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Men and Masks

ISSUE:  Winter 1926

Don Jose de San Martin.
By Anna Schoellkopf. New York: Boni & Liveright. $2.00.

A Prime Minister and His Son. Edited by the Hon. Mrs. E. Stuart Wortley, C. B. E. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $6.00.

Edward Everett, Orator and Statesman. By Paul Revere Frothingham. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. $6.00.

Memories of Forty-Eight Years’ Service. By General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, C. C. B., G. C. M. G., D. S. O. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $8.00.

Increase Mather, the Foremost American Puritan. By Kenneth B. Murdock. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. $6.00.

Further Reminiscences. By S. Baring-Gould. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $6.00.

From President to Prison. By Ferdinand Ossendowski. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. $3.00.

What a strange privilege to be admitted to the intimate life of another human being: to suffer with Rousseau, struggle with Franklin, swagger with Cellini, or cast up life’s accounts with Pepys. Does life hold any more exciting adventure than the comprehension of other lives? So that one opens a biography, an autobiography, or a collection of letters, with a sense of reverence. For is not a soul about to be reborn?

The science of printing is a big thing. Not necessarily a great thing, but a very big one. Just as the automobile allows so many men to ride who had better walk; just as the steamship permits those to travel who had better stay at home; just as the telephone and telegraph transmit so many quite unnecessary messages; just so does printing, the big art, give voice to myriads of inconsequential persons. Crash go our trees, whirr go the mills: out come the miles of clean, white, dumb paper. Whirr go the presses: out come the miles of strident, silly, self-insistent thoughts.

Yet the miracle can happen. The book that lies in your hand can shine with beauty when its little black letters fade and another human spirit passes by. Across oceans, across centuries come the vibrations of a man, a woman: questing, suffering; rebuffed and triumphant spark of the divine fire. How is this miracle performed, the miracle of opening one’s heart or the heart of another to the sympathetic comprehension of the unseen friend? How, indeed?

To begin with, this writing of a biography is the rebirth of a soul. And naked came we into the world. Our trappings have no significance now. The world’s opinions fall from us like cast-off clothing. We are, for once, as we are. And if to hide our nakedness we clutch our apparel to us, the result is a somewhat pitiful masquerade.

What is it to the reader that San Martin was, next to Bolivar himself, the liberator of South America? Perhaps San Martin’s biographer has worked on a fundamentally mistaken hypothesis: that those in high places are interesting, and that greatness and depth of soul are proportionate to external achievement. It is a journalistic assumption. So that we are not surprised to find this book written in journalese, full of uninterpreted anecdote and theatrical pose.

One hopes more of Lord Bute, Prime Minister to George III; and of his son, Sir Charles Stuart, fighting with the British forces in the American Revolution: perhaps with this more familiar background, the hero will not bleed sawdust. Alas, the third Earl of Bute remains pretty much a third earl; while his son advances from a captaincy to the position of Lieutenant-General in the Peninsular War against Napoleon. And their letters are most profoundly dull. The book is saved by the publication of a handful of letters from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to her daughter, Lady Bute. Lady Mary’s decisive personality sweeps aside the puppets in this book and usurps the stage on which they strut.

Perhaps Edward Everett, who did not die till 1865, can come to life in his biographer’s hands. Statesman, orator, editor, writer, governor of Massachusetts, and1 president of Harvard, was this man too a dummy? He was. While abroad, he visited Goethe. Goethe was obviously oppressed by the visit, and scarcely polite, but Edward Everett never knew why. He went on with his European education as perhaps only a nineteenth-century New Englander could. “Meanwhile, I try to feel duly grateful to Providence and my friends at home to whom I owe the opportunity of resorting to the famous fountains of European wisdom.” Was it because the fountains were famous, that he tried so manfully? He “greedily accepted” an offer to present him at the Restoration court of Louis XVIII. He wrote some deplorable verses called the “Dirge of Alaric.” “Boys for many years used them for declamatory purposes and spoke them on school platforms,” remarks his biographer proudly. He visited Florence. “It was characteristic of this busy worker and indefatigable student that, finding himself in a famous art centre, he began at once to take lessons in drawing.” Note that the paintings of Florence did not make him buy a sketch-book; he took lessons, for famous fountains have to be gone at systematically. He also improved his time at Florence by writing some really execrable stanzas on the church of Santa Croce. These were translated into Italian by a man named Guido Sorelli, who had also done some translations of Shakespeare* In England, where he was American Minister, he went down to Oxford to receive an honorary D. C. L. and fell among Tractarians, who objected to conferring an Oxford degree on a former Unitarian preacher. He wrote very priggishly of this amusing incident. He visited the Duke of Sutherland and was as impressed by the peerage as American diplomats have been generally. Indeed, we find in his journal that he gave the Duchess a flower he had picked up on the conservatory floor, “which she wore for the rest of the day in her bosom.” Is it possible we are dealing here with a snob as well as a prig? Frankly, though “statesmen and politicians wanted more of him,” we do not.

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and his forty-eight years’ service would have made interesting reading, could the General have but let go. For half a century he has been dashing about “bagging tigers,” shooting natives and other tropical fauna, in short subsidized by a powerful Empire to have the devil of a good time. He has a good eye for horses; is less critical of men and women. It was, to use his own phrase, “all so cheery and pleasant” that his experiences, which were gruelling enough, left Sir Horace a little immature. The perfect adaptability of the Anglo-Saxon does not lead readily to profound observation, any more than rainy weather develops comprehension in a duck. It only improves his stroke. Shooting Zulus, Egyptians, Indians, Boers, and finally Huns is rare sport and serves God and the King too. It is no doubt foolish to quarrel with a man who tells stories of potting quail: it may only mean one is more interested in the quail’s side of the story.

Going back a little in time to the seventeenth century, and crossing the ocean to New England again, we are introduced to Increase Mather, the “foremost American Puritan.” We gather that this work sprang originally from a Ph.D. thesis, itself based on a somewhat “assigned” subject. We are prepared then to meet with urbanity rather than passion in the presentation. Somewhat pedestrian as literature, it is nevertheless an interesting record. The reader is aware that Increase Mather’s stock was sturdier stuff than that which produced a crop of Everetts.

Perhaps it is unfair to contrast this picture of Increase Mather by a contemporary with the direct, .forceful, yet whimsical account which S. Baring-Gould gives of a portion of his own interesting life. The writer, though he did not liberate a continent or serve as prime minister, lived a not uneventful life. If he had lived in a wilderness, his observations would still be interesting. But he takes us to Germany, Bohemia, Italy. His life and interests taught him to amass a wealth of folk-lore and of anecdote. In his anecdotes, however, there is reflected the personality of the man relating them, not the second-hand awe of important people and famous fountains that kept Everett from being other than a puppet. He is full, therefore, of humorous wisdom.

And, last, a most extraordinary book: “From President to Prison” by the author of “Beasts, Men and Gods” and “Man and Mystery in Asia.” Dr. Ossendowski relates a quite incredible tale of adventure during the Russo-Japanese War and the Revolution of 1905. He became president of the “Russian Far Eastern Republic,” but was eventually imprisoned by the Tsarist government. It is in his Siberian prison that the sensational adventure of the flesh gives way to the profound adventure of the spirit. In beauty of feeling and in depth of perception the last section of this book is comparable to Dostoevsky’s letters from his own Siberian prison. Dr. Ossendowski has given the gift of immortality to the throng of fellow-prisoners he describes. Their midnight agonies, their base cruelties, their prison courtships create so real a life that on his release the author finds the outside world fantastically unreal and trivial.

“The present renaissance of biography as an art,” referred to by the publisher’s “blurb” on the jacket of one of these books, stands no chance as long as San Martin’s interest derives from the South American revolt, “which by its own greatness makes the hero one of the greatest figures of humanity.” It stands no chance if General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien discards the hunt to “throw light on many well-known events.” It would stand no chance if Lady Mary Wortley Montagu gave no more than an “intimate picture of the social and political world of George Ill’s time,” or if Dr. Ossendowski did but “throw a new light on Russian life.” Were biography no more than this, we should agree with the Reverend Baring-Gould’s youth who translated “De Mortuis nil nisi bonum” by “Of the dead nothing remains but the bones.” That is, nothing but the bones and those precious masks we wear.

Better the Siberian prisons, where the human passion for mutual self-revelation led to a curious method of courtship. The men, in an upper cell, took mirrors and “focused broken bits of this wonder glass upon the mirrors which the women held in their hands stretched out through the bars below,” and those who hungered for new fife saw another human face. We in our prison cell are hungering too. But biographies about dull people, written to throw light on a period, are like the skeleton that Baring-Gould’s stout German lady wished to inspect. “Bah, Rosalie!” replied her male companion playfully, “one skeleton is like another. . . . It is our fat that makes us what we are.” Cynical, but often so very true.

Savages, we are told, think in anthropomorphic terms, peopling the land and sky with gods and demons to account for the impersonal forces of nature. But we have become so civilized, have so intellectualized and over-organized our understanding, and so abstracted it from experience, that the life of a man or woman can at best but throw light on a period or support a sociological theory. Let us write our fill of history with the aid of every “ology” we can invent; but should not biography remain—well, just a little anthropomorphic? Even were it really more important to understand a theory than another human being, these manufacturers of impersonal persons would defeat their own ends. It is precisely to living persons that the historian can safely turn to build his systems. If the only persons he can turn to are those manufactured by others “in the business,” is he not perhaps lifting himself by his bootstraps?


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