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Diverse Autobiography

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

Editor in Politics. By Josephus Daniels. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. $3.50. Across the Busy Years. Volume Two. By Nicholas Murray Butler. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.75. Dusk of Dam. By W. E. Burghardt Du Bois. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00.

The three books that are considered here have little similarity beyond the fact that they cover, roughly, the same period of time and that each is autobiographical in form. The former editor of The News and Observer looks at politics from his old desk in Raleigh, North Carolina; the President of Columbia University views the national and international scene from the seats of the mighty; and a noted Negro scholar has long looked through a plate-glass window, believing that the white men on the other side cannot hear the things he says.

“Editor in Politics,” Josephus Daniels’s characteristically American autobiography which appears here in the second volume of a projected four, covers the two decades from the inauguration of Cleveland to his own appointment as Secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, From the vantage point of the Department of the Interior, where for a year and a half he was ensconced in a clerical post, he viewed with an observing eye the Washington scene in which he him-self was subsequently to play a conspicuous role. Purchasing The News and Observer, he then returned to Raleigh and remained there until Wilson summoned him in 1913.

The national capital in 1893-94 he describes as a gossip factory, and he has recorded some lively gossip of his own-about Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, about Senator Ransom and political patronage, about General Wade Hampton and his “toddy well,” about his superior, Hoke Smith, who was properly exasperated when Dana’s Sun referred to him as “Hoax Myth.” But it was the state capital that was the scene of his own more important activities, and in describing what he did and saw he has given an informal political history of North Carolina, together with flashes from the national political arena as they were reflected in his state. He knew all the members of the dominant General Assembly and called most of them by their first names. Accordingly, his story of the struggles between Democrats and Fusionists, between political clerics and their lay foes, between monopolists and reformers, has all the freshness of a first-hand record. The procession of local celebrities is confusing at times, but Governors Aycock and Russell, Bishop Kilgo and Judge Clark, Senator Simmons and Governor Glenn—all appear here as living personalities. And one is enabled to understand more fully why William Jennings Bryan appealed to Southern constituencies.

This is not merely a story of local politics but also of personal journalism, for Josephus Daniels contented himself with no passive role. His paper became an institution but, as someone aptly said, two-fifths of its seventy-five thousand readers hated it like the devil. In an era when political campaigns were pitched battles, he neither gave nor asked for quarter, and in retrospect he is surprised at his own violence, He was once burned in effigy and spent a night or so in jail for alleged contempt of court. His unpretentious story, without literary distinction, reveals a courageous crusader who may have been too sure of the correctness of his own opinions at times, but who was remarkably free from thought of personal advantage. It is by such men that the battles of democracy are fought and won.

President Nicholas Murray Butler’s book is also the second volume of an autobiography, “Across the Busy Years.” It is devoted chiefly to his travels, which never took him to the Orient or Latin America but took him practically everywhere else, and to his contacts with many persons in many lands. It is essentially without organization, chronology being abandoned after the second chapter. Into this melange of reflections, experiences, and anecdotes, one can dip anywhere. Although a couple of chapters toward the end deal with American domestic problems, solved and unsolved, the most important part of the book is about efforts to promote peace and international understanding. President Butler played a significant, if not a determinative, part in the establishment of the Theodore Roosevelt Professorship in Berlin and of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and in the recataloguing of the Vatican library; he participated in innumerable conferences and was in consultation with statesmen in a dozen countries. His informal reminiscences are not without historical value and they reveal him as a man of extraordinary energy and competence, deeply concerned for the better organization of the world. It is doubtful if any private American citizen of his generation knew as many distinguished foreigners: the Kaiser and Strese-mann, Clemenceau and Briand, James Bryce and John Morley, Asquith and Lloyd George, Venizelos and Masaryk, Pope Pius XI, and even Mussolini. Though the book might be entitled “Great Men I Have Known,” the treatment is casual rather than pretentious.

The autobiography of Dr. W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, “Dusk of Dawn,” has arisen from darker recesses of human experience, In the nature of the case it is more subjective than the others and certain of its passages have genuine poetic beauty. This is more than a candid story of a life that has been in many ways tragic—though there is more hopefulness in it than in this author’s earlier books; it is also the story of a concept of race. Dr. Du Bois says that his life has significance only because of its connection with the race problem. Perhaps the most important portion of the book, from the historical point of view, is the account of the author’s controversy with Booker T. Washington, the acute-ness of which he now regrets. Few of the white men who preferred and still prefer the philosophy of the Principal of Tuskegee have been fully aware of the motives in the minds of his Negro critics which are presented here. The philosophy of the scholarly Du Bois, however, has become less absolutist since he set out years ago, as he says, to combat race prejudice by overcoming ignorance. Despite the increase in scientific knowledge, prejudice seemed to him as strong in the 1930’s as it had been twenty years before. He renews his indictment of American democracy, as something that has been “splendidly conceived and discussed, but not realized”; but in these later years, when more cruel doctrines of race have been avowed in Europe than any that are in good standing here, he is content to accept compromises which once he would have abhorred. He now favors a form of self-segregation, beginning on the economic plane. Whether or not the program outlined by him is feasible, and obviously he has doubts of it himself, his poignant story of his own career is not to be regarded as polemical. He is happier than he used to appear but this is still high tragedy; and it is profoundly moving because of its sincerity and its literary form.


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