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What Was 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' And Why Was It So Popular?

Fads | January 7, 2021

Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, published in 1970, was a novella -- about, yes, a seagull -- than became a bestseller and one of the defining books of the '70s. Many people bought and read the book, soaking up its new age message. Maybe the allegorical story of a misfit bird was profound and consequential, or maybe it was just the right kind of nuttiness for the seekers who wanted the '60s to last forever. Quite a few people saw it as nutty, and it became one of the most parodied books of all time.

The Real Jonathan Livingston Was Not A Seagull

One of the planes flown by Jonathan Livingston, the inspiration for the seagull. Source: (FlugKerl2/Wikipedia)

Richard Bach, a pilot, named his protagonist seagull in honor of John H. Livingston. Livingston, a Waco Aircraft Company test pilot, was one of America’s top pilots in the 1920s and 30s, when he flew in races. Livingston died from a heart attack at 76 after his test flight for a home-built acrobatic Pitts Special.

The Book Was An Allegory Starring A Seagull

Source: (Discogs)

The book was first published with three sections in which the narrator, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, is bored living the seagull life, so focused on fitting in and the daily squabbles over food. He is much more interested in learning everything he can about flight. He is punished for his nonconformity when the flock banishes him. After they do, he flies higher and higher until he can go no further. There, he meets two radiant seagulls, one of which is named Chiang, who tell him that there is more they can teach him.

In the second part, Jonathan Livingston Seagull reaches a society where all of the gulls enjoy flying. Here, he learns that a seagull is “an unlimited idea of freedom, an idea of the Great Gull.” He also learns the value of being true to yourself.

In Part Three, Jonathan hears his final lesson from his teacher: “keep working on love.” He also learns that he needs to forgive in order to truly be free, and that, in order to progress, he needs to become a teacher. He then returns to his original flock so that he can share what he has learned with them, despite his fight against the rules of that group of birds.  

The Story Was First Published In An Aviation Magazine

Richard Bach and a seagull. Source: (Pinterest)

The novel began its journey towards publication when Bach, a former Iowa Air Guard pilot, composed a story which he published with Private Pilot Magazine. After positive responses from readers, he released two more installments of the story, which were reprinted in other publications. Bach then asked his agent about the possibility of finding a publisher to release it as a book, and so they began to query the book under the title “No Stranger to the Ground.” It found its champion in Eleanor Friede, a senior editor at Macmillan, who noted the universal appeal of the book, arguing that it had the potential to become a classic. With the addition of photographs taken by Russell Munson, in 1970, Macmillan published the book under its new name. 

The Book Seemed Set Up For Failure

Source: (Offscreen).

By the date of the book’s release, bookstores had only ordered 3,000 copies, which was not enough to recoup the cost of publication. Publishers frequently used particular marketing tactics to garner sales, including publication of an excerpt in a magazine with a wide circulation or convincing a book club (like the Book-of-the-Month Club) to adopt it, but Macmillan was unable to use these promotional methods, as no one was interested in the book. They also tried to promote the book through book reviews and ads, but the reviews of the book were not positive. When they tried to arrange for television appearances, they also met with resistance.

Despite their struggles with promotions, the book began to fly off the shelves once it was in the bookstores, and by Christmas, the first printing had sold out, sales which were largely to flying aficionados and people looking for a small gift. In the year following the initial release, the book went through eight more printings and sold 140,000 copies. By the spring, Macmillan began to take out large ads, Bach was appearing on television shows, and rights were sold to publishers in other countries. Ninety-six weeks after its initial release, it rose to the top of The New York Times Bestseller List and remained on the list for 37 weeks. In 1972 and 1973, it made the Publisher’s Weekly list of bestselling novels.  

The Book Was Made Into A Film, Starring Real Seagulls

Hall Bartlett, who created the film. Source: (IMDb).

Hall Bartlett convinced Richard Bach to sell him the film rights after he read the book, and in 1973, the movie Jonathan Livingston Seagull hit theaters. The film consisted of footage of seagulls accompanied by actors' voices (James Franciscus played the title character). Bach had sold the rights under one condition: it could not be released until Bach was completely satisfied with the film. Bartlett had shot scenes that were not in Bach’s screenplay; Bach sued Bartlett, and in the end, Bach’s name was removed from the screenplay credits. The film was both a commercial and critical failure although it was nominated for two Oscars: Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing. Additionally, Neil Diamond won a Golden Globe and a Grammy for the soundtrack. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert also criticized the book, claiming that it is “so banal that it had to be sold to adults; kids would have seen through it.”  

The Story Had Wings

One of the parodies of the book. Source: (Amazon)

The book seems an unlikely bestseller, but it appealed to people of all persuasions and seemed to be part of the positive thinking culture and self-help movement that included works by Norman Vincent Peale. It made its way into pop culture in many other ways as well, as inspiration for Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA as he wrote the song “Eagle” and for one of Justin Bieber’s tattoos which he got on his 16th birthday. It has inspired numerous other works and has been alluded to in a number of television shows. It inspired the name of a children’s charity, The Flying Seagull Project. However, some have criticized the novel, and several parodies of it have been created, including “Marvin Stanley Pigeon,” by Thomas Meehan, which was published in The New Yorker in 1972, and three books published in 1973: Jonathan Livingston Fliegle by Hubert Bermont, Jonathan Segal Chicken by Sol Weinstein, and Ludwig Von Wolfgang Vulture, A Satire by Dolph Sharp. Another parody, Jonathan Livingston, Trafalgar Square Pigeon, by David Lines was published in 1998.  

More Seagull

Source: (YouTube)

Bach originally wrote a fourth section for the book, and he rewrote after he nearly died in a plane crash in 2012. This fourth section was included in Jonathan Livingston Seagull: The Complete Edition, published in 2014. This section tells the story of the flock several hundred years later, when the teachings of Jonathan Livingston Seagull are not practiced, but instead, venerated, causing the lessons to lose their meaning.  

Tags: Books | Jonathan Livingston Seagull | New Age | Remember This?... | Richard Bach

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Cyn Felthousen-Post

Writer

Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!