A Gentleman Rebel; the Exploits of Anthony Wayne. By John Hyde Preston. New York: Farrar and Rinehart. $5.00.
Hard put for sometning better to do, the race of book reviewers, when they tackle a biography, can always fall back upon a standard question. How, they inquire, does the author know that this thing or that actually happened? What evidence has the author that the bright sun was enheartening to his hero, or the dull clouds depressing? Now that is a question as hard to answer as it is easy to ask, and doubtless Mr. Preston has not troubled himself over it very much.
In truth, he should not trouble himself. He has written a book that is patently, wise and honest, and if people make an objection to his quite justifiable assumptions, it is a safe bet that he knows what to tell them to do with it.
Anthony Wayne’s grandfather came to America in 1722 and settled on a large farm a few miles west of Philadelphia. He was rich and prominent, and his son, Anthony’s father, marrying judiciously, was also rich and prominent. As a boy, Anthony cared little for books, but his zeal for military legend violated all the frontiers of normality, obsessed with the image of Julius Caesar or of scouts who had dealt death, in his own time, to Indians and to Frenchmen, he marshalled his schoolfellows into battalions and with them diverted himself with many puerile sallies upon barns and haystacks that bristled with nothing more disconcerting than insensitiveness. Older, he was for a short time a student at the University of Pennsylvania. Then, as a surveyor, he was connected with one of the few unpractical schemes that Benjamin Franklin ever thought feasible; he attempted at Franklin’s behest to colonize Nova Scotia. But he came home in 1765 and the next year, at twenty-one, married a Philadelphia Penrose.
The only thing left for him was to settle down to the routine of farming, with occasional interruptions when he was called upon to establish this or that land-line. Lie found all routine irksome. He was born so. Even the ecstasy of a charge in battle, if in the nature of things a charge might be perpetual, would doubtless soon have seemed to him inexpressibly dull. Luck, mindful of his happiness, saw to it that when he was thirty there was a war for him.
Under George Washington he was a good soldier, daring, and unwearied by anything but waiting for more and more combat. That war, which made him a general, was the center of his life, and it came too close to being the whole of it. He lived fifty-one years, but half of this book about him is given to the period 1776-1782.
With the coming of peace, he lived for a while in Georgia, where the government had granted him a plantation. Then and later, till Washington sent him to subdue the Indians in Ohio, he was wretched, unable to adjust himself to any ways except the ways of war. Once with his troops again, he was ’ again at peace.
Mr. Preston evidently understands such a disposition. He finds battle maneuvers interesting, and he manages by his artful accounts to make them seem vivid and important to people whose usual concerns are not at all of that nature. So sympathetic is he, for instance, with Wayne’s passion for Death and Glory (genus military) that one almost suspects j him of being himself a sort of romantic. But on that score he is at bottom sufficiently realistic. For when Pulaski is killed, indomitable Pniaski, in the rushing glory of battle, Mr. Preston exclaims, “Poor Pulaski!”—poor. That word says much.
The entire tone of Mr, Preston’s book accords with the notions of wisdom that the year 1930 has fixed upon as sound. No one in contact with such a book in 1930 can fail to think it admirable.
In an introductoiy note about the author one learns that he is not an academician, and that he is not distressed by his plight. Unhappily the fact involves him in some things that would go hard with him before a jury of people who teach Freshman English. He would doubtless claim the ancient right of being tried only by a jury of his peers, and in that *case he would be safe. The charges against him would probably collapse before any ordinary jury, and it is sure that much of his distinction as a writer—a very considerable distinction—has its origin in what the teachers would delete.
“Anthony Wayne” is beyond anything else swift and vigorous, as it should be to portray the men and times it has to do with. Reading at, one experiences the illusion of actuality, knows the distress and the exultation and the plodding methodicalness of many men who have been a long time dead. Their thoughts, Mr. Preston succeeds in making for a time the reader’s thoughts. And in spite of the curiously unreal uniforms that the Revolutionary worthies affected, he succeeds in making those worthies very definitely human, differing from one another as truly as if they wore the most rational of trousers.