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A Plutarch for Virginia

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

The Virginia Plutarch. By Philip Alexander Bruce, LL.D. 2 volumes. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $9.00.

The importance of “The Virginia Plutarch” lies in its scope, in its essential sympathy and understanding of the background of the story it tells, and in the harmonizing unity which its author gives to these figures in a tradition.

The author, Philip Alexander Bruce, thus crowns his life work as an historian. Since the publication of “The Plantation Negro as a Freeman” in 1889 he has been an assiduous research historian in Southern and more particularly colonial Virginia history. His “Economic History of Virginia in the 17th Century” and his “Colonial History of Virginia” together with his “History of the University of Virginia” have especially taken their places as invaluable secondary sources. He has represented a conservative point of view as an historian and has been favorable to the historic and aristocratic traditions in the interpretation of Virginia life. He is himself one of the highest and most exquisite illustrations of the civilization of the old South. He belongs to a generation close enough to the Virginia that ended with the War between the States to know its soul and to be touched with the savor of its tradition, and he comes of a family that was of the bone and sinew of the old aristocracy, and that through ties of blood or of courtesy was linked with the great men of whom he writes. No one less to the manner born could fittingly have lifted a mirror great enough to give the true reflection of Virginia’s Great Tradition, nor could anyone bred in a later generation have felt instinctively the code and the spirit in which his heroes act. “The Virginia Plutarch” is a unique book for this reason. It gives the reflection in a mirror of the tradition of a great state, a great civilization, that—whatever the future may be—has passed as the age of Elizabeth has passed, as the Cavaliers of King Charles have passed.

For Virginia was not the name for certain lines drawn on a map. Once all the eastern part of America was called Virginia; once its diverging lines took in all the great Northwest; once it cradled the ancestors of citizens scattered now everywhere. This Virginia had for its godmother the great queen and its spirit was interpreted by Powhatan and John Smith, by Bacon the Rebel and Governor Berkeley the autocrat, by Patrick Henry and Richard Henry Lee and George Mason and Thomas Jefferson no less than by George Washington and John Marshall, by the half-crazy genius John Randolph and the cautiously brave James Monroe, by daring men of action like Meriwether Lewis, George Rogers Clark, John Sevier, Sam Houston, Daniel Morgan, or great soldiers like Lee, Jackson, and Stuart, or scientists like Matthew Fontaine Maury, and Walter Reed. Dr. Bruce makes the reader feel that these were men who were formed by a homogeneous life, who spoke a common language, who however much they might differ in theories of government or in practical policies, could understand each other because of what they held in common. He is careful to give the ancestral background of each and though he makes it clear that most of them sprang, at least on one side, from aristocratic stock, he shows that even the humblest born among them was also an inheritor of the great tradition. A reader senses all the more the harmony of the Plutarchian background when he encounters the break in the pattern that comes with the alien note of Poe or the modern figure of Woodrow Wilson: and as might be expected the biographer is less sympathetic and less successful with their biographies. They are like these other Virginians in a mental aloofness and a self-confident individualism in thought and action. But they both had critical, analytical minds and Poe insisted upon an international standard in literature as Wilson stood for an internationalism in human relations.

From “The Virginia Plutarch” it is possible to draw up a composite picture of the Plutarchian Virginian which would not exclude even John Smith and Powhatan. He is an aristocrat in manners whether born on the frontier or under the eyes of ancestors painted by Lely and Stuart. He is a man of strong attachment to place and of intense loyalties. He is a fighter by principle and holds dear the reputation of himself, his family, and his state. Pride is with him a virtue and tradition a sacred trust. He may be a man of action or a man of thought supporting a new government or proposing new methods of charting the seas, or conquering disease, but he is by nature a conservative, strong in his emotions and powerfully influenced by sentiment. These are his positive traits and the negative ones are implied in the stating of them.

“The Virginia Plutarch” is a book that will grow in importance to its own proper readers. And those readers will not be the devourers of the popular biographies nor the professional historians. Dr. Bruce had in view “a continuous narrative of deeds” and “not so much what these eminent Virginians were in their personal qualities”; his appeal is less by the amusing anecdote than was the original Plutarch’s and not at all by the psychoanalytic method. He presents the life stories of thirty-two men and one woman who lived in Virginia and it is not to be expected that he could bring the detailed accuracy of a research historian to bear upon them all. It may be that were thirty-three specialists to examine each his special subject, thirty-three separate issues would be joined. It is as literature, as the story of a civilization rather than as history, that the books should be read and should be reviewed.

These two solid volumes do not undertake to present new interpretations of character or new facts. They give almost a connected history of Virginia through the lives of its great men for more than three centuries. The narrative is vigorous and entertaining. It is to be expected that in so extensive a series of biographical studies the author must depend upon many sources and his method precludes specific reference to his authorities. But the background of historical information is remarkable and the easy mastery of his material gives to Dr. Bruce’s relation the convincing power of conviction. His style is clear rather than picturesque. It has a flavor of mellowness that accords well with the nature of his subject matter.

There is some unevenness among the chapters. Those that have to do with the colonial days of Virginia and with the earlier statesmen are most engrossing. The least successful are the biographies of Poe and Wilson. The chapter on Poe depends too much upon discredited sources and departs somewhat from the general method of the book. In the story of Wilson, Dr. Bruce is patently unsympathetic, but he restrains himself from open criticism and gives the effect of baffled misunderstanding.

“The Virginia Plutarch” is handsomely illustrated and is a marvel of beautiful printing.


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