December 5, 2008

The First Edition
of the Little Red Book

First edition of Ed Webster's
book on The Twelve Steps, later
called The Little Red Book

Edward A. Webster

Born March 21, 1892
Sober December 13, 1941
Died June 3, 1971

  Jack H., A.A. historian/archivist from Scottsdale, Arizona, has spent the last eighteen years building up one of the top private collections of A.A. historical material in the country, including a number of rare items not contained in any other known archives. He has been taking his collection on tour for the past five years on the west coast and in Mexico. It is now in Phoenix, Arizona.

In addition to having one of the only two presently known copies of the first printing of Richmond Walker's Twenty-Four Hours a Day, he has obtained the papers of Ed Webster, the author of The Little Red Book, including two verifiable first printings of that influential book, which came out in August 1946. One of these is autographed on the inside front cover, "Best wishes for continued success Dr. Bob." Jack has verified that this is Dr. Bob's handwriting. The title page bears the date MCMXLVI (1946) and the copyright page says "Copyright 1946 ... Published August, 1946."

First edition of Ed Webster's Little Red Book

  One of these first printings of The Little Red Book came from Ed Webster's daughter, who gave Jack her father's copy of the first edition. The other copy was originally given by Ed Webster to Dr. Bob. The latter eventually gave that copy to a friend, which is when he put the inscription on it saying "best wishes for continued success" and signed his name on it.

Jack has three copies of the book with Dr. Bob's handwriting in them, the 1946 printing mentioned above, and two from the 1947 printing. He also has a letter from Dr. Bob to Ed telling him that he did a good job. He says that Ed took the third copy of the first printing out of the box and sent it to Bobby Burger at the New York A.A. office. Bobby had written a letter to Barry Collins on November 11, 1944, indicating that the New York office was perfectly happy with the Minneapolis A.A. people printing and distributing their own book on A.A. She told Barry that there were already at least twenty-five A.A. pamphlets and booklets, written and sponsored by various local A.A. groups, which were in use all over the U.S. and Canada, and that the New York office operated on the policy that the use of these pamphlets and books in A.A. meetings was entirely a matter of local group autonomy. Neither the New York office nor anyone else could tell an individual A.A. group what it could or could not read in its meetings, nor could anyone tell an individual A.A. group what it could or could not publish for the use of other A.A. members and groups.

In its first four printings, the book was given the short title of The Twelve Steps. In the first printing, for example, The Twelve Steps was all that was put on the short title page at the very beginning of the volume. The full title, as it was printed on the title page itself, was a bit longer, but did not use the words "Little Red Book" there or any place else in the volume:

An Interpretation of
of the

The early printings had a dark ruby red or maroon cover, so it came to be known affectionately by its users as "the little red book," to distinguish it from the book Alcoholics Anonymous, which was originally thought of, in its earliest version, as the "big red book," from its red and yellow cover. Beginning with the fifth printing in 1949, the title of Ed Webster's little book was changed to match the popular name, and it has been titled The Little Red Book ever since.

The first printing appeared in 1946, two separate printings were done in 1947, there was another printing in 1948, and there were two versions of the 1949 printing. Ed Webster kept on making changes in the book during that period, and in fact kept on making changes in the book all the way to the end of his life.

Tommy H. (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) had made a study of the two 1947 printings in Message 4017 in the AAHistoryLovers, see

He established that the one with the distinctively red cover has to be the earlier of the two 1947 printings. It says that it came out in January 1947. The other 1947 printing, which has a dull maroon cover, must have appeared later in that year. This later printing embodies a number of textual changes which were carried over to the fourth and fifth printings.

I first learned about the two versions of the 1949 printing in a telephone conversation which I had with Jack H. in Scottsdale, Arizona. Jack told me that the only difference between the two versions was that the first copies off the press were found on careful inspection to have a minor typesetting error (a segment of text inserted upside down) on one page. Not many copies of the faulty version actually got out to the public, but a few did. The type was corrected, and the majority of the surviving copies of the 1949 printing were then run off, assembled, and bound without that printer's error.

Jayson S. later wrote me and confirmed this: "I noticed on your site it mentions that there might be a printing variation of the 1949 version of The Little Red Book with a typesetting error. I can verify that this is correct. I own a copy having the error. On page 62 the top two lines ARE upside down on my copy. Just thought you'd like confirmation of this." Many thanks to Jayson for this information.

Tommy H. in Baton Rouge says that the 1950 edition says that it was the sixth printing, the 1951 edition says that it was the seventh printing, and so on. So it seems clear that Ed Webster did not regard the two versions which came out in 1949 as separate "printings" or "editions" in the full sense. Perhaps the best way of putting this, therefore, would be to list the editions as follows:

1st edition August 1946
2nd edition January 1947 (distinctively red cover)
3rd edition later in 1947 (dull maroon cover)
4th edition 1948
5th edition 1949 (extant in two versions, with a typesetting error in the top two lines on page 62 in the earlier version)
6th edition 1950
7th edition 1951 (and so on)

Jack H. argued that the 1949 edition should be taken as a kind of benchmark version for many purposes, since this was the last edition where Dr. Bob had had any input into the book. And we should remember that changes made in The Little Red Book after Ed Webster's death on June 3, 1971, which are numerous, were done by editors at the Hazelden Foundation who believed that they "could write better" about alcoholism than Ed Webster. The current Hazelden version is not bad, and is perfectly usable for newcomers to the A.A. program, but I have not found any rewordings which they made which were an improvement in any way at all, and the idea of rewriting a classic text without warning the reader about it in a footnote is something which no responsible publisher ever does. You don't rewrite Shakespeare or Hemingway or Faulkner or Mark Twain when you publish new editions.
In addition to copies of Ed Webster's other two well-known works ( Stools and Bottles, which first came out in 1955, and Our Devilish Alcoholic Personalities, which Ed published in 1970, the year before his death) the collection also has a copy of an extremely rare book which Ed Webster published in 1958 called Bar Room Reveries. Ed printed a thousand copies of this at that time. It was a book of jokes, which was not well received, so the book was never reprinted. Not very many copies have survived.

Jack also discovered most recently, after a ten year search, on August 10, 2004, the mimeographed notes, called the "Instructor's Outline," which Mel Brandes wrote for use in teaching the beginners classes which he began in May 1942 at 2218 First Avenue South in Minneapolis, where the first A.A. group in that city began meeting in 1940. There is still an Alano Society clubhouse there today.

Jack believes strongly that, by July or August of 1942, there must also have been a step study pamphlet (a student pamphlet) written by Ed Webster, which was handed out to the newcomers and was based on those instructor's notes. So far, however, no fully verifiable copy of such a work has been found, so this has to remain hypothetical. Jack believes that the material in that student pamphlet was the ancestor, not only of The Little Red Book, but also of the A.A. pamphlet on the twelve steps (sometimes called the "Table Mate" or the "Table Leaders Guide") which was printed and distributed with only slight variations in Detroit, Washington D.C., Oklahoma City, Seattle, and many other places during A.A.'s early years. Since there is no datable document which can be tied to Minneapolis or the Nicollet Group, which duplicates any substantial part of that Detroit/Washington D.C. pamphlet, this too has to remain hypothetical.
There is a written statement in the Detroit archives in a program for a major A.A. event which took place in Detroit not long after the pamphlet was written, saying that it was written by their own A.A. people in Detroit, and there is also an oral tradition going back to Ernie Gerig (one of the original Akron A.A. people, who ended up moving from Toledo to the Detroit area) stating that the Detroit A.A. people originally wrote the pamphlet. The present printed version of the Detroit pamphlet however has a poem with the name of the wife of "Uncle Dick" Richardson attached to it, and he was a prominent member of the Washington D.C. group., making it appear that the present printed version of the Detroit pamphlet was printed from a copy of that pamphlet printed in Washington D.C.  Bobby Burger, in a letter she wrote on November 11, 1944, seems to assume that the A.A. people in Washington, D.C. were the ones who wrote it, but that may simply have been because the copies circulating on the East Coast were printed there.

Detroit mimeographed version > Washington D.C. printed version > Detroit printed version:  My own best guess at present is that the Detroit A.A. people wrote the pamphlet and were using it in a mimeographed version. Washington D.C. got hold of a copy of that, and reformatted it so it could be printed as a small pamphlet. Reformatting was necessary because the pages of the printed pamphlet were only half the size of the pages in the mimeographed version (which would have been done on standard American 8-1/2" by 11" letter paper). Washington D.C. added the poem with the name of Uncle Dick's wife attached, and may or may not have made other revisions to the material. The Detroit people got hold of a copy of the Washington D.C. printed version, and were so impressed by the way Detroit had reformatted the lessons that they gave that copy to a Detroit printer and told him to duplicate it for them exactly the way it was, changing only the front cover, to show that it came from Detroit. The poem with Uncle Dick's wife's name attached stayed in, either because they liked it, or overlooked it when they gave their instructions to the printer.

Nevertheless, even though I believe that the Detroit A.A. group wrote the original version of this pamphlet, we should remember that there are other theories about what happened:

Minneapolis > Washington D.C. > Detroit:  Jack H. insists that the pamphlet was originally written by Ed Webster in Minneapolis.

Cleveland > Washington D.C. > Detroit:  Mitchell K. has found a statement in the Cleveland archives saying that a group from Washington D.C. visited Cleveland in order to find out how to teach beginners meetings. On those grounds, Mitchell argues that some of the basic ideas in the pamphlet came orginally from Cleveland, although the pamphlet as we have it now was written in Washington D.C. Both he and Jack H. dispute Detroit's authorship of the pamphlet however.

The Hazelden Anniversary
Edition is a reprint of the 1949 edition,
not the 1946 first edition

  Let us confine ourselves in this piece, however, to talking about the first edition of The Little Red Book. As mentioned in a preceding paragraph, Jack discovered a true first edition in Ed Webster's papers. The title page bears the date MCMXLVI (1946) and the copyright page says "Copyright 1946 ... Published August, 1946." Jack's discovery needs to be noted by historians doing research on early A.A. history, because in 1996, Hazelden published a 50th Anniversary Edition of The Little Red Book which they believed to be a reproduction of the first edition which came out in 1946. The problem is that in fact it was not. Jack has found copies of various editions of the book, some in Ed Webster's papers and some gotten from other sources, which allow one to trace out the progressive revisions Ed made in that book over the years. The Hazelden reprint matches up with the volume in Ed Webster's collection which has MCMXLIX (1949) printed on the title page.

This is not simply a rare book collector's quibble, because there were in fact some significant differences in wording between the 1946 version and the 1949 version. The people who prepared the Hazelden Anniversary Edition may not have been aware that so many changes were made during the first three years The Little Red Book was in print, or some confusion may have arisen about the date of the copy which they had in their archives.

There were a number of early
revisions of The Little Red Book

  Using Ed Webster's papers and other items he has collected, Jack H. has found that there were in fact a number of early revisions of The Little Red Book (actually entitled The Twelve Steps in its first four printings). The 1946 printing was the first edition. Two different editions came out in 1947, each one containing some additional revisions. There was a 1948 edition with further revisions, and then the 1949 edition came out with yet further changes. Jack says that there were in fact two versions of this 1949 edition. In the first print run they discovered too late that the type was upside down in the top two sentences on page 62, so they did a second print run that year with the type right side up. If anyone has a copy of the first defective printing of this 1949 edition, it would presumably have value to collectors as a rarity. Jack says that in addition Ed Webster continued to make changes in subsequent editions of The Little Red Book all the way down to 1971, when he died with thirty years sobriety.

Again, this is not just a rare book collector's fascination with minor differences in cover style or an occasional word or two. A.A. historians who want to use The Little Red Book to study early A.A. need to know that the later editions do not necessarily always put you in contact with the A.A. world of the 1940's, and the beliefs and assumptions held at that time. What seems to be the basic edition currently in print has copyright dates of 1957, 1986, and 1994 on the back of the title page. This edition presumably includes all the revisions which Ed Webster made over the twenty-five years which followed the publication of the original 1946 edition, as well as other revisions which Hazelden unfortunately made after Ed's death in 1971.

The 1946 and 1949 versions of the Author's
Note which Ed placed at the beginning

  But for now, let us just look at the 1946 edition (the actual first edition) and the 1949 edition (which Hazelden reprinted as its 50th Anniversary Edition) and make some comparisons, starting with the Author's Note at the beginning:  

  The 1946 edition:  "Author's Note: This book was originally prepared as a series of notes for Twelve-step Discussion meetings for new A. A. members. It proved to be very effective and helpful. Many groups adopted it, using mimeographed copies. The demand for this interpretation in book form from both individuals and groups made printing advisable."  

  The 1949 edition has, instead of that short note, three long paragraphs:  "Author's Note: The material in this little red book is an outgrowth of a series of notes originally prepared for '12-step' instruction to A.A. beginners and as a source of ideas for A.A. discussion meetings. Its distribution is founded on a desire to 'Carry the Message' in recognition of our return to sane living after alcoholism has made life all but impossible.

"Many groups, in meeting the A.A. need for instruction of new members, have adopted this brief summarization of the A.A. Recovery Program expounded in the Big Book, 'Alcoholics Anonymous,' as an outline for study of that book. Worthwhile results have followed the inauguration of weekly classes devoted to guidance of new members in their quest for a better understanding of the '12 Steps' as a way of life.

"These classes, directed by qualified members, have created a solidarity of understanding with our Fellowship. They have brought a closer adherence to the Big Book, better understanding and application of its philosophy, more effective sponsorship and a noticeable reduction in slips among our members."

The 1946 and 1949 versions
of the Introduction

  Now let us compare the two editions further along, in the part of the Introduction that gives the reasons why some people come to A.A. but still cannot get sober. The 1946 edition gives nine reasons, while the 1949 edition gives eleven reasons. The 1949 edition moves the first reason with slight changes in phrasing down to the eighth position, and then adds two additional reasons, both of which contribute significant new ideas.

The 1949 edition, the two additional reasons:  "1. Those who see in alcoholism a moral problem rather than an illness" and "11. Those who are psychotic."

One of the major forces behind the adding of that first item was undoubtedly the mounting influence of Mrs. Marty Mann and her friends. By the early 1950's, this was going to mean not only Marty in New York city, but also Dr. E. M. Jellinek at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut; Searcy W. in Dallas, Texas, and Sgt. Bill S., who started his work on Long Island but ended up in San Antonio, Texas. Marty's major emphasis was on teaching the American public that alcoholism had to be regarded as a disease, not as a moral failure. See Sally Brown and David R. Brown, A Biography of Mrs. Marty Mann: The First Lady of Alcoholics Anonymous (Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2001). She and Sgt. Bill in particular campaigned hard to get people to realize that the old punitive approach to alcoholism was totally ineffective. Putting alcoholics in jail or preaching at them as moral reprobates and degenerates, was never going to get any real alcoholic sober.

Marty, we remember, got sober from reading one of the draft copies of the Big Book that were sent to psychiatrists and other experts in 1939, right before the final changes were made in the text of the book. So she had no effect on the wording of the main part of the Big Book:  she was still a raw newcomer struggling to get sober and stay sober when it came out.

But in 1944, Marty joined Dr. E. M. "Bunky" Jellinek and the other prominent scholars at the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies, and started the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism later that year with Yale University money. Her influence began to be rapidly felt, both within A.A. circles and in the outside world. In 1948, she backed Sgt. Bill S. in starting the first officially sanctioned military alcoholism treatment program at Mitchel Air Force Base on Long Island, which later developed into the Lackland Model of alcoholism treatment, one of the three basic early models for successful alcoholism treatment. In 1949, Marty arranged for both Sgt. Bill and Searcy W. from Dallas, Texas, to attend the Yale School of Alcohol Studies. At the time the 1949 edition of The Little Red Book was published, Marty's ideas were starting to become much more widely known in A.A. circles.

Whether due to Marty's campaign against moralistic approaches to alcoholism or from his own observations about the damage done by that kind of condemnatory attitude, Ed Webster had clearly reached the conclusion by 1949 that viewing alcoholism as a moral flaw (which could be overcome only by the alcoholic buckling up and showing greater will power) was not only causing great problems among the general non-alcoholic public, but would block any alcoholic who believed that mistaken idea from successfully working the A.A. program.

The second additional reason - - the statement that some of those who were psychotic might not be able to get sober in A.A. - - may also have been influenced by the work being done at the Yale School. Dr. Jellinek and the rest of the faculty were busy exploring the psychological and psychiatric aspects of alcoholism during that period, and Jellinek himself was teaching a psychological model of alcoholism in his lectures at the Yale School of Alcohol Studies in 1949 which made it clear that alcoholics could not get into recovery until they started getting honest with themselves. "You must break the alibi system," he preached to his students, before you can do anything useful with alcoholics.

If you were setting up an alcoholism treatment center, this however necessarily implied that you would have to do an entry evaluation, and weed out those who were so deeply psychotic that they would never be able to use the twelve steps for the psychological healing of the character disorders and subconscious problems which was the usual driving force behind the alcoholic compulsion. You cannot be honest with yourself if you have no contact with reality at all. See Sgt. Bill S., On the Military Firing Line in the Alcoholism Treatment Program, Chapter 14, pp. 224-227, on his experiences at the Yale School of Alcohol Studies in 1949, and Chapter 15, pp. 235-253, "The Effects of Alcohol on Our Emotional Development," which is a psychological analysis of alcoholism that is strongly modeled on the approach Dr. Jellinek was using at that time.

There was also one other small but significant change made in the wording of this part of The Little Red Book. In the seventh reason given for why some people come to A.A. but still cannot get sober, Ed Webster originally said that the constitutionally dishonest had "no chance" whatsoever. By 1949, somebody had pushed him into revising his wording to fit what was said in the Big Book:

  The 1946 edition:  "7. The alcoholic who is constitutionally dishonest has no chance. He cannot be honest with himself."  

  The 1949 edition:  "7. The alcoholic who is 'constitutionally dishonest' has little chance. He cannot be honest with himself." [Hazelden's 50th Anniversary Edition footnotes this to page 58 in the Big Book, where it says "their chances are less than average."]  

  In the 1949 edition, over two pages worth of additional material was inserted between the Introduction and the listing of the Twelve Steps. This additional material consists mainly of a paragraph apiece on five virtues: Humility, Honesty, Faith, Courage, and Appreciation. This is nice additional material. To give two of these little paragraphs as examples:  

  Added in the 1949 edition:  "Courage:  A quality of mind which enables us to meet and deal with the problems and realities of life without reliance on alcohol; fortitude to endure the things we cannot change; a determination to stand our ground and 'Slug It Out,' with all issues, pleasant or otherwise, that might return us to drunkenness; fearlessness in the practice of faith, humility, and honesty."  

  Added in the 1949 edition:  "Appreciation:  Appreciation of the miracle of our sobriety is a healthy state of mind for us to cultivate. As we develop appreciation we enlarge our opportunities for happiness, success, and contented sobriety. Lack of appreciation and drunkenness are old buddies -- they go hand in hand."  

  Ed kept on revising the book all the way to the end of his life. He changed Appreciation to Gratitude at some point. Gratitude is the word that A.A. people are most apt to use now, although there is a lot to be said for the older word, since it is not just a matter of saying "thank you" to God for his many gifts. It is important that I also be deeply appreciating his gifts and thoroughly enjoying them.

Ed also added a sixth virtue, Service. That was a very important virtue in the teaching of Richmond Walker in Twenty-Four Hours a Day. That may have been one of the influences on Ed.

In my own estimation, Ed's writing just kept on getting better and better. If we look at the way this section of The Little Red Book is written in the current edition (my book has the copyright date of 1987), the paragraphs on Courage, Gratitude, and Service read as follows.

  In the 1987 edition:  "Courage:  A quality of mind which enables us to deal with the problems and realities of life without reliance on alcohol; fortitude to endure the things we cannot change; a determination to stand our ground asking God's help in all issues, pleasant or otherwise, that might return us to drinking; fearlessness in the practice of faith, humility, honesty, and self-denial."  

  In the 1987 edition:  "Gratitude:  Gratitude continues the miracle of our sobriety. Gratitude is a healthy mental attitude; as we develop gratitude we enlarge our capacity for happiness, service, and contented sobriety. A lack of gratitude may lead to the first drink; gratitude and sobriety go hand in hand."  

  In the 1987 edition:  "Service:  Service to God and our fellow human beings is the key to A.A. success. Helping other alcoholics who need and want help gives us the tolerance and humility necessary to contented sobriety. Service combats self-centeredness. It rminds us of our powerlessness over alcohol. Intelligent, unselfish service is the lifeblood of the A.A. fellowship."  

  Those who are interested might want to look at a comparison of the virtues and vices as they are given in The Little Red Book, the Detroit/Washington D.C. Pamphlet, Bill W.'s Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, and the classical tradition (the pagan Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and the medieval European spiritual writers of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition).  

The Founders Day
Camping Trips and the
circle around Dr. Bob

  As we can see from comparing the 1946 and 1949 editions of The Little Red Book, "later" does not necessarily mean "worse," and "earlier" does not necessarily mean "better." Ed Webster, like all authors, saw ways to phrase things better as the years passed, or thought of additional ideas that needed to be included.

He was also in continual contact with Dr. Bob, who suggested some of these changes. The four Founders Day Camping Trips held in Minnesota and organized by the Nicollet Group during the summers of 1944, 45, 46, and 47 brought together a number of well known early A.A. figures, including not only Dr. Bob but also many other early A.A. leaders from various midwestern cities. These included the founders of A.A. in Minneapolis, Detroit, and Chicago. So there was a good deal of mutual contact and sharing of ideas among these key people.

We could describe The Little Red Book as the best compendium around of what Dr. Bob and his circle in the upper midwest regarded as the most important things to teach newcomers.

The importance for early A.A.
history of the fourteen-year period
between 1939 and 1953

  Now some people who have read this far may still be saying, "Why in the world would anyone regard this kind of quibbling over trifles as important to anything at all?"

Here is the reason. In the period between the publication of the Big Book in 1939 and the publication of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which was copyrighted in 1952 but not actually printed until 1953, early A.A. was going through a fourteen-year period of rapid development. So even a year or two difference can be quite significant. In particular, to write an accurate history of this period, it does in fact make a lot of difference whether a document was written in 1946 or 1949.

During that short period between 1946 and 1949, for example, Ralph Pfau (Father John Doe) had published his first Golden Book, "The Spiritual Side," in Indianapolis (a major formative A.A. center in that part of the midwest and upper south) in 1947, and Richmond Walker in 1948 began printing and distributing Twenty-Four Hours a Day in Daytona Beach, Florida. There were a lot of major changes occurring between 1946 and 1949, and very swiftly. And these changes continued, as we see Marty Mann coming out with her Primer on Alcoholism in 1950, which further increased the enormous influence of her understanding of alcoholism as a disease.

And going back the other way, into the earlier period, what is generally known as the Detroit-Washington D.C. Pamphlet, which was clearly put together at some point before November 1944, has what in some ways is a kind of "primitive feel" to it compared to the things that started being published in 1946, 47, and 48. And if we move even further back, to the Akron Pamphlet which was published in late 1939 probably, we see that there is some fascinating material which is still relevant today, but we are also clearly in an even more primitive period in terms of how newcomers were handled and what was said to them.

Or let us put this in an even stronger way. People often ask, "what was early A.A. like?" Even if they confine this question to a specific place like Akron or New York or Cleveland or Minneapolis or Detroit, the term "early A.A." can still mean anytime between 1935 and perhaps even a date as late as A.A.'s "coming of age" at the Second International Convention in St. Louis twenty years later in 1955, which marked the end of the first era of A.A. history and the beginning of a new and different era. So when these people ask "what was early A.A. like?" one must ask them "when exactly?" before anyone can actually give a clear and accurate description of what was going on. For A.A. was undergoing very rapid changes during this entire period, and even a difference of just a year or two can result in a very different picture of "what early A.A. was like."

Written by Glenn C. (South Bend, Indiana), based on conversations and correspondence with Jack H., A.A. historian/archivist from Scottsdale, Arizona, upon whose research a good deal of this article is based, together with the material in Bill Pittman’s Foreword to The Little Red Book: An Interpretation of the Twelve Steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program, 50th Anniversary Edition (Center City MN: Hazelden, 1996).


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