John Sevier, Pioneer of the Old Southwest. By Carl S. Driver. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $2.50. Andreiv Jackson, the Border Captain. By Marquis James. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company. $3.75. The Brands Preston Blair Family in Politics. By William Ernest Smith. New York: The Macmillan Company. Two volumes. $7.50. Beauregard, the Great Creole. By Hamilton Basso. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.50.
There are two prevailing types of biographical
writing: the journalistic and the academic. Journal-
istic biography seeks to create, or preferably to recreate, a personality. It strives to present the truth but it strives harder to entertain, and rarely are both aims fully achieved. It seeks to paint the hero or villain—it is always a hero or villain, never a normal man—against the background of his environment; but the journalistic biographer is likely to have only a superficial knowledge of that environment, and he is tempted to jumble it, if necessary to the building of a shining mosaic which will attract the average person. He does not need to probe exhaustively into obscure recesses, but may select the striking details which fit together to make up the portrait, and the clearer the outline the more convincing is the product. But human nature does not often present clear outlines or consistent personalities.
The academic biographer is a plodding fellow. He labors over minutiae and tries to present all the evidence, pro and con, on every point. His main object is not to develop a personality but to assess a personal contribution to history. He sacrifices interest for accuracy and he is likely to be innocent of the art of writing. His book will not appeal to the public, but it will be meat for the scholar.
Dr. Carl Driver’s “John Sevier” is a biography of the academic type, notwithstanding a certain timidity on the part of the author in facing the obvious conclusions borne out by his study. His avowed object is to resuscitate one of the leading heroes of the Old Southwest, but he has so painstakingly put down the facts that they rise against “Nolachucky Jack” and prevent his playing the role assigned him. Sevier lived in an uncritical era. He powdered his hair and wore a sword, at least on occasion, but he was still able to mix with “the boys” on their own terms. He was just that combination of aristocrat and plebeian which appealed to the simple folk of the frontier, and he fought the Indians with a ferocity dear to their hearts. He was a hero while he lived, but he was neither a great soldier, nor a great politician, nor yet a great man. Dr. Driver’s book makes this clearer than he intended to make it.
The bete noir of Sevier’s career was Andrew Jackson, and one would never recognize the Jackson depicted by Sevier’s biographer as the same man who moves through the pages of Marquis James’ “Andrew Jackson, the Border Captain.” The orthodox view of “Old Hickory” is that he represented all the democratic tendencies of the frontier. Mr. James portrays him as representing all that was aristocratic on the border, and Mr. James is correct. Certainly Jackson did not feel himself to be one of the people. All who have studied his career closely have heard him shout to them again and again, “Get out your palm branches, for I am coming.” Not only were his associations always with the leading men of his community, but in his economic thinking he was ever aligned with the interests of the creditor class. He was launched in politics as the protege of William Blount, one of the few real aristocrats the frontier has harbored, and he never betrayed the teachings of his Cavalier patron. It was not so much irony as poetic justice that the Presidential administration of this Arch-Democrat was all but wrecked on a social issue!
While Jackson yet lived there were sharp differences of opinion as to whether he were a hero or a villain; but the fact that he stood for the Union has enabled the hero worshippers to get the better of the argument in the course of time. Had “Old Hickory” been less hard on his native South Carolina in the nullification squabble of 1832, Mr. James probably would not have written a book about him. As it is, this most recent biographer outdoes all the others in hoisting him to a pedestal. Even Jackson’s faults appear as merely the mistakes of a strong man who was striving to do right. Mr. James has a gift for using his materials to best advantage. The book is fascinating, and so is the Jackson it portrays. It is a more accurate picture than that which “Old Hickory’s” enemies would have made of him, yet it is too good to be true. Some of Jackson’s economic activities were questionable in the extreme, and since they do not fit in with the heroic mold of the statue, Mr. James passes them over without a word. On the other hand, the story of the body of Jackson’s father being lost on the way to the grave is a choice bit; therefore it is included, despite the fact that there is no reliable evidence to support it. One wonders what evil genius inspired the author to put his references at the back of the book and to refer to Jackson’s New Orleans army— made up of Tennessee backwoodsmen, Kentucky boatmen, Creoles, pirates, a sprinkling of regulars—as “Yankees”?
Had he continued his charming story of Jackson beyond 1821, Mr. James eventually would have come to an old, embittered man in the White House who, when things went wrong, was wont to bawl “Blaar!”—”Old Hickory” calling for Francis Preston Blair of his “Kitchen Cabinet.” Blair was editor of the Washington Globe, the political organ of the Democratic Party. He was a native Virginian, and was related to the Preston and other important families of Virginia and Kentucky. After following the fortunes of Andrew Jackson, he and his two famous sons, Frank, Jr., and Montgomery, became conspicuous supporters of Lincoln, but broke with the Republicans after the war and ended their days as they had begun them, as Democrats. Professor William E. Smith has traced the history of the family in a scholarly biography, “The Francis Preston Blair Family in Politics.” The book is valuable for the light it throws on the momentous events in which the Blairs participated, but it does not recreate individuals with clarity. In fact, the author has his limitations as a writer, his gifts not lying in that direction. This is especially apparent in the early pages dealing with the background of the family. The light hardly shines through the clustered facts. The scholar will find much grist for his mill; the general reader will scarcely be interested.
While Montgomery Blair was busying himself as Postmaster-General in Lincoln’s Cabinet and while Frank, Jr., was using the Blair talent to keep Missouri in the Union, the newly-appointed commandant at West Point, Pierre Gus-tave Toutant Beauregard, turned his back on that military stronghold and made his way southward. The part he took in the South’s fight for freedom has been brilliantly told by Hamilton Basso in “Beauregard, the Great Creole.” While the Beauregard papers, preserved in several New Orleans repositories, have been exploited for the first time, the amount of research represented by the work is modest. The development of a personality is the author’s chief object, and it is accomplished so convincingly as to disarm the critic. Mr, Basso knows his New Orleans and his Creoles, and his interpretation of Beauregard bears the imprint of rare insight. There is no attempt to gloss over faults or enlarge on virtues. A somewhat disillusioned captain of engineers when the War of Secession began, the “Great Creole” might never have been heard of had not Jefferson Davis, for some unknown reason, sent him to Charleston to fire the first shot on Fort Sumter, commanded by his former West Point instructor, Major Robert Anderson. This incident brought him renown, and his delicacy in absenting himself from the capitulation of his old friend marked him as a man of feeling. Bull Run added to his laurels, although the hero could never conquer the unsoldier-like habit of blushing on occasion. A quarrel with Davis threatened to blight his military career, but despite this handicap he won new glory in the defense of Charleston and of Richmond. Incidentally, the uncomplimentary portraits of Jefferson Davis and Judah P. Benjamin constitute one of the striking features of this entertaining book. The war over, the weary General started home with $1.15 in his pocket. After a bitter struggle with poverty, he sold his name to the Louisiana Lottery and thus passed from the pages of history. As Mr. Basso points out, Beauregard’s reputation has suffered because the temperamental Creole was so unlike Robert E. Lee, the great exemplar of Confederate virtue, the difference between them being the difference between “Steady, my lads, stand firm,” and “Soldats! Avant! Pour gloire et vktoirel”
These four biographies, two of the journalistic, two of the academic type, deal with diverse characters: Jackson, the pseudo-democrat, about whom the epic quality hangs most thickly because of his military reputation and his dynamic, colorful personality; Sevier, the rash plunger, who looked after himself first while pretending to look after the people; the Blairs, able, honorable, and public-spirited; Beauregard, the tempestuous Creole, product of an alien civilization—all essentially different, all equally typical of the American scene.