Mr. Warner's Biographical Studies

THE visitor to Mr. Greenough’s statue of Benjamin Franklin in the yard of the Boston City Hall has often been bidden to take his stand now upon one side, now upon the other, that he may see the two faces which make the historic portrait, — one the face of a sage, the other that of a humorist; and very likely he falls into a reflecting mood, and wonders if all faces yield this double portraiture ; if, for example, his own has its grave and its funny side. Are there possibilities of humorous aspect in all historic personages, and is it only a question for us which side we shall choose for our point of view? Or may it be that the artist who moulded the statue bestowed the humor, as the writer who sketches the life may inform the character with his own humorous spirit?

Here, not to generalize too widely, is Mr. Warner, who enjoys the reputation of a kindly writer, quick to see the subtle humor of life, shrewd in his observation, and refined in his mirth ; he undertakes to sketch the characters of two men, one a man of action, the other a man of letters, and by some chance the portraits appearing almost simultaneously are announced as the initial ones of two series, the former of which is to contain representative men in American history treated jocularly, the latter representative men in American literature. Captain John Smith1 has not been reckoned among the people who turn their humorous side toward the world, and belongs by virtue of his cloudy surroundings to the race of prehistoric Americans, who are the personal property of students rather than popular heroes and favorites ; while Washington Irving2 has a distinguished place as the first American author who made a positive addition to the literature of humor, and his personality at once invites a kindly smile of recognition from all fairly read people. What is the result so far as Mr. Warner is concerned ? Captain John Smith is not an amusing or humorous production, while Washington Irving is not a dull and serious treatise.

If we are to trust the publishers’ prospectus of the Lives of American Worthies and Mr. Warner’s own preface to his Captain John Smith, it is clear that our author came to scoff ; that he remained, if not to pray, yet to treat his theme with gravity and seriousness is a positive tribute to the respect with which he regards his literary work. He remembered the glimpses which he had obtained of Captain Smith among the figures of our early history, and he thought of him as a braggart and adventurous swell, who manufactured romance out of the dusky royal family of Virginia, and paraded himself as a swashbuckler hero along the coast of New England. It was to strengthen the lines of his picture that he set about a conscientious study of the historical authorities, and before long he made two important discoveries : that the actual facts of Smith’s career had never been fairly reduced to their truthful proportions, and that the Smith who emerged was far more worthy of respect than had been supposed. He has done, therefore, a real service in refusing to torture his work into a facetious shape, and in giving a firm outline of an interesting and conspicuous figure. If it were worth while to consider at all the fitness of historic characters to a humorous treatment, it would quickly be seen that a familiarity with the main facts of a life is essential to both reader and writer before those facts can be made to serve in travesty or comedy, and the Captain Smith of popular fame offers too few points for elaboration, while the character which appears after historic investigation is not sufficiently familiar to the reader.

It is better worth our while to congratulate ourselves upon Mr. Warner’s literary conscience, since it has given us a valuable monograph, which presents in good form the results of special study by several antiquaries. Mr. Warner, with an artist’s eye, has arranged his material in such a way as to make the reader a partner with him in his possessions, and not in his toils. He has sketched the background of the Jamestown colony, with its incongruous elements, and has projected the figure of Smith so sharply from this background that we may be said to have for the first time a really clear and truthful conception of a man who has always had an individuality in our history, but a confused and uncertain one. Mr. Warner’s own nice sense of humor has been of excellent service in this study, as it is of value in any historical work, for it protects one against the danger of being taken in by what may have deceived duller contemporaries. If now and then he lightens his task by a gibe or a lazy jest, the reader will have two reasons for exercising charity, namely, his own enjoyment and his recollection that Mr. Warner had intended to be much funnier.

In his companion volume, there was no occasion for any exercise of literary virtue. Washington Irving is so enjoyable a man that Mr. Warner needed but to consult his own sense of comradeship to produce an agreeable book. He had not to collect his material from recondite sources. Irving’s gentle life has been recorded at length, and his works offer no problems. Taken as a single figure in our literature, there was nothing new to be discovered about him, and it is to Mr. Warner’s credit that he has made no strained attempt to disclose some special Irving of his imagination, but as a brother artist has been content to draw again the familiar features; so that the charm of this book is in its quiet tribute of one American to another, both having much in common, and the younger possessed of this advantage, that he sees the other in good perspective. The survey of Irving’s writings is indeed rather Irving’s than Warner’s ; we should have been willing to sacrifice some of the quoted passages, well chosen as these are, if room could thus have been made for more of Mr. Warner’s comments, and we wish that he had given us more distinct views of the New York of Irving’s early manhood, and of the society in which Irving moved. His preliminary chapter contains some capital observations upon certain aspects of American literature, and since Irving was preëminently a man of letters it would have been a fitting accessory to the picture if Mr. Warner had enabled us to see a little more of the rather faint literary America of Irving’s day. There used to be a preposterous engraving of Irving and his friends ; a really truthful presentation of the same subject would have been an addition to our literary history.

We have scarcely answered the questions with which we started, yet Mr. Warner has thrown some light upon them. He has shown, at any rate, that a literary conscience is better worth having than a pliant mood, since it enables its possessor to discover some higher uses in life than a jest-book suggests. There is a fitness in things which it is the first business of a humorist to perceive; the perception of the incongruous comes after. In his two modes of treatment Mr. Warner has met the demands of literary students : he has used acumen and patient order in his Captain John Smith, refusing to be drawn aside into the farcical, and he has been light and graceful in his sketch of Irving, refusing to be learned or wearily philosophic.

  1. Captain John Smith (1579-1631), sometime, Governor of Virginia and Admiral of New England. A Study of his Life and Writings. By CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER. [Vol. I. of Lives of American Worthies.] New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1881.
  2. Washington Irving. By CHARLES DUDLEY WARNER. [Vol. I. of American Men of Letters.] Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1881.