Skip to main content

Golden Days and Gray

ISSUE:  Autumn 1927

Emerson and Others. By Van Wyck Brooks. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00.

The Rebellious Puritan: Portrait of Mr. Hawthorne. By Lloyd Morris. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company. $4.00.

The Golden Day: a Study in American Experience and Culture. By Lewis Mumford. New York: Boni and Liveright. $2.50.

The renascence of biography is one of the most promising, as well as one of the bulkiest, phases of the vast literary activity of our day. The exquisite dilettantism of Mr. Lytton Strachey has been celebrated by numberless pens; the new and interesting technique developed by, Mr. Gamaliel Bradford, I myself tried to analyze in my review in last April’s Quarterly. There are other departures, however, both of method and of material. Take, for example, Dr. MacLaurin’s interesting, if inconclusive, attempts to get at the truth concerning the great figures of the past through the study of their medical records. Take again the astonishing tendency towards the reversal of once established judgments, manifested, on the one hand, in a fondness for taking “empty simulacra down from pedestals where they have enjoyed the secure adoration of ages,” and, on the other, towards the scouring of tarnished reputations and the resuscitation of damaged souls. On its positive side, this movement is perhaps best exemplified in Frederick Chamberlin’s gallant vindication of “The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth,” and in Waldo R. Browne’s perfect biography of one of the great pioneers of social justice in America—”Altgeld of Illinois.”

Another tendency has been represented, in France, by M. Andre Maurois, and in North America, by the Canadian woman who writes both as E. Barrington and L. Adams Beck. In such books as “Ariel,” “Glorious Apollo,” and “The Splendour of Asia,” one gets adroit and immensely entertaining mingling of fact and fiction. “Biographical novels” are of course nothing new, but these books are not precisely biographical novels in the usual sense. They, are rather biographical in intent and fictional in method. That is to say they set out to tell the “true story” of a man’s life, but they employ exclusively the narrative, rather than the narrative plus the critical-analytical method which has traditionally belonged to biography, and they do not hesitate to add vividness, to fill in details, to supply artistically necessary links through the use of the imagination. As I have already suggested, when the method is skilfully employed, the result is an exceedingly readable book, but from the standpoint of scholarship, the objections to such half and half reconstructions are serious. Stated vulgarly, the difficulty is, in a word, that in reading such books, “you don’t know where you are at”: you cannot without infinite labor differentiate between the factual basis and the imaginative embroidery. The objection is one of which oniy trained scholars are perhaps in a position to appreciate the cogency. We know so very little about the past, even those who have striven longest and most earnestly to understand it: take so brilliant and erudite a mind as that of Georg Brandes and turn it loose in speculation, as it turned itself loose in so many passages of his “William Shakespeare, A Critical Study,” and it does not take long to violate every principle of scholarly interpretation, or hopelessly to confuse the critic and the preoccupations of his day with those of the author and the work that is on the dissecting table for examination. If such things can happen to a trained scholar like Brandes, how much more likely are they to happen to the kind of literary persons who are attracted to the study and the writing of biography under the influence of the Maurois or Barrington ideals? And since the object of all biographical writing is to shed light on the past — and through the past on the complicated human relations of the present—it is too bad for the conscientious biographer to chose a method which, through engaging tricks and entertaining literary devices, shall make it easier than it would otherwise be for him to turn his light into darkness. These objections are not applicable of course to all historical fiction: there can be no harm whatever in the genre, so long as it is managed as Shakespeare for instance managed it, so long as no pretence is made with regard to accurate reconstruction. An historical background for an imaginary story is one sort of thing: the imaginative writing of history itself is quite another.

In “Emerson and Others” and “The Rebellious Puritan,” one hopes, for the sake of one’s own discernment, it is not wholly fanciful to see these imaginative methods, perhaps half-consciously, affecting the writing of a much more trustworthy and scholarly sort of biography. Both writers eschew critical dissertations, and while they confine themselves to fact, they present their facts in the manner of a storyteller. Mr. Brooks explains: “The episodes from Emerson’s own life are, the reader will observe, written largely in Emerson’s own words. I have gathered these from his Journals and other sources with the idea of presenting as directly, as possible his own thoughts and feelings.” Mr. Morris’s first chapter begins thus: “Decorously one morning in the spring of 1808, death crept into an old house near the Salem wharves.” Not content with this, he adds a prologue and an epilogue in which Emerson is pictured as musing over the story of Hawthorne’s life the day after his funeral. The management of this device seems to imply, if it implies anything, that the Hawthorne story, is told from Emerson’s point of view, an assumption which the book hardly bears out. The pre-conceptions behind “The Rebellious Puritan” are Lloyd Morris and Twentieth Century conceptions. It is oniy fair to say, however, that Mr. Morris does not in any way obtrude them. He has tried to tell his story objectively, his criticism being all implicit, not explicit, and in this attempt he may be said to have succeeded as well as any, Twentieth Century biographer and infinitely better than most.

It is interesting to see the American worthies collapsing one by one into the arms of the moderns: Katherine Anthony’s “Margaret Fuller,” Hervey Allen’s “Israfel,” Herbert S. Gorman’s “Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” and now the three books which are the subject of this article. In a way it is a pity that the American Victorians were, on the whole, such decent fellows. Some of our contemporaries would be so much happier if only somebody might dig up as interesting a scandal, say for Lowell or Whittier, as Professor Harper found for “Daddy” Wordsworth, or as Mr. Steuart and Mr. Hellman have recently attached to R. L. S. Has the dreadful virus of Puritanism so entered into the American blood that we can never hope to sin in active competition with our British cousins? In any event, one could hardly imagine a less promising subject for the psycho-analyst than Longfellow — and how conid Mr. Gorman’s previous study, in the elucidation of James Joyce help him in any way here?

In general, however, one may say the renascence of biography has treated the Americans well. Katherine Anthony’s book, if anything, idealized Margaret Fuller, and even Mr. Gorman, though he does not understand Vic-torianism very well, tries desperately hard to be fair to it. When they consider what might have happened, had their idol fallen into the hands of such a modern as Mr. George Jean Nathan, who—thank Heaven!—is not a biographer, even Longfellow’s admirers have cause to be thankful rather than otherwise for Mr. Gorman. The three authors in my present list are certainly not in any derogatory, onesided sense “moderns.” (A “modern” is a man whose judgments of the present are determined by his ignorance of the past.) It is true that Mr. Morris unfortunately calls Hawthorne and his wife “Nathaniel” and “Sophia” all through his book, but I think this is hardly meant to be contemptuous: it is merely another trace of the influence of the novelist’s style. And Mr. Mumford, who has studied most of our great writers in “The Golden Day,” has reached the conclusion that Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman really found the key to our salvation, and that since we departed from them, we have been wandering in the darkness.

To recur for a moment to the question of method. Is the imaginative writing of biography—the attempt to write a book which shall read like a novel—a dangerous tendency even when facts are respected as they have been respected here? In the case of Mr. Morris, I should say not. He gives hundreds of Hawthorne’s words within quotation marks, and though he does not use footnotes, he gives in his preface a careful list of the authorities. Generally, if not invariably, it is possible to distinguish between fact and interpretation, between Morris and Hawthorne. I do not see myself just why all our “new” biographers shonid fear footnotes as they fear the smallpox, but the fact remains that only, Mr. Bradford seems to have any idea of what documentation is. The helpful little wife in “The Dover Road” was not more naive in her conception of its usefulness than are most of our intelligentsia. Indeed our horror of footnotes has gone so far that when, as sometimes still happens, an E. E. Stoll will bring out his magnificently inspiriting “Shakespeare Studies” properly and exhaustively ‘documented, most of us regard it as a piece of eccentric affectation. I would plead here for the footnote, save that I realize the cause is lost already: a biographer who adopts the narrative method to attract more readers will not run the risk of scaring them away again with peppered pages.

In the case of Mr. Brooks the problem differs somewhat: telling the story, so far as possible, in Emerson’s own language, he is not able to use quotation marks: he weaves the words of Emerson inextricably into his own text. In the past Mr, Brooks has been notable for reading his own ideas into the authors whom he interprets. Has he not here, in many instances, read Van Wyck Brooks’s reactions into those of Ralph Waldo Emerson? It would seem that it must be so, and in a sense, of course, all biographers, no matter what their method, do the same sort of thing. Yet Mr. Brooks is such a careful scholar and such an accomplished critic, one is willing to trust him thousands of miles farther than one could trust many other biographers using a method which tends rather to encourage than to discourage this particular form of inaccuracy.

I must not leave either of these books just here. The first and most immediately striking thing about “Emerson and Others” is that Mr. Brooks has taken to heart the advice of his numerous friends who begged him to write a book without a preconceived theory behind it. It must have been a difficult thing for him to do, with a mind so bent on searching out hidden relationships of cause and effect as he possesses, and it may even seem to him now that the “Six Episodes” which he has dug out of Emerson’s life—they are not long enough to make a book by themselves — repay him but poorly for the effort involved. He can hardly help realizing that “Emerson and Others” is less “brilliant” than “The Ordeal of Mark Twain” or “The Pilgrimage of Henry James.” One hopes he realizes also that it is much sounder criticism. Mr. Bradford has often remarked that he considers Brooks the finest biographer now writing in America. I myself should hardly have thought of the Brooks of the past as a biographer at all but rather as a critic. But he is unquestionably a biographer in his Emerson papers.

He appears in his older manifestation also in this new book—in the seven short appended papers whose subjects range from Herman Melville to Randolph Bourne, and which culminate with a paper on “The Literary Life in America”—an analysis of the artistic poverty in the background of American life, which, for sheer intellectual excitement, is one of the most stimulating papers I have come across in some time. Here, as throughout the volume, the pure, limpid quality of the style is notable and refreshing. The sentences flow across the page: they move steadily, in regular orderly procession, each one contributing precisely what the author intended to the completed whole. The book is checkered with memorable quotations, drawn from the most diverse sources, yet always a propos, relevant, illuminative, never approaching the vulgarity of a parade of knowledge. Many of Mr. Brooks’s own phrases bid fair to become quotations themselves, never more so than when he takes an old, outworn phrase, and gives it a new illuminating twist—always the mark of the creative thinker—remarking, for instance, of Upton Sinclair’s heroes that they are impossible “because they do not exist in Mr. Sinclair’s own imagination,” and of the^ American popular, journalistic writers that “as they have rendered unto Caesar what was intended for God, is it any wonder that Caesar has waxed so fat?”

“The Rebellious Puritan” is a suspicious title: it sounds as if this time it were Mr. Morris, instead of Mr. Brooks, who had a preconceived theory to exploit, and that a theory of an exceedingly unpalatable sort. It is impossible to feel much respect for the modern cant which would make Puritanism a kind of scapegoat for all our failures in the arts and in the richness of personal living. The “splurge” on the flap of the jacket only makes the title worse: “To Mr. Morris the amazing life of the author of ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ his dislike of New England, his pathetic attempt to understand Europe, his final return to the Athens of his country to die of its meagerness, all symbolize the vital failure of Puritanism.” But the author of “The Rebellious Puritan” is wiser than the writer of the “splurge,” or if they are one and the same person, then Morris as a biographer is more understanding than Morris as an advertising “specialist.” That Hawthorne was a rebel in his relation to Puritanism has long been a commonplace of criticism: it was felt even in his own time. And that Hawthorne’s New England was not of all places and periods in the history of the world the one best adapted to the production of literary genius: this also we have long known. Mr. Morris recognizes both facts but he does not unduly, press either of them: as I have already said, he presents his materials rather objectively than otherwise.

I cannot feel that he has achieved any very great vividness in his reconstruction, for all his evident attempts to do so. Hawthorne does not stand out of his pages as a living man, but “The Rebellious Puritan” is a sane, sincere, eminently readable, and informative book. Some reviewers will cavil at a “biography” which fails even to mention some of Hawthorne’s works: others will point out the errors which a more careful proof-reading might have avoided. In the first part of the book there seems to be a certain confusion of thought regarding Hawthorne’s background. Certain viewpoints—the vision of life as essentially conflict, the stern Puritan notion of God—seem, here and there, to be attributed too directly to the Hawthorne circle: they were merely characteristic of the times. But in general the influences on the early life of Hawthorne are well presented, all the more so because they are not sermonized over. Perhaps a minor matter but one well worth mentioning is the success with which Mr. Morris manages to look at Hawthorne’s Italian adventure, sympathetically, from the sensible vantage point of what Hawthorne himself derived from it: “Nevertheless, what to a cosmopolitan or more sophisticated mind would have seemed a peculiarly barren experience, was to him infinitely stimulating and supremely important.”

In “The Golden Day,” Mr. Lewis Mumford has set himself a more ambitious task than either of the other writers.

It is nothing less than to make a survey of American culture and American civilization thus far, using creative literature and creative thought as the touchstones of our progress. Van Wyck Brooks says with much justice: ” ‘The Golden Day’ seems to me the culmination of the whole critical movement in this country during the last ten years —the most brilliant book the movement has produced thus far and the one that best sums up its leading ideas.” Thus it can easily be seen that to attempt an adequate critique of this book would necessitate the writing of an article two or three times as long as the book itself. Though it is criticism and not biography, it suggests, by implication, the highest possible usefulness of the renascence of biography, in so far as it relates itself to American subjects: that is, the study of the past with a view to discovering a chart for the future. As in “The Story of Utopias,” Mr. Mumford chronicled the vague speculations of forgotten dreamers as a means of establishing a basis for more scientifically co-ordinated dreams today and tomorrow, so here he has run through our American culture of yesterday, not in any antiquarian spirit, but as a man immensely committed to life and the improvement of life today. Here is his own justification of the scholar:

The mission of creative thought is to gather into it all the living sources of its day, all that is vital in the practical life, all that is intelligible in science, all that is relevant in the social heritage and, recasting these things into new forms and symbols, to react upon the blind drift of convention and habit and routine. Life flourishes only in this alternating rhythm of dream and deed: when one appears without the other, we can look forward to a shrinkage, a lapse, a devitalization.

When creative thought operates in this fashion, we find the Golden Day, when it fails thus to integrate itself, we have nothing save gray days, the devastating negation which Mr. Mumford finds in Mr. Theodore Dreiser or in Mark Twain. He rejects with, if anything, over-emphasis, a museum-culture, imported from other climes, and not indigenous to the soil on which we walk:

Whereas, in their search for a new basis for culture, Nietzsche went back to pre-Socratic Greece, Carlyle to Abbot Samson, Tolstoi and Dostoevsky to primitive Christianity, and Wagner to the early Germanic fables, Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman went forward leaning on the experiences about them, using the past as the logger uses the corduroy road, to push further into the wilderness and still have a sound bottom under him.

Mr. Mumford’s criticism is not of the aesthetic sort in any narrow or restricted way. He evaluates our literature in a way, that leaves no doubts concerning either his aesthetic interests or his aesthetic competence, but he does not make the fatal mistake of conceiving life in terms of a department store or a compartment desk. It is not literature here and philosophy there with religion somewhere in between: rather the diverse elements of American life are fused into a synthesis in this comprehensive survey, and our literature appears clearly the natural, inevitable outcome of the life that we have lived. (Who but Mr. Mumford would have thought of grouping Mrs. Jack Gardner’s museum with “the novels of Henry James,” “the historical memoirs of Henry Adams,” and “the great philosophical compendium by Mr. George Santayana?” “The essential character of all these culture-seekers was that their heart lay in one age, and their life in another.”) Consequently, “The Golden Day” is social criticism fully as much as, in the old sense, it is literary criticism, but it is more profoundly criticism of life than it is either one. It makes the old hard and fast tests of “the true, the good, and the beautiful” seem pretty inadequate, and the old debate about the relations between literature and morality seem pretty, silly.

The attempt behind “The Golden Day” is, of course, audacious in the extreme. Specialization has gone so far in literary scholarship that we instinctively distrust a man who attempts so comprehensive a task as that which Mr. Mumford has set himself. It is inconceivable, we say, that any one man could be a specialist on all the subjects which he has touched. Yet uniess we are to be buried wholly under the unassorted masses of our own knowledge, it is imperative that men should try to do just the thing that Mr. Mumford has done. The “outline” craze shows the same need on an immensely lower level, but Mr. Mumford has not written an outline. He has simply made an attempt to think things through. He proceeds on the assumption that until we have determined whence we have come and whither we are going, it is impossible even to begin to direct the progress of our travel.

It is inevitable that Mr. Mumford should be less satisfactory on certain writers and certain movements than he is on others, nor is this fact especially important. Many readers will feel that his judgment that “After Edwards, Protestantism lost its intellectual backbone” would be somewhat difficult to substantiate. “There were great Protestant preachers after Edwards, no doubt: but the triumph of a Channing or a Beecher rested upon personal qualities: and they no longer drew their thoughts from any deep well of conviction.” Many will feel also that his interpretation of the Rip Van Winkle legend is rather strained, when he takes Rip as a symbol of “the fate of perhaps the great majority of Americans, lost in their dreams of a great fortune in real-estate, rubber, or oil.” The study of the social backgrounds of American literature will doubtless soon be thriving immensely in the wake of Professor Parrington’s “Main Currents in American Thought.” Perhaps Mr. Mumford illustrates one of the dangers such critics will do well to take into consideration, when he considers P02 as a “literary equivalent of the industrialist and the pioneer,” because “Terror and cruelty dominated Poe’s mind; and terror and cruelty leave a scar on almost every tale and anecdote about pioneer life.” A year or so ago, critics were good-naturedly chaffing Mr. Hendrik Van Loon because his book on “Tolerance” had turned out to be a history of intolerance. Perhaps Mr. Mumford may be subjected to some of the same chaffing because so many of the pages in “The Golden Day” are gray. And these are not the only gray pages I am reviewing: Mr. Brooks’s paper on “The Literary Life in America” is a study, of stunted development, culminating in the dispassionate observation that “Considered with reference to its higher manifestations, life itself has been thus far, in modem America, a failure”; and Mr. Morris’s rebellious Puritan-one of the very denizens of Mumford’s Golden Day—was, in Morris’s interpretation, rather a case of stunted development himself. Yet one feels that all three critics are immensely hopeful of the future. Mumford indeed uses his brave symbol twice—as the title of a chapter and as the title of his book. In its narrower use we have already studied it sufficiently: it indicates the hour when Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman began to work out an American attitude towards life, but—as I have previously hinted—one suspects that, for Mr. Mumford, its larger signification lies in the future. For although the American chronicle since Hawthorne has been in his eyes nothing more than a dreary record of failure, he ends his book upon almost a triumphant note, with the affirmation that our task “is nothing less than the effort to conceive a new world.

“Allons! the road is before us!”


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading