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Psychography — The First Forty Years

ISSUE:  Spring 1927

Darwin and A Naturalist of Souls. By Gamaliel Bradford. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Each, $3.50.


It is not strictly logical to couple Mr. Bradford’s “Darwin” with his, “Naturalist of Souls.” The latter, first published in 1917, is now re-issued with certain changes, its material arranged so as to show the ripening of Mr. Bradford’s art from 1888 to 1913—the gradual development of psychography, almost unconscious at first—its birth in conventional literary criticism, its final blooming in a new genre. “Darwin” is the second volume of a religious trilogy, the first part of which—a portrait of D. L. Moody —is now awaiting publication, while the closing third—a study of Christ, to which one may look for a synthesis of the diverse, conflicting elements of the other two, is, at this writing, in an early stage of preparation. In “Darwin,” we get the negative side, the doctrine which has seemed to many to carry with it a denial of the Christian revelation. This group will be the third trilogy in the Bradford library of biography. Among his earlier publications, the three books on the Civil War (“Lee the American,” “Confederate Portraits,” and “Union Portraits”) make one group, while the three volumes on women (“Portraits of Women,” “Portraits of American Women,” and “Wives”) make another. But since I cannot very well review books not yet published, I group together here “A Naturalist of Souls” and “Darwin,” as presenting the earliest and the latest examples of the psychographic method.

That method i have analyzed in detail on other occasions and need not do so again. Indeed, Gamaliel Bradford is, by this time, so definitely a part of American literature that for me to assume ignorance of his work on the part of the readers of The Virginia Quarterly Review would be a very gratuitous piece of insolence. Moreover, the prefatory essay to “A Naturalist of Souls” is a much better interpretation of psychography than any that I could hope to give.

Bradford is not read as much as he shonid be—what good book ever is? Yet each year sees new and gratifying evidences of increasing interest, and his influence has been large. It is curious how an enormous influence can be combined with even persistent neglect in this matter of buying books. The star example in America is Henry James. I am told there is hardly a prominent publisher who has not at some time lost money on him, yet the modern novel is forever a different thing because James wrote his books. I would not for a moment hold Bradford responsible for all the “damaged souls” we have had lately in contemporary American biography—our rogues and our outlaws and our daughters of joy. But all along the line you can trace the best elements in this renascence of our interest in personality to his influence. It drives one almost to despair of other biographers when one considers the skill and the art with which he has worked. Nothing could be sillier than the attempt of Mr. H. L. Mencken to group Bradford and Lyt-ton Strachey together, as if they were doing the same kind of work. Strachey writes purely conventional, old-fashioned, chronological biography. He owes his vogue, not to any technical originality, but simply to the fact that he does this sort of thing rather better than anybody else can do it. On the other hand, any estimate of Bradford which is not based on a thorough understanding of his method—his entire disregard of chronology, his highly individual form of minute documentation, his peculiar method of generalizing, his complete preoccupation with the inner, not the outer, life —is simply no estimate at all. As a famous actress remarked to me after reading “Damaged Souls,” it would not be reasonable to expect this sort of thing to make its way quickly, for the general public is always extremely slow to understand or to accept a new form of art. Yet today, just as Katherine Mansfield is recognized as having carried the art of the short story to the highest point that it has yet attained, so I doubt whether any competent critic will deny that Mr. Bradford has at last made the writing of men’s lives a job for artists. It is doubtful, now that he has been at work, whether we shall ever accept again the old, clumsy, ponderous, helter-skelter, repetitious, unselected, unorganized masses that not so long ago went under the name of biography.

When his method does come finally to be appreciated— say as widely as we now appreciate what Marcel Proust has done to the novel—”A Naturalist of Souls” will be immensely more valuable even than it is now. Already certain colleges have begun pioneering work in the shape of courses in biography, and to all such I recommend as a textbook this “Naturalist of Souls.” The opening essays— the studies of Pater and Donne—written when Mr. Bradford was in his twenties—are, comparatively, dull, and it is a little unfortunate that the chronological plan should compel them to be printed first. The absorbing study of Dumas, written in 1908, might be taken as marking a turning-point in the evolution of psychography: the first part is a piece of straight literary criticism, and this is followed by a portrait. The last four papers—Pliny, Xenophon, Ovid, and Francis of Sales—are fully developed psychographs. Other studies deal with Leopardi, Trollope, Richard Burton, Lemaitre, and Clarendon. It is a varied company, the longest, the most richly varied of any in Mr. Bradford’s books. And there is, especially in the earlier papers, much good literary criticism, of a.sort which the exigencies of the developing method have excluded from more recent books.


All the work for which Mr. Bradford is known to the public generally is of a single type—the analysis of character. He has produced no failures because, in one way, he has made no experiments. Once his method was established, he stayed by it. But, in another sense, he has never done the same thing twice. Each portrait is an individual creation. There is no set pattern to which the varied materials are forcibly conformed. I have had occasion to point out elsewhere the subtle variations between different volumes: the studies of moral failure in “Damaged Souls” requiring one sort of attitude, while the pictures of genius in “Bare Souls” called for quite another. Again, there are “Portraits of American Women” and “Wives,” the one dealing with women famous in their own right, the other with a group that would never have been heard from save for the fortuity of marriage with either famous or infamous men. Like the American Constitution, the psychographic method proves its soundness by its flexibility.

In its present stage, in “Darwin” and—by implication— in the rest of the religious trilogy, the method undergoes another modification. For one thing, we have here an entire volume devoted to a single subject, not to seven or eight subjects as has usually been the case. To be sure, “The Soul of Samuel Pepys” and “Lee the American” dealt thus each with a single figure, but in a rather different way. These were simply full-length portraits of individuals, and while the Civil War was a good deal involved in the one, and the general connections between this soul and the soul of humanity at large was overlooked in neither, still Pepys and Lee did not permit the sort of treatment which is invited by Darwin. For, as the publisher’s jacket informs us, this is “The life story of a gentle, tolerant, and lovable man who overturned the world of thought, shifted the whole attitude of science, and upheaved the very foundations of religion and morality.” And the most valuable chapters in the book are “Darwin the Destroyer,” a masterly summing up of the nihilistic effects of the Darwinian theory in all fields of contemporary thought and life, and the closing study of “The Scientific Spirit.”

In a way, one feels less meat in Darwin than in such a book as “A Naturalist of Souls” or “Ajnerican Portraits, 1875-1900.” The new book gives me Darwin’s soul, while the “American Portraits” gave me Mark Twain, Hen-Adams, Henry James, Whistler, Blaine, Lanier, Cleveland, and Joseph Jefferson. There is more detail here, yet I doubt whether I know Darwin any better than I know the other eight men, and I believe so strongly in intense concentration as inseparable from the highest art that I am somewhat prejudiced in favor of the other method. Moreover, despite the excellent organization of the “Darwin,” the very fullness of the treatment, the necessity to examine traits and actions from several points of view, to drop threads in one connection and later pick them up in another, make necessary a certain small amount of repetition not found in the shorter portraits. But if there is some loss there is also much gain. Above everything else, there is the opportunity for comparison, for connections, for criticism that i have already referred to in discussing the two closing chapters. These chapters surely rank with the best things Bradford has done—the incomparable portrait of Cowper, the exciting discovery of Sarah Butler, the fine discussion of success in the closing pages of “Lee.” It is this author’s fashion to consider himself to have skimmed the surface of many subjects and to have mastered none. But I doubt whether any other man in America conid have summed up the influence of Darwinism as he has done it.

This does not mean that I necessarily accept Mr. Bradford’s impression of Darwinism as having destroyed the spiritual reality of the universe. To me the so-called “reconciliation” of religion and science, attempted first by such men as John Fiske and Lyman Abbott, seems a good deal more convincing than it does to him. It is interesting to compare Mr. Bradford’s despair with Bernard Shaw’s attitude toward Darwinism in “Back to Methuselah.” The two men agree in their impression of Darwin’s nihilism: it is significant of their difference that Bradford leaves the impression of having accepted Darwin with infinite regret, while Shaw’s strenuous optimism casts him and all his works into the outer darkness, while proceeding to construct a new religion and thus give man a fresh hold on faith.

Yet Bradford’s “Darwin” is also a religious book, and I do not share his impression that it will much alienate his orthodox admirers. Robuster, or coarser, spirits will regret, for his sake, that he has been able to find so little certainty, but that will be all. For, in the last analysis, Mr. Bradford is interested only in God, and nobody who has read nim intelligently can help feeling that he is much closer to Enoch’s position than many who boast a definitely-organized creed. Some of us know that when he tells us he is wholly ego-centric, that if his own individuality must be lost, “words cannot express my utter indifference to the well-being of the race, of the world, and of the universe,” he slanders himself. And such an utterance as the following is far from sceptical in any sense that is hostile to the cause of religion: “Mankind has always demanded spiritual ideals and the divine presence, and always will demand them. If they are lost, it will re-invent them. If they are destroyed, it will re-create them.” In the days of triumphant Calvinism, there were men who somehow managed to be Christians in spite of their barbarous creed. It is no more wonderful that, in our day, some men should be Christians without any creed at all.

As I have said, “Darwin” is the negative third of a religious trilogy. The other two, when they appear, will possibly introduce some modifications. That many of Mr. Bradford’s readers will accept D. L. Moody’s point of view I very much doubt, but Christ provides a common basis upon which all humanity may meet. Meanwhile, there is this book. You do not need to be interested in science to enjoy it and you do not need to be interested in theology. You need only to be interested in life.


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