Famous Americans of Recent Times

BY JAMES PARTON. Boston : Ticknor and Fields.
THE favor done to this age and generation by Mr. Parton in taking eminent public men out of the keeping of panegyric and abuse, and giving them to popular knowledge in some appreciable human quality, is scarcely to be over-estimated, and it has certainly not till now been valued enough. Mr. Parton did not begin by pleasuring the critics, and his recognition was tardy and cool, though he had long been one of our most popular writers, He wrote at once for the people, and, while preserving perfectly his self-respect, made the people his sole judges. He paid them also the highest compliment in his power, by refusing to seek their favor through flattery of their prejudices. His heroes, in spite of his great popularity, are not the popular heroes ; he who honors his readers so greatly does not at all honor their idols. It must be said of Mr. Parton that each person of whom he writes is the man at whose character he has arrived by the most diligent study of all his words and acts. It may result sometimes that Mr. Parton is mistaken ; but we feel that he has never willingly deceived himself, nor suffered himself to be deceived. We cannot believe that he has ever written carelessly. These delightful stories, which hold us with the charm of romance, are not only the work of a very skilful artist, but of a very honest man, not less conscientious as to why he shall say a thing, than as to how he shall say it. We need scarcely add, that it is the work also of a generous and liberal spirit, having no more sympathy with successful meanness than with mere baseness of purpose.
The biographical studies which make up this volume present the same general characteristics observable in Mr. Parton’s more extended works. In respect of style and all points of literary execution, they are the best things he has done ; for his artistic growth has been continuous, and these studies are his latest productions. That it has been of use to Mr. Parton to write for the scholars and critics who read the North American Review is evident enough to any one who contrasts the articles taken from that publication with his earlier work. The difference is to be felt in quality of thought, as well as in manner, though there is not much fault to be found with Mr. Parton’s way of thinking in any of them, for it is always manly and humane.
As a whole, the present volume has a peculiar merit in its variety. It deals with the kinds of greatness usually achieved by Americans, — political, mercantile, inventive, social, — and deals with them all in a very fresh and fearless way, insomuch that we should be willing to wait for Mr. Parton to write of our theological and literary worthies, and our military heroes, before we read much about them. It seems to us that our author writes of inventors with the most heart, and he certainly contrives to interest his reader very deeply in their lives and works. The sketch of Charles Goodyear in this book is as delightful as the story of any adventurous discoverer of the sixteenth century ; but in fact the inventors are the discoverers of our time, and it is they who carry forward, in their true spirit, the magnificent enterprises of other days. There is little of their heroism and devotion in the great merchants whose stories our author rehearses, but there is still, in the lives of such men as Girard, Vanderbilt, and Astor, the fascination of that daring which in our countrymakes business a drama full of strong situations and startling effects. These men rank in their claims upon our remembrance and respect with such politicians as Clay, Webster, Calhoun, and Randolph,—all men of marked individuality, and each representing different political theories, — who in Mr. Parton’s book are not less interesting than the great traffickers, because, unlike the great traffickers, they were each a failure in his way.
The articles on Henry Ward Beecher and Theodosia Burr are to be esteemed as studies of our social life at two widely distant and widely different epochs. Mr. Beecher represents no new ideas in religion. He is the leading thought and speech of the strong, earnest, self-reliant element—not refined to intellectual subtilty or morbid doubt — which is perhaps the most hopeful element in New York, and which is the beginning of a social rather than a religious regeneration. It is American and good ; it has sound sense and wholesome impulses ; if it errs, it is not too perfect and great to repent and amend. Mrs. Alston preserves the memory of an America long past away,— of a vanished reflection of philosophical France, — of a polite and well-bred coloniality. We are afraid that Mr. James Gordon Bennett is as representative in his way as either of these others, and we must class the article devoted to his career with those on Mr. Beecher and Theodosia Burr. Such a man and such ideas could exist nowhere but in America, and it appears to us that the New York Herald is published because there is an unpublished New York Herald in the hearts of a vast number of Americans. As a tranquil, dispassionate, unpitying study of character, we know of nothing in modern English literature surpassing this paper of Mr. Parton on James Gordon Bennett.