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Biographies - for Better, for Worse

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

Life of Lord Pauncefote. By R. B. Mowat, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00. John Wesley. By Arnold Lunn. New York: The Dial Press. $4.00. John Wilkes Booth. By Francis Wilson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.50. Andrew Jackson. By David Karsncr. New York: Brcntano’s. $3.50. As God Made Them. By Gamaliel Bradford. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.50. Foch Speaks. By Major Charles Bugnet. New York: The Dial Press. $3.00. Rabelais. By Anatole France. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $5.00. Henry the Eighth. By Francis Hackett. New York: Horace Liveright. $3.00.

Era of debunking is not Golden Age of biography. To choose a constricted mode of depicting the human soul is to bare a narrow soul. But it is the soul of the biographer, not the biographed, that is thus stripped naked to the gaze. Away with flabby faces smirking in white smoothness, the lines of character, experience, passion, sin, ironed out in dread of the world’s scorn! Bring on the true image, honestly limned, courageously painted — lacking the meretricious allure of distortion maybe, the intriguing zest of the trivially vicious, but rich in the strong indicative colors of a ripe humanity.

For all the fanfare over the new biography—so genially described by Nicolson and Maurois, so graciously practised by Bradford and Strachey—much of the biography of the day is strained and artificial, or colorless and dull. The imitators of the new methods fall awkardly between the two stools of crass literary, inexpertness and leering petty maliciousness. The stolid practitioner of stereotyped, chronological narration creates a disproportionate impression of the old fashioned against the glittering contemporary tapestry of psychography and psychiatry. Mowat’s “Lord Pauncefote,” basic with its solid underpinning of document, leaves somehow unrevealed the secrets of that leonine dignity and massive success associated with the name of the great ambassador. He is identified with his achievements, rather than revealed througli them. This is a sound, reliable narrative of the When, the Where, and the How, but not of the Why. A more vivacious note is struck by Lunn in his “John Wesley”; an easy frankness carries along the narrative, with its unbroken contact with the sheerly personal and graciously cultural aspects of the intensely human divine. There is much of antiquarian interest and historical appeal in the extraordinary, long-deferred story of the life of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, and of the myths which have haunted that shadowed memory. It is fitting that Booth’s story should have been told by a distinguished actor, Francis Wilson, who devoted many years to tracking down the elusive legends and deceptive old wives’ tales which veiled from the public gaze the truth about this, perhaps the most execrated man in American history. Wilson satisfactorily disposes of all the fantastic stories about Booth’s escape and of the many claimants to the dishonor of having slain Lincoln. He makes it abundantly clear that Booth was mentally unbalanced, and that the murder of Lincoln was the ghastly histrionic gesture of a madman. The illustrations to this volume are exceptionally interesting, for rarity and the power of evoking the atmosphere of a period.

The wave of recent interest in Andrew Jackson seems to be dying on the shore in Karsner’s mild splash. In the mellowing haze of the kindly, years, Jackson is now wearing the halo of “the gentle savage.” Biography here takes the guise of straightforward narration and factual exposition. Jackson lends himself to passionate defence, olympian irony, contemptuous detraction—never (save for school children) to pure story-telling. His biography remains unwritten. Karsner locates his birthplace in North Carolina, on the basis of Parton’s array of testimony—a contention confirmed by very recent researches.

Portraits of some nineteenth century Americans, in his familiar manner and with his deliberate method, are dextrously limned by Bradford. With an assurance justified hy wide approbation, Bradford ventures to present them, not without a touch of humor, “As God Made Them.” Webster, Clay, Calhoun, Horace Greeley, Edwin Booth, Francis James Child, and Asa Gray, file before us in stately procession, rather solemn-visaged all—taking themselves seriously and disporting themselves in the grand manner. Even Clay, the inveterate card player and heavy drinker, is presented with singular convincingness as a very great figure — “essentially, constructively, triumphantly American.” Clay’s ideal has surely never been better expressed: “The impetuous impulse of Clay was to let the youth, the vigor, the creative spirit of triumphant America sweep in untrammeled activity whithersoever it would, secure that a benevolent Providence would guide it in the future as it had done in the past.” The essay on Webster, perhaps unconsciously derogatory, is rather in the nature of special pleading. Calhoun is presented as a tragic figure, a man who towered in intellectual power and the faculty of abstruse reasoning far above all but two or three of his contemporaries; but whose life was embittered by his long, unsuccessful aspiration to the Presidency. The subtle and illuminating comparison of these three figures—each with the other two—is an impressive example of biographic art.

Foch speaks, indeed, in the rather ingenious volume conscientiously compiled by his aide-de-camp, Major Charles Bugnet. For eight years Bugnet was thrown into association with the great marshal, and sedulously recorded his utterances, almost as they fell from his lips. This is not a biography, in the conventional sense; it is the work of a human phonograph catching the words of a great man through a period of mighty stress and vast responsibility. It makes fascinating reading–if taken in snippets. It is the authentic material, vital and veracious, of which biographies may be made.

Anatole France’s “Rabelais” embodies the substance of a series of lectures he delivered in South America in 1909. Here is no titillation of sensual appetites, no Rabelaisian biography of a Rabelais—a task of which the famous French exponent and practitioner of the philosophy of sensualism was pre-eminently capable — but a patently heavy, laboriously scholarly analysis of Rabelais’ writings, learned and astute. We prize it less for the portrait of Rabelais—surely neither full-rounded nor deep-hued—than for the rich and intricate embroidery of the background.

Gleaming like a red, coruscating beacon upon a mountain top is Hackett’s truly brilliant “Henry the Eighth.” It is “fine writing” in every sense but the derogatory—a pure example of a work of style, painstakingly polished—a glittering gem without the hardness and the cutting edge. A colossal figure is this Henry—vanity, egoism, hardihood, courage; hideously cruel, shockingly bloodthirsty, grossly sensual; a powerful statesman, the creator of a Church— a subject for the master psychiatrist. This book is like a succession of brilliantly colored Bayeux tapestries—a dazzling film of rapidly moving snap-shots of men, women, and events, which give a startlingly vivid impression of more than a life—of an age.


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