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Early American

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

Fits-Greene Halleck, An Early Knickerbocker Wit and Poet. By Nelson Frederick Adkins. New Haven: Yale University Press. $5.00. Mrs. Sigour-ney, The Sweet Singer of Hartford. By Gordon S. Haight. New Haven: Yale University Press. $3.00.

Mr. Adkins’s “Fitz-Greene Halleck” is a book which will probably have few really adequate reviews. The author seems to have mastered every last speck of information there is in existence concerning his subject: he knows so very, much more about Halleck than anybody else that it would be extremely difficult to find a reviewer who is really capable of sitting in judgment upon his findings. This is the price one pays for really mastering a subject, especially when one chooses such a subject as this, in which comparatively few people are at all interested, and which hardly anybody is interested in very deeply. With a world-figure, of course, the situation is very different: one may be never so diligent and never so erudite, and there will still be a good score of one’s contemporaries who will not feel in any sense outdistanced and who will be well qualified to put one right.

Not that Mr. Adkins, so far as I am aware, stands in any need of being put right. On the contrary, his elaborate book is an impeccable piece of literary scholarship. It runs to a total of more than four hundred and fifty large and closely-printed pages, and every statement it contains is minutely documented. Nor has the author yielded to the temptation to magnify the importance of his hero. In an admirable chapter on “The Man of Letters,” by far the most valuable in the book, he sees Halleck as distinctly a minor poet, a writer of graceful vers de soci&U, “intellectually shallow,” “frequently lacking in critical judgment,” “often . . . unaware of the existence of human problems—even, be it said, of his own.” And he ends his book with the rather cruel judgment of Lathrop, that Halleck’s “self-divided genius causes him to stand forward as a peculiarly apt representative of that large class of minds that are potentially poet-minds, but never find means of expression.”

There is one question, however, which might well be raised in connection with Mr. Adkins’s study, and that he himself raises in his Preface, where he speaks of the extreme length of his book and justifies it by citing the authority of Longfellow, that “a life that is worth writing at all is worth writ-ing minutely.” One cannot too much admire the conscientiousness with which this ideal has been followed, yet the effect is unquestionably to restrict the appeal of the book to special students of early American literature.

It may perhaps at this point be not utterly irrelevant to ask: By what aims may a biographer who calls public attention once more to a man whose work is no longer regarded as of any special importance for its own sake, be legitimately inspired? Myself I can think of three. He may wish to reopen the case, with a view to persuading a writer’s posterity, that it has erred in failing to recognize his just claim. He may wish to consider the work in question not for its intrinsic importance but as an expression of the spirit of the time in which it was produced. Or he may wish simply to present a human being for his own sake, not because of anything he achieved, but rather as the novelist presents a character, as emotionally important in himself, as possessing a certain charm or interest which makes him a legitimate object of human curiosity. Of these aims, the first, obviously, did not fall within Mr. Adkins’s province, To the second, he gives comparatively little attention. In the last he succeeds to a certain extent. The image of Halleck remains in mind as that of, at least, a companionable gentleman. The bulk of the book, however, consists mainly of the chronicling of facts bearing in some way on the events of Halleck’s life. Mr. Adkins is, one must conclude, more impressive as a scholar than he is as a biographer.

Now this is not at all true of Mr. Haight, whose “Mrs. Sigourney” is at once distinguished as a portrait and illuminating as a commentary on a certain phase of American life. To be sure, Mr. Haight’s task was in some ways easier than that of Mr. Adkins, for the simple reason that Mrs. Sigourney herself was such a colorful, such a picturesque, such an outrageous figure. The high priestess of weeping willows and graveyard meditations and “broken flow’rets” and “faded hopes,” the woman who for half a century was regarded as America’s leading poetess, and whose positively appalling maunderings—”believe it or not!”—stood, leather-bound, between Longfellow and Bryant on the parlor-table —what a subject she is for these “debunking” days! But this circumstance created problems of its own, and it should be stated emphatically at the outset that Mr. Haight’s study of Mrs. Sigourney is a portrait and not a caricature. He began, he tells us, in the hope that he might find among her poems “some few pieces that would establish her right to the reputation she enjoyed. . . . But before reading many of the forty-odd volumes through which the search ultimately led me, I was forced to agree that posterity, had judged fairly in denying her claim.” He does not therefore treat her as a comic valentine. There are times when she suggests that, as in Mrs. Carlyle’s famous description of her: “this figure of an over-the-water-Poetess—beplastered with rouge and pomatum—bare-necked at an age which had left certainty far behind—with long ringlets that never grew where they hung—smelling marvellously of camphor or hartshorn and oil—all glistening in black satin as if she were an apothecary’s puff for black sticking-plaster—and staring her eyes out, to give them animation. . .” But though Mr. Haight finds “a devastating authenticity” in Mrs. Carlyle’s picture, he does not leave the matter there: his last two chapters, indeed, almost take on the mood of tenderness. For Mrs. Sigourney, despite all her absurdities, was hardly a fool. She knew what it meant to receive terrific blows from life—disillusionment in a marriage which had once seemed so brilliant, disappointment of her dearest hopes in her son, followed by his early and tragic death—and if there was something of pious hypocrisy in the way she glossed such matters over, there was also much in the way, of courage. We have forgiven Aphra Behn much greater sins than those of Mrs. Sigourney because, in the face of bitter masculine prejudice, she sturdily and successfully maintained a woman’s right to make a living in England with her pen. Mrs. Sigourney did that in America and she did more. She pioneered in her interest in higher education for girls and she was a pioneer too in her pacifism, which she found the courage to hold unshaken through the terrible crisis of the Civil War. Best of all, she was a woman with a great heart, and she proved her love for mankind not simply in making rather mawkish verses about it but in a thousand wise and kindly ways of practical benevolence.

Both of the books reviewed in the present article have been published on the basis of subsidies. The nature of Mr. Ad-kins’s study made this method more or less inevitable in his case, but if “Mrs. Sigourney” docs not pay for itself, the American public is not so wise in the ways of biography as it pretends to be. Here is a book of fine scholarship and of sound human interest. It contains passages that are hilariously funny but not one sentence that is in questionable taste. Accuracy and readability join hands in it: the book is as reliable as it could possibly be if it were dull, and as entertaining as it would be if Mr. Haight had chosen to write us one of these “novelized-biographies.” And though Mrs. Sigourney herself was of no special importance, this book about her is very important because it helps us to understand the America that made the country that is ours today.


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