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Henderson’s “Shaw”: Some Footnotes

ISSUE:  Winter 1933

Bernard Shaw: Playboy and Prophet, By Archibald Henderson, New York: D. Appleton and Company. $7.50.

Henderson’s authorized biography of Shaw, definitive to date, by its masterly integration of chaotic elements in time, environment, and personality, ranks its author among the foremost of permanent historians. As biographer of the greatest living publicist, he is both recorder and appraiser of evolving history, artist in the emphases of fact and of significance.

The resulting masterwork is not so much Shaw’s “endless moniment” (though in that it is a “topless tower” of his personality), as it is Henderson’s organic interpretation of Shaw’s fluently contemporary cosmos focused in his Eiffeline form. That alluring skyline, capped with cloudy curvatures of “space-time” and dartled with Millikanian rays, though wrought of filmy tight-rope, is poised on no facile guesswork, but is deeply grounded in patient documentation, based in studies that began three decades ago, as Henderson indicates in his published “Salute”:

My dear Bernard Shaw:— Since that historic night of “You Never Can Tell,” more than twenty-nine years ago, I have not ceased to study your life in all its aspects. . . . I have had you as daily companion, in the flesh or the spirit. . . . In authorizing me to write your life . . . you have conferred upon me . . . immortality. . . . Through the association, so fortunate for me, embodied and symbolized in this work, shall last the name not of your sycophant, your Boswell, your Sancho Panza, but of your Columbus—and friend, Archibald Henderson.

But this protest, as applied to Boswell, is both needless and in vain. For Boswell’s sincere naivete was not sycophancy, as Henderson’s likewise is not; and Henderson-will he, nill he—is a second Boswell, excelling the first in subtler artistry and more rationalized ardor: the first, enamoured of his theme, indefatigable in annotating it, amorphous and uncritical in presenting it; the second, equally enamoured and tireless, but structural and critical in revealing it. By so much, then, the 700,000 words of Boswell’s fervor are outmatched by the 300,000 of Henderson’s.

But analogy between Boswell-Johnson and Henderson-Shaw is further inevitable and illuming.

The out-Londoner, Sam Johnson, coming overland out of poverty and obscurity at Lichfield, awkward-rolling, morose, self-lapsing in chronic “madness,” becomes the roaring “lion” of London-town, the leading “contemporary immortal” of his time—to be remembered through the long-after-time chiefly by virtue of the immortalizing pen of another outlander, coming overland from Scotland, humbly to harvest genius at the world’s apex.

The out-Londoner, George B. Shaw, coming oversea to London City out of “poverty and obscurity” at Dublin-town, gawky-stumbling, defiant, self-goaded to his “madness,” becomes the radio-megaphone of the stratosphere, his times’ unique “contemporary immortal”—to be memorialized by another outlander, “discoverer” of genius oversea, whose immortalizing pen . . . must pause, like the reviewer’s, on the bourne of the still “undiscovered.”

Yet another item of analogy: Johnson read Boswell’s script with “great delight”; Shaw read Henderson’s proofs with official “approval.” So, in couples, a century and a half apart, these four friendly outlanders conferred in mutual biography and sincere spirit of naivete.

But again Henderson, in protest: “Not your Sancho Panza, but your Columbus!” Yet either, needlessly. For though in jest the muttony haunch of Sancho might camouflage the vegetarian shank of Saint-Bernard-Amadis-de-Gaul, it could never in earnest mask the Quixotic mettle of his chivalric expounder, Don Archibald de la Mancha, in tilting the windmill antics of his saint’s giant halo. As for the metaphorical Columbus, his valiant biography sufficiently proves its rightful claim of discovery, by now first revealing this once “Man without a Country” to belong, in spirit kinship, neither to Ireland, Scotland, nor England, but to the opprobrious heart of America itself. No wonder, as prophet, this playboy-expatriate, this hyphenate Irish-Scot, is not without honor save by never setting foot overseas in his “ain countree”! No wonder, too, he “childishly” berates his biographer for that “romantic American childishness” which he himself so essentially shares in its endearing basic naivete beneath a thousand guises of sophistication.

What self-applied term is more anathema to the intelligentsia than that word, naive! Yet to its spiritual quality (shared by Blake and Michelangelo and Beethoven), as expressed in “childish” enthusiasms of American pioneer discoverers, the world-reputes of Dickens and Thackeray and Browning and Shaw, in their own pioneerings, owe their first sympathetic recognition and practical championship. In each case, ever natural to children of Olympus, such recognition is acknowledged with a “certain condescension” of kinship.

The creative soil of the artist is the native land of his childhood. Shaw’s “native land,” as revealed by Henderson, was a narrow-fenced, shallow-loamed acre of bourgeoisie, cut off from ancient folk-life alike in its rude moors and lorded estates. Early quickened by one ancient communal art—the art of music, learned from his mother—young Shaw in rebellion fled that narrow acre, only henceforth unconsciously to help in extending it world-wide, as committeeman, pamphleteer, journalist, and at length as dramatist, in whose creative art the shallow loam still subsists, giving soil there to creations sparsely sterile and ephemeral compared with the folk-fecundity of characters sprung from Shakespeare, Goldsmith, Hardy, or even from Ibsen (untranslated by Archer).

Indeed, Shaw’s narrowed creative range seems due to that lack in childhood of a folk-background deeply fused with his own nature; a lack which would account for his almost total miscomprehension of the deepest creative motives in all art and ethnic life on our planet up to the present time. For those deep-soil, world-old motives, he would as artist substitute the surface-changing aims of an economic revolution, passionately desiring (as, of course, we all desire) that age-old social snobberies and war’s ethnic hatreds shall be extirpated, yet blindly ignoring the truth that age-old ethnic loves and sacred devotions cannot be extirpated without uprooting a common heritage of art and life which fraternizes Homer and Dante and Shakespeare with all men. New economics in eggs may create incubators for world markets; but the olden cry of Chanticleer still hatches day-rise in the human heart. Thus at the outbreak of the Great War, Shaw stood blindfold to a human universe whose dawn-glow lit the way of Hardy’s Wessexmen, in his sombre song:

What of the faith and fire within us Men who march away Ere the barncocks say Night is growing gray?

Capitalism, Socialism, Communism—the barncocks have outcrowed their marchings over flint, iron, steel, for a million years.

So the “cosmos” of Shaw excludes both normal love of nature and comprehension of man as a folk-being, in the self-magnified personality of one to whom (in his own words) “one tree looks exactly like another,” and for whom “man is the only animal of which I am thoroughly and cravenly afraid.” Yet curiously he seems equally afraid of being ignored by that animal, as when he urged Sinclair Lewis, on receiving the Nobel Prize, to adopt his own rule of railing at all men as idiots, since otherwise the idiots “will drop you like a hot cake.”—In such deference to twentieth-century Demos, the world of Shaw in his biography differs radically from Dr. Johnson’s world, wherein the poets, playwrights, and artists of his era throng the pages of Boswell, in deference to an eighteenth-century Apollo. In Henderson’s history, d’Annunzio, Masefield, Rostand, Synge, are not even referred to; Browning, Tennyson, Hardy are (each) mentioned once.

Henderson’s championship of his Demos-Olympian, however, is far from uncritical, though it is strangely far from consistent when he extols “the range and loftiness of his vision” as comprising a “Golden Rule” of Total Planless-ness. But it is better than critical in being supremely informative, and in gradually leading the reader up and out from a hectic “valley of the shadow of biography” into a calm high afterglow, limning there, in great outlines, a kind-hearted man, keenly sentient to all mortal pain.

Indeed these notes would be wholly misleading should they over-emphasize blemishes and errors in Shaw which he himself is ingenuously foremost to condemn throughout his biographer’s pages. Because of their closeness to sincere reality, those pages constantly grow in fascination for the reader, whose impression is one of deepening admiration and fondness for the amazing protagonist. A figure amusing or repellent to the million, himself by the million amused or repelled—the tragic drama of this comedian is here at last revealed in its inner conflict: a lifelong struggle with himself to make his own shy nobility manifest to more than to a few intimate friends. The deus ex machina is Henderson, emerging from his book, whose voluminous insight, in the now of “forever after,” makes all the world its hero’s friend and intimate.

Fortunate indeed for this hero, agnostical of all “heroism,” that his denouement, ex libro-machina, was so masterly devised by a sincerely romantic Jeffersonian Southern gentleman and scholar of “childish America”! No “maturer” psychoanalyst of Vienna, no “redder” realist of Russia, could have plucked out the lovable heart of Shaw’s mystery with a hand of intuition as gently skillful as Henderson’s.

Pertinacity quickened by brilliance, vast labor without loss of freshness, perspective, incident, anecdotage all truthfully fascinating, these qualities of style and text (inter-flashed by the excelling cartoons and sallies of Oliver Her-ford) make his book a treasury of the hour and of the century. And this achievement has sprung from the biographer’s own nature. For as the art of biography is discovery, so there the discovered is born of the discoverer. The true biographer reveals his counterpart in his subject. So the true gold of Shaw and of Henderson were both panned from the same rare silt, scooped from rock bottom of the pure wellspring of Naivete.

“You Never Can Tell” was the beginning of that alchemy, in 1903. “All’s Well that Ends Well” is the symbolic ending—to date. Since, then, up to date, Shaw lives now his “forever after” at its zenith and, like Cicero, can chew its cud of anticipation, it is but timely that he should hail the dawn of his biographer in mutual immortality. For though today Henderson is surely Shaw’s-Henderson, tomorrow—as surely as Johnson is Boswell’s-Johnson—Shaw will be Henderson’s- Shaw.


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