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Biography Pure and Applied

ISSUE:  Autumn 1928
The Development of English Biography. By Harold Nicolson. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company. $1.25. George Henry Bokcr, Poet and Patriot. By Edward Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. $4.00. Kit Carson, The Happy Warrior of the Old West. By Stanley Vestal. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. $3.50. James B. Duke, Master Builder. By John Wilber Jenkins. New York: George H. Doran Company. $4.00.

Although biography is an old art, histories of it hardly antedate the present century. The latest of these, originally given as the Hogarth Lectures, is by the Honourable Harold Nicolson, long known for his vivid lives of Byron, Swinburne, and Tennyson. Through fourteen centuries he rapidly traces the development of English biography. In this long trail Mr. Nicolson finds Walton the first deliberate, consciously artistic biographer. The old angler, “obsessed with the fascination of doing nothing,” was certainly, deliberate enough, but he was a very partial portrait-painter, fond of panegyric crowned with ethical aureoles. Not until far into the eighteenth century, with Mason’s “Life of Gray” and Johnson’s “Life of Savage,” do we come upon pure biography, “the truthful and deliberate record of an individual’s life.” Such pre-eminently, of course, is Bos well’s immortal work on Johnson, and such in a less striking way is Lockhart’s book on Scott. The Victorians were too morally earnest and emotional, too lacking in skeptical detachment for modern taste in biography. Froude was the first to infuse into English life-writing that satiric strain which in the next century was refined into gentle and subtle irony by Stra-chey. The art of biography, Mr. Nicolson asserts, “is intellectual and not emotional. So long as the intellect is undisturbed by emotion you have good biography. The moment, however, that any emotion (such as reverence, affection, ethical desires, religious belief) intrudes upon the composition of a biography, that biography is doomed.” According to this formula of exclusion there are precious few English and American biographies of high merit; indeed, one may well question whether such complete detachment is possible or even desirable in a biographer. Bos-well, supreme master of the craft, had his hero. Thoughtful readers of Nicolson’s little book on biography will agree, however, that it is so far the most illuminating and suggestive treatment of that art.

Certainiy some of the most recent American biographies would not fully meet the ideal requirements set forth in that interesting volume. One of these, “George Henry Boker, Poet and Patriot,” by Professor E. S. Bradley of the University of Pennsylvania, is a scholarly and sympathetic interpretation of the life and literary, contribution of the Philadelphia gentleman, poet, and diplomat who has been remembered as the author of “Francesca da Rimini,” a mid-nineteenth century play seen on the stage as late as 1902. But Boker wrote a dozen plays, over three hundred sonnets besides much other verse, considerable war poetry and prose, and was minister to Turkey and Russia. He was an intimate friend of Bayard Taylor and Charles Godfrey Leland; of the trio Taylor is the best known to students of literature today. Professor Bradley finds Boker’s life “a series of frustrations” : he was a romanticist looking backward across the seas for literary material in the midst of a generation demanding more of the American scene in plays and stories; he was not properly recognized as a poet by, his native city; he was appointed to relatively uncongenial diplomatic posts, when he had hoped to be sent to the Court of St. James’s and was recalled from St. Petersburg because of political expediency; civil war interrupted his literary creation and turned his activities into semi-political channels; and, in general, his ambition seemed always greater than his performance. One gathers that Boker was a proud and sensitive soul, in spirit and manner an aristocrat, and for a poet something of a plutocrat, writing plays and sonnets for his own diversion oniy, though several of his dramas were acted with success. But even some of these are still in manuscript, while only a dozen of his long sonnet series—the only sonnet series in the Elizabethan sense in American literature—have ever been published. A man of independent fortune and vast culture he, like other men of his class and day, would not professionalize art and was disappointed because the public didn’t know that he was a literary artist. He had not advertised his wares, which now, thirty-eight years after his death, have at last an adequate evaluation in Professor Bradley’s admirable appreciation. It can scarcely be expected that Boker will have such a revival, or more accurately a discovery, as Melville, his contemporary, after half a century, of neglect; it is altogether likely, however, that his dramas, thanks to the loving and intelligent labors of Professors Bradley and Quirm and other Philadelphians, will be widely read and several of them acted again. After all, wasn’t Boker too proud to fight for fame and wasn’t he also, as one of the age-old race of romantic dreamers, at least touched with that sweet idleness which the world calls indolence? While he was Minister to Turkey, a correspondent, quoted by Professor Bradley, referred to Boker’s “born talent for resting which endeared him to the Sultan and all the European diplomats.” In confirmation of this the same correspondent relates that “an enthusiastic Frenchman offered to bet three to one that Boker could rest longer, oftener and more gracefully than the mighty British Ambassador himself. No one accepted.” Why shouldn’t a romancer from the old city of Philadelphia feel quietly at home and take life easy in the dreamy Orient where the occidental imagination has so often found relief?

A very different sort of biography, is Stanley Vestal’s “Kit Carson, the Happy Warrior of the Old West,” who didn’t look backward at all and had no book larnin’, but was himself more romantic in action than any of Boker’s dramatic heroes. There are other lives of this Indian fighter, pathfinder, and government scout, but this latest one by Professor Stanley Vestal of the University of Oklahoma is the most vividly dramatic and colorful account of that agile epic personage yet written. The author knows his West in fact and fable (he was born in Kansas); he grew up with the belated Indians, played and swam with Indian boys, and has been all over the regions through which he imaginatively follows his pioneer warrior. And he does follow Kit with evident enjoyment, even to the extent here and there of dropping into the vernacular of that redoubtable little man and his fellow-trappers. Unable to read or write, Kit Carson, though a man of few words, had a racy and picturesque vocabulary on occasion, and he readily acquired a speaking knowledge of Spanish, French, and several Indian tongues. An implacable foe of the Red Man, a score of whom he is known to have scalped besides killing many others, he had a heart quickly, responsive to feminine charm and beauty. His courtship of the pretty Arapho girl Waa-nibe, begun at an Indian dance when her laughing eyes challenged a kiss, affords idyllic relief in the melodrama of his warfare; his rescue of the girl from a drunken trapper’s attentions and his speedy marriage to her are the beginning of his happy and faithful attachment, broken a few years later, after the birth of a daughter, by Waa-nibe’s death from fever. His subsequent marriage to Josefa, the belle of Taos, “vivid, alive in every fiber,” was also a happy one. Kit’s love affairs were consummated with the same dispatch as his fights on the Indians. A favorite comment in his dictated dairy is this, all in one sentence: “Concluded to charge, done so.” And so in love, as Mr. Vestal comments, “Concluded to kiss her, done so.” There is no interim between decision and action. When General Fremont was opening the far West and making it safe for the covered wagon, the seasoned trapper was his invaluable ally—captain, envoy to Washington, Indian agent, and General Christopher Carson: And so the Happy Warrior, famous in story, went home from the Civil War to pass his last years in quiet, but Josefa was dead and he himself was slowly dying. Despite the doctor’s warning, he ordered a big dinner, “some fust-rate doin’s—a buffalo steak and a bowl of coffee.” He ate heartily, then puffed at his old pipe, “blowing smoke into the jaws of Death, whom he had flouted so often.”

After the frontiersman of the West came the railroad builder and after him the captain of industry. Chronicles of our American plutocracy will record in later years the achievements of democracy’s royal line—the steel kings, the oil kings, the tobacco kings, industrial sovereigns who left monuments more enduring, and certainly more beneficent, than bronze in this golden age. One of these captains of industry is James Buchanan Duke of North Carolina whom his biographer aptly names Master Builder. This is not another great man born in a log cabin; the nearest he came to fulfilling that popular tradition was by starting life on a poor farm and his tobacco business in a log barn. From that rustic structure to the big cigarette plant at Durham and the great university now in building is an astonishing progress of material accomplishment. The reader of this life of James B. Duke gets no vivid impression of the man himself apart from his work. What he did is most impressive; he and his work were one. His advice to young men is essentially that which one may read in “Poor Richard’s Almanac” : be industrious, be honest, be thrifty, and you will succeed. Trite stuff! But he does not stop there. Add to this the injunction, be a good advertiser, take risks, spend freely, and you have the practical philosophy of this North Carolina tobacco king. “Do you know how to spend money?” he asked a New York lawyer. “You have to spend money to make it. You can’t ever get anywhere by merely saving it. That’s all right in small things, but you can’t do anything on a big scale that way. You have to spend a lot of money here to do anything worth while, and the first thing to learn is how to spend it.” He was visioning big things, bigger things, all his fife. His biographer says that of all natural objects water fascinated him most; hence, on the practical side colossal power plants utilizing rivers, and on the aesthetic, fountains playing, arched bridges spanning crystal streams. Next to water, he loved flowers most and had acres of them at his several palaces. One gets the impression, however, that Duke was always more interested in construction than in completion, in planning than in contemplating the finished structure. He was, like the rest of the tribe of industrial idealists, primarily interested in the adventure of money-getting and money-spending. This biography, far less literary in manner and matter than the others, resembles them and, indeed, most American biographies in its emphasis upon the outer life. Of keen and subtle analysis, outside of Mr. Gamaliel Bradford’s deftly done portraits, we have as yet achieved little. Is it because our subjects are mainly men of action who so dazzle us with the glamour of mere achievement that we are blind to the hidden and often complex springs of action?


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