poetry, and stories in newspapers like The Sun and The New York Times, magazines like The Smart Set and Judge, and an assortment of books and pamphlets. His prolificity and epigrammatic style quickly won De Casseres a wide audience with many admirers. In fact, he became so popular that columnist Franklin Pierce Adams hyperbolically boasted, “De Casseres has had several million invitations to speak. For amazing sums. And has refused them all” (The New York Tribune, Nov. 13, 1920). He befriended and corresponded with writers and influencers such as, among others, Eugene O’Neill, Edgar Lee Masters, Aldous Huxley, H. L. Mencken, and Jack London – the last of whom wrote in a letter that “no man in my own camp stirs me as does Nietzsche or as does De Casseres.”

Although not many people are aware of De Casseres today, there’s no doubt that many people in the first half of the 20th century considered his opinions on many topics, even when they disagreed with him. How did he come to enjoy such prestige? Let’s look at some examples.

How De Casseres Became an Authority

Today, it’s a given that companies and individuals who want to build an esteemed reputation need to cultivate their online presence, including a fresh website with well-developed content, an active and engaging social media presence, and positive mentions by media and respected personages in the same community.

The Internet did not exist a hundred years ago. Nonetheless, people tried to accomplish many of the same goals in other ways, and Benjamin De Casseres was a little better at it than most others in his day. Here are some of the ways he engaged with influencers and audiences to shape his reputation.

Built Expertise First

In the late 1880s, at the age of 15, De Casseres began working as an office assistant to the editor of the Philadelphia Press. Periodically, he wrote paragraphs for editorials, and soon he became a proofreader. He eventually was given the task of writing first-run theater reviews.

De Casseres’ first published piece (that I have found) was printed in the October 1890 issue of Belford’s Magazine, when he was 18. However, for most of his 12 years with the Philadelphia Press, De Casseres did not publish anything under his own name. Rather, his time was spent proofreading, writing unsigned copy, and “omnivorous reading” (The Cincinnati Enquirer, Sept. 3, 1922).

All this time spent on work that went unrecognized by the public was important to De Casseres’ later notoriety. It set the stage for his move to New York City in November 1899, when his public career began.

Went Where the Action Was

When he was 71, De Casseres reminisced about his city of birth: “Philadelphia may have found a greater wisdom in contentment and snooziness than in all the rush and dipsy doodle doings in Chicago and New York” (The Milwaukee Sentinel, Aug. 22, 1943). In his mid-20s, however, De Casseres was drawn to New York precisely because of its faster pace and its accessibility to the literary world that he wanted to break into.

De Casseres leveraged his career as a proofreader to land jobs first at The Sun, and then a few years later at The New York Herald, both of which were “serious” newspapers that rivaled The New York Times. Although De Casseres was later employed by Hearst newspapers, he spent the first twenty years of his New York métier employed by publications that eschewed Hearst-style headlines disparaged as “yellow journalism” – the early 20th century version of clickbait.

Moving to New York and finding work at respected publications gave De Casseres the opportunity to have the literary career he wanted, but initially that opportunity was unrealized. He had to do a few more things to build up his reputation.

Engaged with Existing Authorities

Employed as a proofreader by day, De Casseres spent his spare time writing. Starting in 1899, even before he moved to New York, De Casseres wrote a series of letters to the editor of The New York Times Saturday Review of Books – a (if not the) leading authority on all matters of contemporary literature. De Casseres’ letters to the editor were themselves short essays on literary matters that frequently elicited responses from others. In effect, he used the Saturday Review as a highbrow, heavily moderated comment system in which to engage others in the field.

In addition to those letters, De Casseres began writing long-form essays for monthly periodicals. The first of these was a survey of the female characters created by Thomas Hardy, published in the October 1902 issue of The Bookman, a short-lived but highly influential literary journal. The essay was well received, and even Hardy himself sent De Casseres a letter about it.

Over the next decade, De Casseres continued to write essays for The Bookman, The Critic, Metropolitan Magazine, The Theatre, and other periodicals. He chose timely topics – such as two highly regarded essays published for the centennial of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s birth – and, more importantly, established his own style.

Developed Unique Content

If there is anything consistent about De Casseres, it’s his status as a uniquely gifted and eclectic writer. Pulitzer Prize–winning dramatist Eugene O’Neill called De Casseres a “phenomenal ironist” and “the voice of Walt Whitman and the echo of Max Stirner” (quoted in The I in Irony by Matthew Stratton). Journalist and Broadway lyricist Roy K. Moulton once declared that De Casseres “carries a wallop in either hand, and he can make the English language jump through and then lie down and roll over” (Richmond Times-Dispatch, July 15, 1918).

De Casseres was not merely distinctive, but inventive as well. He is credited by art historian John F. Moffitt as writing in a Dadaist style several years before Dada – an avant-garde art and literary movement that embraced abstract expression – appeared in New York. Most importantly, he could tailor his writing to the task, applying his composition skills equally to artistic reviews, philosophical essays, political critiques, and poetry.

Established Relationships with Influencers

De Casseres’ aptitude for writing got him noticed, but it was his personality that helped him evolve friendships with other writers. Many of these people were themselves popular, and they would refer to De Casseres (and vice versa) in their articles. Columnists like H. L. Mencken and O. O. McIntyre – who wrote in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., respectively – frequently referred to De Casseres, both as a writer and in a social capacity.

It wasn’t only other journalists who made reference to De Casseres. Bestselling novelist Christopher Morley wrote that De Casseres was one of the few men whose diaries he would like to read. Jack London went a step further and named a character in The Mutiny of the Elsinore after De Casseres.

As might be expected, the relationships De Casseres built not only increased his popularity, but afforded him more opportunities to ply his craft, ultimately giving him even more visibility. He wrote for Mencken’s The Smart Set magazine and penned various introductions and prefaces to books by well-respected authors like Eugene O’Neill, Don Marquis, James Huneker, and Paul Eldridge. By befriending all of these influencers, some of whom held drastically different political and philosophical views from him, De Casseres was able to establish himself as an influencer along with them.

Syndication and References

As De Casseres’ reputation grew, mentions of him became more and more prevalent. Newspapers and magazines regularly listed notable articles from other publications, and there were entire periodicals (such as Current Literature and The International) and annual publications dedicated to listing and recapping columns and essays printed elsewhere. As De Casseres became more popular, his name and work was naturally mentioned more often in these types of publications.

He also took opportunities to promote his work in new ways. In August and September 1925, De Casseres appeared as a guest on a series of radio shows to promote his book Forty Immortals, a collection of essays on whom he considered to be the forty greatest people throughout history. Media appearances – including online interviews via podcast and video – are a matter of course today, but radio broadcasting was still very new in Jazz Age New York. De Casseres was one of the first people to embrace it as a novel way to let others know about the things he had created.

Why De Casseres Matters Today

Although we don’t hear much about him today, De Casseres is a good case study because of the way he built his reputation during his lifetime. That’s because the things he did back then are the things people and companies can do today to build their own reputations.

Because so much of online life is moderated by Google, much effort has gone into trying – and sometimes succeeding – to manipulate Google’s various algorithms. People who talk about SEO and have a fascination with animals names like Panda, Penguin, and Hummingbird sometimes seem to forget that the thing Google has been trying to do all along is emulate online the ways that we already build authority and reputation in the “real” world. Each algorithm update, from minor tweaks to major overhauls, brings Google search a little closer to that ideal.

Which is to say that the way to build authority is to do the same things that people have been doing for a hundred years, and even much longer than that:

  • Spend time building expertise
  • Engage with established authorities
  • Develop unique content
  • Establish relationships with influencers
  • Find organic ways to share

People and companies who focus on a single technique – social media, content marketing, etc. – are ultimately missing the point. In the long run, focusing on building true authority, both online and in the non-virtual world, will help companies and individuals more than any gimmick or technique of the day.

So Whatever Happened to De Casseres?

Well… he kind of went off the deep end.

Although De Casseres continued writing newspaper columns right up until a few months before he died in 1945, a lot of his writings became partisan diatribes. Even his book reviews – which were once praised as insightful, eclectic literary essays – turned into political rants against FDR, tirades about the devastation of World War II, and vicious attacks on communism. In tone, he became the Greatest Generation’s version of a late-life Mickey Rooney. He could still turn a phrase as well as (if not better than) a lot of other writers, but more and more of his content became derivative, repetitive, and decidedly not unique.

De Casseres also started ignoring much of the stuff that helped him build authority earlier in his career. In 1935 he self-published a 3-volume set of his own collected works, and over the next ten years he continued self-publishing a series of political pamphlets that he sent out to subscribers. In other words, instead of spending his time engaging with other authorities and building relationships with influencers, De Casseres pulled further and further into his own world.

Still, all of that authority he built never quite disappeared. His name lives on in various references, such as London’s character in The Mutiny of the Elsinore, and there’s a host of introductions, essays, and even a much-anthologized poem (“Moth-Terror”) that still circulate a little today. Perhaps most touchingly, seven years after his death, a brief and innocuous note appeared in The New York Times:

I would appreciate the favor if one of your readers would give me the name and address of heirs or executor of estate of the American writer Benjamin De Casseres.

It was signed by none other than Upton Sinclair, one of the most influential Americans in the twentieth century.

Regardless of whether anything came of that note (the answer to which I don’t, yet, know), it shows that all of De Casseres’ work to build authority early on continued well beyond his “brand” – and even his life. People, and companies, who focus on building the same level of authority today will no doubt do just as well, and possibly much better.