Early Critics

Early Critics

Over the years, there have been many criticisms of the Rotary movement, some of the most scathing coming in the pages of Rotary’s own journals. Even Paul Harris, so it is said, was somewhat disillusioned by the way in which his original club refused to allow development elsewhere. He was also less than happy that it had become a self-help organisation with a ‘transaction register’ of deals, a far cry from his conception of a club to work for the community in which it was based. This, almost inevitably, was heavily criticised by some people and was lampooned in plays and books, perhaps most successfully by Sinclair Lewis (right) in ‘Babbitt’. Here Rotary was barely disguised as the ‘Boosters’ . (read the first chapter of Babbitt on our website, with a link to all 33 chapters)

H.L. MENCKEN at his peakOther literary figures have also commented on Rotary. H. L. Mencken frequently made disparaging comment in his writings, so much so that G. K. Chesterton in a speech in New York, once said that he did “not dislike Rotarianism with the fury of H. L. Mencken (right) or Sinclair Lewis, but I agree with them that it is a form of comradeship that is gross, common, vainglorious, blatant, sentimental and, in a word, caddish.” It was Chesterton, indeed, who described the 1930s as ‘This Rotarian Age’. Four years later Paul Harris actually used this as the title of a book. On another occasion, Sinclair Lewis wrote that “a Boy Scout is a young Rotarian and a Rotarian is a Boy Scout in long trousers.”


A more gentle description of a Rotary meal came from D. B. Wyndham Lewis writing in the ‘News Chronicle’ as Timothy Shy, who wrote about “Lunching with a gang of idealistic business men the other day, we noted a new routine. Before the cry “Service not Self”, all the doors were locked. The usual panic rush of listeners to safety was thus made impossible.” Later he wrote about “slightly woozy Rotarians singing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow'”. George Bernard Shaw, famously and erroneously, declined an invitation to address a conference, writing, “I can tell where Rotary is going without traveling to Edinburgh to find out. It is going to lunch; and that is as far as it will ever get in this country.”

It would be interesting to hear of other writings and occasions on which comments on Rotary were made.



Based on ‘Towards My Neighbour’ by C.R. Hewitt published by Longman Green in 1950.

Basil Lewis