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Flawed Biographies

ISSUE:  Summer 1975
William Penn: Apostle of Dissent. By Hans Fantel. William Morrow & Company. $8.95. William Penn. By Harry Emerson Wildes. Macmillan Publishing Co. $14.95.

WITH the publication of these two biographies, 1974 had the appearance of a banner year for the admirers of William Penn. Unfortunately, appearance is not reality. Hans Fantel and Harry Emerson Wildes are very different in their approaches to Penn, and their books are completely dissimilar in character and style, but both suffer from serious flaws.

Wildes’ “William Penn” is old-fashioned, leisurely, anecdotal. He has based his study on the Albert Cook Myers materials for a life of Penn, collected for the most part before 1930, and now housed at the Chester County Historical Society, West Chester, Pennsylvania. Instead of emerging with a newly informed understanding of Penn, Wildes asks the same questions Myers did, has absorbed Myers’ undiscriminating interest in everything to do with Penn and, perhaps because of the bulk of the Myers Collection, has not often enough gone beyond Myers to more modern scholarship. Myths about the mating of Penn’s stallion, digressions on the curious name of a minor appointee, and the resurrection of a nineteenth-century hoax about Cotton Mather and Penn, long since ignored by serious students, are at best mildly amusing. But when the chapter on Penn’s early land distribution and his plans for Philadelphia is exactly the same length as a chapter on a witch trial of minor importance and several home remedies, the reader’s confidence in the author’s judgment begins to falter. When old stories about the name and design of Philadelphia are trotted out, but the work of scholars like Anthony Garvan and John Reps are ignored, confidence in scholarship falters, too. Furthermore, Wildes takes curious, inventive liberties with evidence. This is particularly noticeable in the characters he develops for Penn’s mother and sister, primarily on the basis of the unreliable and unfriendly testimony of Samuel Pepys. The coy and gossipy tone here borders on fiction. Wildes’ loyalties are involved in Penn’s reputation, even to the extent that he explains a conservatism he doesn’t admire in the constitutional provisions for the Pennsylvania Assembly by the unsupported suggestion that restrictive provisions were written by someone else and “slipped by” Penn because he was distracted. However, while Penn is clearly his hero, Wildes is not blind to Penn’s faults nor does he entirely fail to perceive the changes that can take place in a good life span. He makes it clear that Penn made bad appointments, “drifted” somewhat to the right in politics, and was a fool about money. Perhaps the best work in this book is the sensitive treatment of Philip and Bridget Ford, the stewards who have so long been accused of trying to cheat Penn, and in these pages are recognized as victims as much as villains.

Finally, both Wildes and his editor were careless. There are major typographical errors: for example, the introductory sentence for Chapter 38, set in large type, makes no sense whatever; two footnotes to Chapter 13 are completely missing. The footnotes are astounding. They contain numerous abbreviations such as HMC, CSP, N & Q, PD, JFHS, but no table of abbreviations. The scholar will recognize most of them (although JCAHS stumps this reviewer), but it is not clear that scholars are the intended audience. Manuscripts are frequently cited by name of addressee and date, and one is left to guess that they are in the Myers Collection and to wonder about their precise nature and location.

Hans Fantel’s “William Penn: Apostle of Dissent” is a more strongly argued . book, dedicated to the proposition that Penn’s “genius lay in translating moral values into social reality by political means,” and that while his plans for Pennsylvania failed, the core of his idea—”the politics of individual conscience”—has endured in America. This is intellectually attractive, and Fantel’s motives in writing are honestly laid out, but he has great difficulty in sticking to the point because he is writing biography and Penn’s life history is too complicated to reduce to a simple argument. Even so, Fantel indulges in unnecessary discursions into things like seventeenth-century medical oddities, and ignores some phases of Penn’s career which would be useful in support of his thesis, for example, Penn’s political activity in behalf of the Whigs.

Failure to sustain and control an argument is not the major shortcoming of this book. It is also flawed by errors in minor matters of fact (e. g. , Fantel puts Penn’s efforts to get George Fox out of prison in the wrong period, is mistaken about Hannah Penn’s age at marriage). More important, historical judgments are frequently intemperate and sometimes ignorant. The most striking case is the projection of a Puritan-Quaker contest for control in America which displays a lamentable lack of sensitivity, first to the Puritans, who did not pursue Quakers with “cruel glee,” and secondly, to the passage of time—Mary Dyer’s America was not William Penn’s America. Fantel’s object is to find sources for what he sees as opposed traits in American character, but lessons drawn from history need special care for history.

Fantel is equally intemperate (and sparing of detail) about Bridget Ford. He admits she had a case, “technically,” against Penn ; but her decision to pursue it is a “preposterous scheme,” and she is described as shameless and vicious. To lay on Bridget all the blame for the Fords’ accusations and Penn’s foolishness seems unjust. In yet another case, Fantel refers to women in Pennsylvania as “equal members of the community” whose restraints, where they existed, were cultural rather than political. Clearly, Mr. Fantel has not read the statutes of colonial Pennsylvania. In a concluding essay, in which he defends himself for taking “leaps beyond documentary evidence,” he hopes to disarm the scholar critic, made of sterner (and, he implies, less imaginative) stuff. But historical imagination, sympathy for human passion, and a desire to understand the present should not preclude knowledge and tolerance. Every historian should look before he leaps.

It is unfortunate that neither of these volumes will satisfy whatever hunger exists for a new biography of William Penn. Certainly they do not supersede Catherine Owens Peare’s “William Penn,” which has its own shortcomings, particularly in respect to Penn’s politics, but still stands as the best modern biography for the general reader.


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