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Archibald Henderson’s Immortals

ISSUE:  Spring 1931

Contemporary Immortals. By Archibald Henderson. New York: D. Apple-ton and Company. $2.50.

When i fall to contemplating Mr. Henderson’s twelve great men of our time, the first thing I think of is how lonely they would be with one another. If Mr. Henderson got them all together—arranged a house-party of immortals for a week-end at Chapel Hill— how would it go? How would they all, by half past eleven Sunday morning, be getting on with one another? Edison, of course, being deaf enough, would probably be more at ease than anybody. Mussolini, after trying to dominate the dinner and set Shaw in his place, and probably getting the worst of it, would sulk off after his coffee by himself. Gandhi, after being infinitely, bored by Henry Ford and deeply hurt by Kipling, would slip away finally and sit under a tree all alone, wrap his mantle about him, shrug himself back into himself out of our modern world, and meditate. . . . Jane Addams would be really almost the only one who would miss him, go out and find him, sit down under the tree by, him, and try to be of some use. . . . But I need not go on. . . . I think almost anyone would agree with me that the house-party in one way or another would be almost sure to get out of hand. We can easily see why Mr. Henderson, with his great gift for taking almost any great man tete-a-tete, has quietly given up the idea of having a house-party and has fallen back, in bringing his great men together, on the serene safety of a paper book, where each man in his own little room—each immortal away from the others in his own special cell of immortality—can sit quietly and hug his own greatness all by itself.

I have been especially interested in Mr. Henderson’s book because I have never visited with twelve immortals all at once before and it never had occurred to me what a perfect broadside of immortality—the particular kind of immortality this particular generation of ours is furnishing to the world —would be like. The general effect has been one of extreme disappointment at the twelve immortals our world has been able to provide for Mr. Henderson’s book. When I begin to analyze my disappointment in the twelve men, I find it does not take the form of being disappointed in each man by himself. The disconcerting thing to me is seeing how lonely they all look, and how lonely they make the world look, when one sees them all together. I find myself looking back over history a little. What would a book like Mr. Henderson’s, on twelve Contemporary Immortals, have been like a hundred, two hundred, or nine hundred years ago?

Would they make the world as lonely as these twelve men do?

In the world in which I daily live I see thousands of great dreamy cities go blundering by, I see hundreds of blind crowding nations with village minds, making huge, empty, lonely world-fumbles . . . pulling, pawing, and pushing . . . making naggings and dabbings at our colossal time, each in its own separate lonely way. Why should I be astonished at Mr. Henderson’s house-party? I can see the truth about our world all summed up and made massive and impressive in the way Mr. Henderson’s specialities of human character fail to coordinate—the way the greatnesses of all twelve of them brought together and piled up on top of one another, fail to make one great man between them.

I may be over-emphasizing what the over-specialization of our scientific age has been doing to the richness and depth, the variety and unity of individual human life and individual human nature in the times that have gone before, but I do feel assured that in our present transition stage when we are passing through, as it were, the children’s diseases of the inductive method and the scientific mind, Mr. Henderson’s Contemporary Immortals, when stood up in heaven alongside the twelve immortals of a hundred other generations, would stand out quite embarrassingly and really look rather queer.

As the host of the mighty, Mr. Henderson conducts himself, or feels he has to, as a rather polite disciple. He seems to some of us to accept face values a good deal. We cannot but feel that Mr. Henderson, with all his gracious many-sidedness, ought to expect more of it in other people.


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