George Washington. In Love and Otherwise. By Eugene E. Prussing. Chicago: Pascal Covici. $5.00.
President Witherspoon. A Biography. By Varnum Lansing Collins. In 2 volumes. Princeton: Princeton University Press. $7.50.
Aaron Burr. By Samuel H. Wandell and Meade Minnegerode. In 2 volumes. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons. $10.00.
The Life and Letters of James Abram Garfield. By Theodore Clark Smith. In 2 volumes. New Haven: Yale University Press. $12.00.
The Life of John Caldwell Calhoun. By William M. Meigs. In 2 volumes. New York: G. E. Stechert & Co. (Albert Hafner).
The Life of Abraham Lincoln. By William E. Barton. In 2 volumes. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co. $10.00.
Abraham Lincoln. The Prairie Years. Dr. Carl Sandburg. In 2 volumes. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. $10.00.
In the writing of history and biography, autobiography and memoirs, a new spirit is abroad. The partisan history, the acknowledged brief for a country, a cause or a people, is giving place to the non-partisan, balanced appraisal of movements and events. The old chronicle of wars and campaigns, the dreary catalogue of families and celebrities, has suffered demotion in favor of studies vertebrate in economics and sociology, setting forth the less spectacular but more homely and pedestrian features of the life of the people as a whole.
The new biography reveals features peculiarly novel and individual. It is often little more than a vignette; but so rich in color, so close in the weave, as to permit dispensing with elaborate documents and even with chronological order. About it often hovers the spirit of irony; the muse of irreverence, tricksy jade, is ever in the offing. Psychography —the art of soul-revelation—is the favorite term; and fortunate is the subject who comes through unscarred.
In the United States, despite the inspiriting example of our Bradfords, Minnegerodes and Werners, we have not as yet succeeded in producing a Maurois, a Strachey or a Gue-dalla. Indeed, with the steadily growing interest in biography, noticeable over the past two decades, the impulse with us is directed rather toward the elaborate, the comprehensive, the would-be definitive. The examples of Beveridge's "John Marshall," in four massy tomes, of Page's letters in three—notable as these works are—register a tendency toward a reversion to the leisurely, sprawling, life-and-times biographies of an earlier epoch. Of the volumes of biography here under review—covering a group of political figures, Washington, Witherspoon, Burr, Calhoun, Lincoln and Garfield—only the first exhibits the influence of the new school of psychographies. Washington—in love and otherwise: thus Mr. Prussing blithely sets the key of his composition. Here are essays: In Love; The Engineer; The Captain of Industry; and Personally. The volume is a striking illustration of the uncontested fact that the "real" Washington—the man himself—as yet remains buried beneath mountains of piled-up fact. Mr. Prussing draws aside the veil; and deftly shows us Washington in a few strikingly characteristic features of his nature. The opening essay is slight, the chief value being the publication of a few notes and letters of Washington, hitherto inaccessible. Nor does the second study afford more than a clear picture, simple enough in outline, of Washington as engineer. The chapters dealing with Washington as captain of industry are admirable; the author has flung far and wide the drag-net of research, even to the Bank of England; and the result is a genuine addition to our knowledge of important business transactions in which Washington was intimately concerned. Slight but not without charm is the chapter on personal traits, although it helps us not at all to break the coating of the plaster-of-paris figure so familiar to us in outline, so remote and strange in any sense of vital reality. We are assured that on three historical occasions Washington used violent language; and the author mistakingly sets down what Washington is "said to have said" to Lee at Monmouth.
Mr. Collins' study of President Witherspoon is a triumph of biographical thoroughness in face of the depressing handicap of a dull subject. Far from dull is the book, which exhibits the most meticulous and painstaking research, the care-free balancing of evidence on many moot points, a noticeable conscientiousness in the handling of materials. For all the magic of Witherspoon's influence, the love of liberty and the passion for independence he inspired in so many pupils and acquaintances, his devoted and permanent work in building the Princeton foundation, he somehow doesn't "get over to us big". This is a biography for students of the American Revolution, of Princeton College, and of the Presbyterian Church, rather than for the "general reader" who is looking for "pep" and wants to be "sold" on the diligent, patriotic, devoted, canny old Scot. It has all the marks of a definitive study: future biographies of Wither-spoon are superfluous, and can only be made on the structure erected so devotedly and so thoroughly by Mr. Collins.
In striking contrast to the Witherspoon life, careful, scholarly and intensely serious, stands the dramatic, moving, almost journalistic story of Aaron Burr, the successful product of joint authorship. The historical student will deplore the absence of foot-notes; the average reader will rejoice thereat exceeding much. The materials have been collected and collated by Mr. Wandell, who doubtless is a final authority on the facts of Burr's career. But no doubt the actual drafting of the story is the work of the sprightly, irreverent, but at times eloquent Mr. Minnegerode. The sympathies of the authors are strongly engaged in Burr's favor; and the best light is put on the three crucial episodes in his career: the contest for the Presidency; the duel with Hamilton; and the questionable hazard of near fortunes in the Southwest. But the authors have distorted nothing, glozed over nothing: the documents and the evidence support the view so dexterously put forward here. The debacle, with the facilis descensus of the last phase, 1808-1836, makes very unpleasant, even painful, reading. Yet the interest in Burr's extraordinary personality never flags: we hang with tense interest upon his every word to the very end. Unhinged reason is ascribed to Burr by the authors m explanation of certain strange manifestations of the later years which, on almost any other hypothesis, remain inexplicable. Burr was clearly a man of overweening ambition; often unscrupulous in pursuit of cherished ends, yet guided by a certain code of honor, the attribute of the "gentleman" he felt himself to be; and haunted by extravagant dreams of grandeur and worldly success. And yet! Aaron Burr remains the most engaging personality, the most fascinating and magnetic figure, that the political stage in America ever exhibited.
Genuinely valuable as source books for the historian are the biographies; of Garfield by Professor Smith, of Calhoun by Mr. Meigs. Each unquestionably "fills a long felt want"; since no adequate biography of either Garfield or Calhoun had been written down to the present time. The immense volume of materials, carefully preserved by the Garfield family for a period of thirty years, was made unqualifiedly available to Professor Smith. The task was a difficult one for the biographer by reason of the very superabundance of materials. The numerous diaries and autobiographical reminiscences which Garfield painstakingly drafted throughout his entire life, from youth down to the very time of his assassination, enable Professor Smith to tell the story very largely in Garfield's own words. Capable, competent, aggressive, Garfield steadily rose round by round on the ladder of fame. The target for venomous assaults, the storm center of political scandal and intrigue, Garfield triumphantly survives the careful scrutiny of the biographer. Genuinely revelative are Garfield's own words to a friend: "My life, you sometimes say, has been made up of a series of accidents, mostly of a favorable character. Perhaps this is true. Certain it is that I am perpetually in a series of unexpected fixes, not at all sure how I shall come out nor always clear how I ought to come out." His reputation is solid and sound enough to survive successfully the unprecedented outburst of popular adulation at the time of his assassination.
Somewhat old fashioned, somewhat prolix, though not to the point of boredom, is the biography of Calhoun. Mr. Meigs has made a thorough study of the materials availablefor the fife of Calhoun, which are full, rich and abundant. The fine texture of that incomparable brain, the invincible logic and sledge-hammer force of reasoning, are exhibited with convincing power and no mean skill. This is no cheap brief for slavery, no outmoded defence of the doctrine of Nullification, no impassioned plea for the cause of the South. Aside from the "right" of the great questions at issue, as settled by the "arbitrament of arms", Mr. Meigs makes clear the compelling quality of Calhoun's unanswerable logic. If Calhoun's premises be accepted, his reasoning and conclusions follow with the inevitableness of a theorem of Euclid. But Meigs adopts the view of Lamar that Calhoun "neglected to take into view essential matters in an history, which were entitled to great weight against his theories". If his fame suffered a marked eclipse, it was due chiefly to this loss of the cause which he so masterfully espoused. Mr. Meigs has performed an important service in this illuminating biography of that graduate of Yale conceded to have been her greatest brain.
In this era of world-wide laudation, indeed canonization of Lincoln, biographies pour from the presses in avalanches. I have read the books of Dr. Barton and the poet Sandburg in the intervals between reading the chapters in manuscript of ex-Senator Beveridge's projected work on this "latter-day saint" of cosmic acceptance. Both these new works are remarkable, each in its own way. No doubt Dr. Barton is the greatest living authority on Lincoln; and he writes with a power, an authority, and an air of finality which are suitably impressive. What imparts to his work its real impressiveness is the almost incredible thoroughness with which he, a true literary detective of the first rank, follows down every clue until it has given up its secret, however trivial or slight it may appear. There is a not unpleas-ing naivete about it all; for Dr. Barton is not content with giving us the results of his investigations: he describes every step in his researches with the utmost particularity and confident satisfaction. His researches have resulted in bringing to light many hitherto unknown facts of Lincoln's life, particularly in the early years, as affecting his parents, their doings, connections and relationships. Furthermore he has been markedly successful in correcting many errors which have found their way into standard or accepted biographies. Dr. Barton has not given us a "new Lincoln"; but he has carefully rounded out the familiar portrait with many deft touches; and given an added worth to the study of this great American through the authenticity, dignity, and earnestness of his treatment.
Carl Sandburg has written a delightful, a memorable book about Lincoln. It is an extraordinarily intimate and revelative picture of the man, his character, personality, and soul, during the period from birth to presidency which Sandburg calls the prairie years. It is a lovable work, full of homely touches, deliberately off-hand and colloquial. It smacks of the soil, reeks of the Middle Wrest, is redolent of that rude, fierce, semi-barbaric civilization whence Lincoln emerged. But it is continually touched with deep emotion; the humor and melancholy of Lincoln are well mated with the wild poetry and strange melody that is Sandburg.