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The Prophet of Modern Chaos

ISSUE:  Summer 1933

Maazini: Prophet of Modem Europe. By Gwilym 0. Griffith. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $3.00.

But all of this is recent history, and the Greenwich Village which framed the glamorous figure of John Reed, and the cold little room in Waverly Place where Edna Millay wrote some of her best work, is known to everyone as New York’s last romance. Mr. Parry’s most important contribution to current knowledge is his brilliant account of the fantastic goings-on at Pfaff’s in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties, before gentility, personified by Richard Watson Gilder, F. Hopkinson Smith, and others like them, again overtook American letters, to reign until James Huneker, most hospitable, colorful, and cosmopolitan of all Bohemians, ushered in the Mauve Decade, and made artistic New York safe for the world.

If anyone asks why there should be another book in English about Joseph Mazzini, he should find a conclusive answer in the fact that such books as Gwilym O. Griffith’s “Mazzini” continue to be written about him. Maz-zini’s strange fascination has attracted still another brilliant observer, and has produced another biography, — one so sympathetic and vivid that it is apt to attract a larger English-speaking public than any previous work on the prophet of modern Italy, who, to the present biographer, seems a major prophet of the modern age.

Appraising Mr. Bolton King’s “Life of Mazzini” (1902) as “standard and authoritative,” and proceeding to gather up the new material that has been published in Italian and English in the past thirty years, together with precious gleanings of his own from English memoirs and letters, Mr. Griffith has turned the light of his imagination and his sympathetic intuitions on all this matter with the object of “setting forth . . . the development of Mazzini’s inner life.”

This choice was the right one. Mazzini’s ideas cannot withstand philosophical criticism; his dreams, surpassingly beautiful in their expression, spiral away into the void, either too national or too nebulous to lay hold on us; and in action he was an heroic failure. But as a spiritual genius, struggling with the tremendous problems of his inner life, finding for them a solution that gave him a hard-won peace, and clinging to this even beyond the edge of doom, Mazzini still fascinates us; and in no previous biography of him is this drama set forth as vividly, or with as keen a sense of its ironies as well as its sublimities, and of the human gentleness and charm as well as the earnestness of its chief actor. At the same time Mr. Griffith has skilfully developed what is most vital in Mazzini’s thought and his religious teachings, and has illustrated his uncanny prophetic insight, as, for instance, in predicting “the emergence of a new order based upon dictatorship and force” as the eventual result of the entrenched position which the constitutional monarchy in Italy gave to aristocratic and middle-class selfishness, or in declaring that: “As filthiness, allowed to go on in the streets and dwellings of a town, teaches physical oneness by spreading contagious diseases to the neighboring towns, so something ought to teach—perhaps will teach—egotistical countries that there is a law of moral oneness.”

Primarily occupied with the drama of Mazzini’s inner life, Mr. Griffith deals with Mazzini less as an Italian than as an exile, reported to us by observant and loving English friends. He cannot entirely avoid the baffling question of Mazzini’s influence on the Risorgimento. Mr. Griffith is cautious, and not inclined to overestimate this influence, but he has nothing to add to the discussion of the point that will impress the historian. As a spiritual drama Mazzini’s life reached its climax at Rome in 1849. From then until 1872 there was a long, painful denouement, filled with continued agitation; Mr. Griffith, lacking new information as to its influence, does not succeed in convincing us that this stubborn persistence of the prophet had “a more decisive effect” than is commonly supposed.

To say that Mr. Griffith’s “Mazzini” is a drama of the inner life would misrepresent his book if this were taken to mean that it is a play without action and with only one character. It is full of vivid action and crowded with interesting characters, major and minor. Mr. Griffith has presented this side of his story by means of highly colored and rapidly shifting scenes, done in a manner that often suggests Car-lyle, and that richly satisfies Mr. Guedalla’s demand that biography and history shall be entertaining. Mr. Griffith is so seriously interested in his theme, and so thoroughly at home in his material, especially in his English literary material, that he has largely controlled the rhetoric and distortion that are the faults of his method, and has achieved a number of really brilliant effects.

Mr. Griffith’s book commands attention as a penetrating study of a spiritual theme that is eternally interesting, launched at a moment when the chaos of the materialistic civilization which Mazzini condemned seems to justify his gloomiest predictions.


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