For two whole decades since the end of the last world war, the historico-literary medium which is biography has enjoyed an astonishing vogue among both the public and practitioners. This modern renascence or revival has reached proportions in output and popularity probably never seen before, so that it seems virtually necessary to begin by denying that the art of biography was invented recently by a person named Emil Ludwig, or even Lytton Strachey, for that matter!
Ancient as biography is, it possesses a remarkably meager critical literature. Biography has always been a rather impure medium. There are many different kinds of biography. One may affect us as history, another as fiction, a third as literary criticism, a fourth as psychological case-history. Yet very few attempts have been made to set up standards or norms for this medium, as has been done so voluminously for the drama, and especially for history. The want of critical traditions, the relative unconsciousness as to the theory and practice of biography, has injured us especially in America, and to this may be attributed the very poor achievements we have had, in the face of a very great opportunity for an imposing modern biographical literature.
We approach now, as many signs show us, a more mature and self-critical phase in this eternally fascinating literary medium, and the attempt to set up criteria for future judgment and self-discipline seems both more needful and more possible.
What has brought the heightened public demand for biographies, for period histories in popular style, for historical novels and plays? There seems to be a thirst for history in various forms. Is it because the readers of our time have seen so much history in the making since 1914 that they have become more history-minded than ever before? And is not biography, seeing the past through personalities rather than through nations, classes, and groups, the most attractive, the most accessible, perhaps the most “vulgarized” form of history? Is it not history at low cost in reader resistance?
Such reproaches may at times have been well earned. Yet they do not tell the whole story. Biography is clearly a branch of history or historical literature. But general history seeks knowledge of man’s past; it seeks retrospective perception of the continuity of man’s past, and the relationship of contemporary man to this continuity. However, it views men and things inclusively, in large areas, as from a high altitude or a distant point of view. Biography, while pursuing the same ends, treats more exclusively of the lives of individual men. In simplest terms it seems to yield us the flesh and bone of men and events; for the reader, good biography opens a window upon the past, provides him with a direct historical experience as if “events occur of themselves,” choices are made before his eyes, and—in James Boswell’s words—he “lives o’er each scene.” Behind the reawakened desire for biography and for historical fiction there may have been the need for renewed contact with the very raw materials of history, those documents from life, knowledge of which may permit one to become his own historian and to enter his own historical judgments. This would hold true especially for the generation of the tumultuous World War epoch that had felt itself in the deepest sense misled by the nineteenth-century historians.
Moreover, there have been historians and philosophers of history who accorded a very high place to the function of biography. The vice of retrospective thought and judgment is that it tends to efface the particular and the accidental.
Biography, on the other hand, has the value of calling us back to the immediate; it seizes upon the individual man as a reality, An individual life has more interest than particulars themselves do; for it incorporates within itself an epoch, a collective heritage, existing in its own milieu, subject to a given education, specific influences, human adventures, and all those experiences and exchanges through which its destiny is forged. Biography has therefore been defined as an epoch seen through the life of a man. In its highest terms it brings us light upon one of the eternal problems of history: the relationship of the individual to the whole, of the individual man to the mass of men and forces.
Biography is closer to particular details, accidents, and realities, we feel, than history. But does this mean that its norm must be the mere faithful, submissive transcription of life? Indeed there are biographies which pretend to pursue such a goal by means of their uncontrolled masses of detail in chronological order, their unrestrained and endlessly reiterated use of documents, letters, and speeches, as well as their inexhaustible citation of events contemporary to the subject’s life. Thus we have “Abraham Lincoln” in ten volumes by Hay and Nicolay, appearing in 1890 as one of the achievements of Victorian method in American biography. But worse still, in Germany during the nineteenth century, the methodical spirit, striving under the influence of Ranke to recapture the past “as it actually was,” prescribed that biography as well as history be written in a deliberately dull or neutral style, devoid of emphasis, in order to disturb the effect of truth as little as possible. Even Henry Adams, as a young man, wrote a long biography of John Randolph by this method—which he later came to hold in horror.
Today a talking-picture record, from beginning to end, would be a far more accurate transcription from life than our ancestors could have dreamed of. But would it be biography? Would it be history? When we consider the whole question of method, we face problems akin to those of historiography.
Happily, historians have lately abandoned their dream of recapturing the past wie es eigentlich gewesen ist, by the verification of masses of fact, by the struggle to discover the last few details which, added to the others, would yield perfect or absolute truth. But now the factors of selection, the limits of human observation, the weight of more or less conscious social and historical assumptions of the historian’s time and origin, are freely admitted to be decisive.
The whole crisis in historiography shortly before the World War was sharply illuminated by Croce’s paradox: “All true history is contemporary history.” In other words, history is always to be rewritten from the altered historical consciousness of each generation or epoch. The writing of history is seen as turning not upon the mere collection of facts—”like so many fossils,” as Henry Adams derisively phrased it—but upon the preliminary assumptions, the concept of history, the scheme of reference which controls the arrangement and the selection of facts and the judgment of their importance.
Similarly, the significance of biography also derives from the frame of reference in which its subject or hero is located. I should not care for a moment to be construed as depreciating the role of the document in historical writing. It is of course still true, as has been said, that without “long contemplation of the original,” without some approach to the sources or documents there can be no adequate sense of the past. Yet I would accord the relatively more important role to the equipment of a philosophy of history, to a point of view, a compass by which one may navigate the oceans of documents and facts.
The argument is not between writing either from a fixed point of view or from a wholly unbiased attitude. It is between admitting or declaring explicitly and not admitting or concealing the point of view used. Does this mean that ouraccounts would carry less credibility than before? On the contrary, the historical or social point of view that is explicitly employed must throughout its usage be subjected to constant logical and pragmatic tests. And today—despite the rise of various schools of obscurantism and pessimism— we have far better instruments for measuring given areas of human and social behavior than ever before.
I have often had occasion to examine the work of American scholars who claimed to have constructed their accounts without the shadow either of prejudice or of any system of judgment, but solely with an eye to rigorous, “objective” truth. Today we have a whole school of academic biographers who thus term themselves Objectivists, admitting no partiality to any “system” of historical thought. Yet, reading them, I find that by the mere process of selection or condensation which even a generous space may demand, as the omission of a few sentences from a letter, or a paragraph from a public paper, the whole shape of events seems to be altered as if by a powerful unconscious fixation or prejudice. I have often played at the fascinating experiment of finding and replacing the missing ingredients of evidence and observing the results. Lo, President X, who was formerly the soul of honor, now appears to be both a fool and a hypocrite! But am I not, in my own turn, the victim of another form of bias? The problem looms as insoluble, unless one trusts the assumptions with which evidence itself was confronted and weighed. These might flow from convictions concerning to the dialectical play of great social forces and persistent values, group attachments and habits of thought, upon the hero in question, convictions totally different from those unconsciously entertained by the supposedly “objective” biographer.
In a certain sense, it has been maintained with much force that though it endeavors to be scientific, “history is an art.” Even more truly may it be said of biography that it is an art, requiring the intuition of the man of letters to achieve form and significance, and above all, to create life out of the materials given.
History is something that “must always be rewritten” for each epoch, or even, in a degree, for each generation. But who thinks of rewriting Gibbon’s magnificent “Decline and Fall,” greatly though our knowledge of Rome has been extended?
In biography, which is also constantly being rewritten, no one would think of actually doing over Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson.” Here, certainly, is the biography that first, in modern times, fully realized the possibilities of its medium, discovered the laws of its own nature, so to speak. Like other great “discoverers,” Boswell used devices which were already being tentatively exploited by Johnson himself, and by certain others who had experimented with the interweaving of intimate letters and anecdotes. But it was Boswell who breathed life into modern biography in his supremely realistic and crowded canvas of the pundit of letters and his milieu, a work as profoundly comic as it is pervasively and cumulatively dramatic. There were favoring accidents, no doubt, in Boswell’s own hero-worshiping and Sancho Panza temper; there was the happy discovery that writers, by their articulate character, by the voluminous, candid records they leave, become marvelously susceptible to full portraiture. Yet these facts alone would not explain the ease, the wit, the illusion of life and truth with which Boswell enchants the reader.
From youth, Boswell showed a hypertrophied eye for observation. This is borne out by his earlier private papers and journals, revealed to the public only a few years ago, with their graphic records of his visits to Voltaire and Rousseau in Switzerland. For all his excitement at finding himself in the presence of the great, he is preeminently the psychologist, with a passionate curiosity for personalities. His eye and ear miss nothing of tone, manner, and phraseology; and nothing of this is lost in his remarkable notes written after the interview. In the same manner, save on a greater scale, Boswell, despite his disordered, self-indulgent and alcoholic way of life, prepared for the epic of Johnson. There had been no literary portraiture worth the name before him. He strove, as he said, to paint for us a Dr. Johnson set in his circle of friends and in his Eighteenth Century England, “interweaving what he privately wrote and said and thought” with the important events of his life in such wise that we are “enabled to see him live, and to ‘live o’er each scene with him’ as he actually advanced through the several stages of his life.” A whole epoch of human culture is thus seen through the life of a man. Dr. Johnson is revealed as a human being, heir to all the ills and foibles of human flesh; but he is none the less in Boswell’s eyes a hero of letters, and a moral success as a Tory and a High Church man.
In the deluge of “Lives and Letters” that followed Boswell, his recipe was generally used most literally. For a time the arts of narration and portraiture, persisting vigorously, outweighed the penchant for multitudinous detail—which, as in Dutch painting, tended so easily to become a vice. In Lockhart’s notable biography of Scott we have still the qualities of vividness and cumulative drama. But soon, toward the middle of the nineteenth century, upon the full tide of Victorianism there followed those “reconstructions” of lives, mechanical and discreet, document upon document, letter upon letter, in at least two, if not sometimes ten, weighty, chronological, but endlessly repetitious volumes. Biography was relegated now to the journeyman of letters. “Those two fat volumes with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead—” exclaimed Lytton Strachey long after, “who does not know them with their ill-digested masses of material,’ their slipshod style, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design.”
The Victorian biographers were dominated by the idea of “goodness,” as Virginia Woolf has said. Their worthies were pictured as chaste, severe, “above life-size in top-hat and frock-coat.” We must also add that the world of the Victorians seemed a closed circle in contrast with the endlessly curious, yet tolerant and enlightened Eighteenth Century. At its worst, in comparison to the aristocratic Eighteenth Century, the Victorian epoch seemed smug and hypocritical in its fear of public opinion, thanks to the influence of leaders risen recently from the newer aristocracy of commerce. At its best, it was opulent, confident of its salvation by good works and in its faith in a spreading equality and progress, scientific and humane, even in the triumph of abstract reason and justice over the forces of irrationalism and violence. Mr. Gladstone’s career as the gallant knight of economic liberalism, in two thousand pages by the excellent John Morley, epitomizes the age.
It is not the ideology of its historians and biographers that we resent in the period of Queen Victoria. If that seems to have dated rapidly, if it seems to have been insular, it embodied at least the most courageous aspirations. What we resent is that while interpolating so many panegyrical and sermonizing digressions, they often paid scant respect to knowledge and truth. They were all too disposed to correct nature. It was almost at the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign, we recall, that most of Lord Byron’s private journals were burned by his literary executors. An evil omen.
The “discreet” Victorian biography is still too much with us, especially in American letters. In a chapter of his recent book, “The Gateway to History,” Professor Allan Nevins praises the Victorian modes and inveighs against the tendency in some quarters toward the bare, stripped type of biography. “The day that the ‘life and times’ expires and all biographies are reduced to one volume,” he warns us, “that day the full-bodied, vigorous, convincing presentation of distinguished men . . . will be dealt a fatal blow.”
But do we have a “vigorous, convincing” presentation of the late Andrew Carnegie in Mr. Burton Hendrick’s stout volumes? We have instead a Carnegie who could virtually do no wrong while amassing a fortune of some three hundred million dollars.
The Victorian biography and its mere quantity continues to be given academic honors and prizes. Yet it was actually done to death by the late Lytton Strachey and his “revolution” more than twenty years ago. “Eminent Victorians” and “Queen Victoria” represent together an imposing landmark in the orientation of modern biography. Strachey introduced the first drastic technical changes since Boswell, and at the same time wrote from a clear perspective, one that stood in full opposition to the Victorian credo, expressing the deep social disillusionment of the post-War world. The originality, the boldness, the correctness of his historical judgments, his criticism of the preceding epoch, fruit of long, ripe reflection as well as of research, are too often lost sight of in our admiration for the dramatic beauty of his work.
The art of biography, which had fallen into arrears steadily so far as our increasing knowledge of analytical psychology was concerned, becoming almost an affair of sentiment, vanity, and subterfuge, was with Strachey suddenly enriched. The dialectics of subconscious motive underlying the conscious proved to be as fruitful in measuring the individual life within a milieu as the dialectics of interest versus idea in the interpretation of collective society. Moreover, psychological analysis permitted a far more searching, intensive use of document and personal anecdote; it freed biography from the tyranny of mere mass of material—under which a Carlyle groaned so much—and condemned the merely repetitious and the insignificant. Suggestions of this more polished, pointed historico-literary art had existed in French memoirs, especially in those brilliant “Causeries” of Sainte-Beuve, which were less works of criticism than a great gallery of historical portraits and brief biographies. Strachey, like our own Gamaliel Bradford, had been strongly influenced by the earlier French memoirists and by Sainte-Beuve. Suppressing the external evidences of scholarly apparatus, Strachey drew for us character and history at their moments of culminating drama; he made personality and social setting as of one cloth. In his arrangement, in his construction, his narration, the guiding concept from beginning to end is dramatic. Biography, as it was with Izaak Walton, Boswell, and Lock-hart, became an art once more.
Like all inventive men, Strachey won a host of imitators, many of whom, committing the sin of introducing fictitious dialogue and anecdote, respected truth and art far less than he. The merely picturesque and glamorous, sarcasm and irreverence in place of irony—these mark the output of an army of literary hackmen. Yet also in Strachey’s following, in the work of brilliant disciples such as the late Geoffrey Scott, author of the matchless “Portrait of Zelide,” and Harold Nicolson, with his “Tennyson,” “Byron,” and “Portrait of a Diplomatist,” to mention only these, we have a strong revival of English biography.
The mere imitation of Strachey’s formulas, or remaining within the literary limits he set, is by no means counseled for us. The great lesson he has taught is none the less clear: there is no compulsion under the heavens, no conceivable reason why writing, historical or otherwise, should deliberately seek to be dull I It was high time that mere dullness and intellectual laziness posing as “profundity” should be exposed.
Here in our own country the post-War generation in historical literature and biography had glittering opportunities. Have we missed the boat? After the World War experience of 1917-1919, when we had obtained some perspective upon our emergence from the status of an isolated, provincial, agricultural nation to that of an industrial colossus and world power, our own history literally begged to be rewritten. Rich suggestions for new criteria to this end were thrown off even before the war by men as different as Henry Adams and Frederick J. Turner, Thorstein Veblen and Herbert Croly, Lincoln Steffens and Charles A. Beard. But after 1929, when the era of the Great Depression began, the need for revaluing our history became more urgent still.
Faced with unforeseen social-political problems, compelled to take unprecedented measures, our contemporary politicians seemed to grope for new values, new interpretations of the relationship of the present epoch to the continuity of the past. Yet the conventional historians, with their antiquated Spencerian individualism and their Chamber of Commerce mentalities, yielded neither nourishment nor counsel. The ideas and actions of political men in a great emergency seemed to outrun historical thought.
American biography, as enduring literature, suggests itself as immeasurably thinner than even the general historical writings we have had. The Nineteenth Century did some useful work of conservation, leaving records helpful to the searcher and scholar. When we think, for instance, of the lives of our famous writers who have left so much intimate evidence of themselves, or our political, military, and financial heroes—though there are curiosities enough written by the sons or relations of the great—no American biography comes easily to mind as a model of excellence.
Most of the earlier biographers hailed from New England’s cultural capital. As Vernon Parrington says of Jared Sparks, who retouched all of the life and letters of Washington, they could not “subdue the temptation to improve upon reality.” Nor were such tendencies wanting in the later academicians who produced our mediocre collections of “American Men of Letters” and “American Statesmen,” also emanating from Boston in the 1880’s and 1890’s.
When we come to the present century, we have in the instance of the late Senator Albert Beveridge a progressive politician, who, after a somewhat frustrated public career, devoted himself rather more profitably to long biographies of John Marshall and Lincoln, the latter only half-completed. Beveridge had gifts of eloquence. His “John Marshall,” besides having freshness and color, derives significance precisely from his earnest, single-minded adherence to a nationalistic or Hamiltonian philosophy of history. These convictions, to be sure, are carried to extremes of intellectual naivete, so that we are given a John Marshall who is on the side of the (Federalist) angels, and a Jefferson who is a good deal of a Lucifer. But at least Beveridge was not a timid writer, as have been most of his successors in American political biography.
Gamaliel Bradford, on the other hand, moving in a totally different direction, and experimenting with literary portraiture in brief after the manner of Sainte-Beuve, must be credited with introducing us to the new point of view of analytical psychology. His “psychographs” of Union and Confederate figures and their wives, his divers “Bare Souls” suggested fresh departures for contemporary American biography. Working within a larger frame, and with more insight into social environment as well as psychological motive, Van Wyck Brooks, whom Bradford stimulated and influenced, published “The Ordeal of Mark Twain” in 1920, a little before “Queen Victoria” and before the rush of inferior and cheap biographical concoctions began to clutter our bookshelves.
“The Ordeal of Mark Twain” is on many counts a minor masterpiece of modern biography — despite Mr. Bernard DeVoto’s strenuous dissent in favor of his “rugged individual’s” view of the subject. Like Strachey’s work, Brooks’s is compact and dramatic; it has a coherent and sustained argument, grounded as equally upon a consistent criticism, an explicit historical vision of the subject’s social environment, as upon skillful analysis of inward conflicts.
But we have remarkably few fine literary biographies embodying the cultivation and the historical sense that Van Wyck Brooks has shown. Meanwhile the characteristic political biography which is being ground out in such quantities by our academic writers is truly a dreary and misshapen thing. The typical product is neither literature nor history, though sometimes it may contain the unprocessed raw materials for both. The author usually avoids being a forthright Hamiltonian as was Beveridge, or a Jeffersonian, or for that matter a forthright anything. He plods along by rule-of-thumb through the papers and letters of his chosen senator, president, or diplomat from birth unto death. Rarely is the effort made to seize the pattern which underlies any worthwhile life, by means of some consistently upheld criterion, measuring the relative importance of evidence and fact. Thus, in pretending to be “objective” all effect of realism is actually forfeited.
Portraiture or “characterology,” exemplified with such sure intuition by a Boswell, is now as rare in our biographies as in our novels. This involves an art of simultaneous observation and comprehension which is one of the oldest secrets of the drama and the novel. Those arts which Flaubert taught to Maupassant are a vital part of the equipment of a biographer, no less than that of the writer of fiction.
As portraiture most of our well known political biographies are failures. A work such as Claude Bowers’s “Beveridge and the Progressive Era,” for instance, is a jumble of fact and description, yet it in no wise presents to us the contradictory erratic figure of Beveridge as a living thing, On the other hand, Henry Pringle’s “Theodore Roosevelt,” one of the few successful works in the field of political biography, succeeds to a high degree in giving us a plausible and live Roosevelt, in spite of the many paradoxes embodied in his career. Pringle shows us Roosevelt as aristocrat and demagogue, as progressive and reactionary, but always and above all—from one consistent point of view—as supremely the politician, to whom boldness of principle and readiness to compromise are alike steps toward office and power.
Instead of putting in “a little of everything,” the art of the biographer, as of the historian, demands that he face the chances of selection honestly. In the approach to a subject, at some phase of study of available sources, examining letters or authentic documents, illumination comes to the searcher as to the essential meaning of a life. Or, finally, those salient features to which all the other features or traits lend significance and expressiveness are glimpsed. Thereafter order establishes itself among the variegated materials and fragments that compose each life as it comes to the hand of the historian. But the end of the true biographer after all is that which Strachey by his example set above all others: to make his subject live.
If the professional, respectable, or official biographers have given us little to pause over, so have the Debunkers contributed only a slight, passing shudder. We have had our Founding Fathers served up to us either in their carpet slippers or in their cups, and yet we are no wiser for it. We have also had the How-Very-Odd type of biography, devoted to period styles, famous demi-mondaines, Mormons with a multiplicity of wives, and other such curiosities and bric-a-brac. Yet these things too are all fading rapidly into the limbo of outmoded books. But what signs, what new stirrings are to be seen among the newer arrivals, the younger men?
Significant direction may often be shown simply in the act of selection itself. Thus, whereas popular biographies of a General Washington or a General Grant which appeared in the 1920’s speak to us very little nowadays, Harry Barnard’s “Eagle Forgotten,” the story of John Altgeld, caused some real reverberations. For Altgeld, who rose swiftly to leadership in a time of social distress paralleling our own, only to vanish as suddenly under a wave of hate and calumny, proves under a new examination, even by an inexpert contemporary, to have been a vertiable innovator, an original, who contributed much to our political experience. And there are many other “forgotten eagles” who may be restored by today’s historians.
“Thorstein Veblen and His World,” by Joseph Dorfman, is a tense, atmospheric search for the interior life of one of the most prophetic minds we have produced in this country, clearly one of the rich biographies of the post-War period.
Also symptomatic is the series of works on Southern leaders of the Civil War, written lately by members of the group called “regionalists.” Here, at least, even if mixed with much sentimentalism, is what appears to be an honest attempt at offering a point of view, at advocacy of a definite scheme of values or traditions by means of chosen symbolic figures. But in the South itself a more systematic and informed effort at revaluing the past has been continued especially from the Chapel Hill center; and probably one of the most heartening examples of such advance may be seen in C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel.”
Here we have the picture of a real rather than an idealized or imaginary agrarian leader. Mr. Woodward has missed nothing of the modern practice of applied psychology in his field; he has given—in a style that is restrained and just—all the dramatic shadow and light in the career of the fiery Georgia Populist who became in the end a type that was the equivalent of one of today’s Fascist leaders. Yet at the same time, the environment, the developing epoch itself is presented in as nearly scientific a spirit as possible; factors of deep-seated tradition, the effect of the soil, and the force of class-economic interests are carefully delineated in brilliant passages of sociological analysis.
Both Dorfman’s and Woodward’s biographies, while preeminent for psychological acumen, drew much of their interest from their expert, sustained, and well organized evaluation of the social setting in which their heroes were located, the one an academic, the other a political world. That is to say that such social analysis was given as great weight and scale of importance as was more usually accorded to speculation in individual psychology among the post-Victorians. For at this very period, when so much fanatical “blood-thinking” has been unleashed, our sociological knowledge, within prescribed areas of human life, has become far more exact and explicit—promising us instruments with which to diagnose and treat “mystical” or demagogic symptoms and irruptions. Here is a tendency which seems immensely constructive, promising much wider scope and much deeper appositeness. Such new productions suggest that our biographers, once having learned to work with brevity and dramatic economy, will not easily or knowingly return to the wasteful, cumbersome, long-winded Victorian methods. Nor will they follow along uncritically up and down among the bumps and accidents of personalities like their predecessors.
The new biography, like the new history, must bring the wider social knowledge of the present to bear upon the dialectical play of interest and idea, of material forces and human values, of the individual life span and the historical period. Else biography and history alike become what they were in their darker days: vehicles for fostering myths, nursery legends, or old wives’ tales.
I have seen the demand for myths raised recently in respectable circles, as a note in the latest, and, I hope, passing fashions. Professor Howard Mumford Jones, in a polemical article entitled “Wanted: A More Glamorous Patriotism,” published in The Atlantic Monthly, has argued that inasmuch as the “dictator nations” are forcing a new mythology of semi-divine heroes upon their citizens, we too, if we would cope with them, must create our own grand opera of myths and legends. We must bridle our social historians and biographers of exposure, who, as Professor Jones contends, have been showing us that Washington was a land-grabber who never prayed at Valley Forge, or that Sheridan never made his famous ride. We must, in short, put back upon their pedestals our Vikings, pioneers, and heroes, around whose glory a patriotic renaissance can be engendered.
Shall we leave reality, just as our understanding of it has become more refined and more rewarding, and return to the fictitious and the supernatural? Professor Jones urges us on. “We have debunked too much. . . . In our enthusiasm for depicting history in terms of social movements and economic forces we have omitted most of the thrilling anecdotes and the romance of personal endeavor.” The only way to conquer the enemy mythology, he concludes, “is to have a better mythology of our own.”
Now, though it is denied by Professor Jones that he seeks to set up a Bureau of Propaganda and Censorship at Washington, this is what he more or less consciously points to, and, in consequence, the fascization of our historical literature. If our literate public is to be forced down to the level of the mental robots living under the Fascist dictatorships, if approved historical myths and pap—such as Parson Weems’s tales of Washington—are to be fed to them more or less forcibly, then why resist the Fascists? Our culture will have been conquered and degraded from within; and perhaps with the aid of well intentioned scholars such as Professor J ones.
Such proposals indicate nothing less than the dire effects of the Fascist “jitters” which seem to sweep some people off their feet nowadays. What we need is less myth and more history. The whole argument that a realistic or economic interpretation of our history and our political and legal institutions undermines our patriotism is insidiously false. Undoubtedly there were professors and experts among those advising President Roosevelt during the crisis of 1933 who held what may be called unorthodox views of our history and our economic system. Did this make them less “patriotic,” less devoted, less courageous for their country and their people than the class of men who usually pretend to a monopoly of patriotism and who were shutting up their shops and their banks?
The whole secular, unmystical, and rational tradition of modern democracy demands respect for truth. It is one of the great values of the more complex, more highly developed democratic system. We might say that dictatorships are tragic and “irrational,” while democracies are realistic, reasonable, and good humored. Our strength lies in. our capacity to measure such social phenomena as Fascist demagogy, war-mongering, and racism with cool reason rather than in a mood of intellectual panic. Even for reasons of military strategy, should they become necessary, I would prefer the democratic mentality. In some great emergency I would rather not find myself among people who had been bred in a national hothouse of lies, propaganda, or concocted myth, and who believed that supernatural powers and voices were leading them. When the ship struck a reef I would rather have men who had been nourished upon realities, who knew that the chance for life depended upon intelligence, energy, and knowledge, and not upon the powers of magic.
The very greatness of the American republic, and the drama of its origin and growth, seems to stem from men who successively refused to embrace prevalent myths, feudal and otherwise, but resolved rather to destroy them. This powerful and, by now, historical tradition, seen from many surfaces and aspects, might well be the underlying theme with which a new brood of historical writers could inspire themselves. Thus they could meet the challenge of the pessimistic and treacherous thought ruling among certain nations which have momentarily, though defiantly and unthinkingly, renounced their heritage of human values.