Significant Books: American Biography

THE reading of biography and of autobiography must be approached at widely divergent angles. The biography is in large measure a piece of work, well or ill done;, the autobiography, if sincere, is essentially a man. The piece of work may fairly be criticised from any one of a number of points of view. The man must be taken for what he is worth on his own showing,—as a man with whom one may be in sympathy or disagreement, yet after all fully entitled to his own point of view and the working out of his own salvation. The chief difference between autobiographies is that the subjects are inherently interesting or uninteresting, capable or incapable of giving a true and compelling account of themselves.

Mr. Moncure D. Conway has lived far too long and conspicuously in the world to leave any doubt that his life must be full of a rare sort of excitement and variety, and that his own pen is eminently qualified to portray it. On the very threshold of his story,1 he declares: “In my ministry of a half century I have placed myself, or been placed, on record in advocacy of contrarious beliefs and ideas. A pilgrimage from pro-slavery to antislavery enthusiasm, from Methodism to Freethought, implies a career of contradictions. One who starts out at twenty to think for himself and pursue truth is likely to discover at seventy that one third of his life was given to error, another third to exchanging it for other error, and the last third to unsay the errors and undo the mistakes of the other two thirds. ” This — in spite of a suspicion that a still later view, if such were possible, might recognize the misdirection of the final third — prepares one for frankness; and frankness is obviously required for the record of Mr. Conway’s “ contrarious beliefs and ideas,”

A slightly fuller itinerary of his “pilgrimage” will give some idea of its variety. He was born in Virginia, in 1832, of a slaveholding family of high social standing. The religious influences of his boyhood carried him to a Methodist college and into the Methodist ministry. Certain inherited tendencies of radicalism and an early acquaintance with Emerson’s writings unsettled his beliefs in the social and religious institutions to which he was allied. Separated from the sympathies and support of his family, he betook himself at twenty-one to the Harvard Divinity School in order to prepare for the Unitarian ministry. He describes his journal of this period as “a sort of herbarium of the thorns that pierced father, mother, and myself.” Active participation in the anti-slavery movement, intimacy with all the emancipating influences of Boston in the early fifties, the charge of a Unitarian parish in Washington, from which his increasing radicalism bore him to the ministry of a still freer religious society in Cincinnati, — these filled the years immediately before the Civil War. Then came the editorship of The Commonwealth in Boston, and the vigorous advocacy of the immediate and complete abolition of slavery as the chief cause of the war and its continuance. In 1863 he went to England to lecture on behalf of the North, and thenceforward made London the centre of his activities. Twenty-one years were devoted to the ministry of the South Place Chapel, in which a Freethought religious society met. Through these and other years frequent interruptions permitted him to witness many interesting events in Europe, chiefly as correspondent for American journals ; as, for example, in the Franco-Prussian War. To this bare record must be added some intimation of the extraordinary array of friendships with which all his years have been glorified. Emerson, Whitman, Hawthorne, the Carlyles, Froude, Browning, Tennyson, Annie Besant, may be taken almost at random as typical names from this bead-roll of the less conventional “good and great” of his time with whom Mr. Conway has held really intimate relations. Preacher, journalist, writer of books, devotee of peace, lover of the theatre, music, and pictures, his contacts with life and vital persons were inevitably legion. It is a manifest advantage of such a ministry as Mr. Conway’s that he could be a little of everything else besides a minister.

The record of such a life, made by a vigorous and vivacious writer, who seems to have kept a lifelong journal, and to have filed his letters received, could hardly fall short of exceptional interest. The foregoing summary of Mr. Conway’s career will at least have suggested the many - sidedness of the record. The constant glitter of its side lights should not blind the reader to the importance of a few typical and suggestive passages. Take, for example, the statement of the author’s unwillingness to canonize Lincoln,—a passage reflecting more than one of Mr. Conway’s religious and political convictions: “While recognizing Abraham Lincoln’s strong personality and high good qualities, I cannot participate in his canonization. The mass of mankind see in all great events the hand of God. Having no such faith, I see in the Union war a great catastrophe .... In the canonization of Lincoln there lurks a consecration of the sword. The method of slaughter is credited with having abolished slavery. By the same method Booth placed in the presidential chair a tipsy tailor from Tennessee, who founded in the South a reign of terror over the negro race, — which has suffered more physically since the war began than under the previous century of slavery. . . . Alas! — the promises of the sword are always broken! Always!” Here preëminently speaks the uncompromising warrior against war, hopeless to-day of any good to come from The Hague because war is there recognized in provisions for its “civilized” conduct. Mr. Conway’s chief disagreement with Lincoln was that emancipation was not more promptly declared and fully utilized as a means for ending the war. Feeling as he did on this point, it is to the credit of his candor that he gives so full a version of the admirable answer Lincoln made to W. H. Channing and himself when in 1862 they called upon him to urge immediate emancipation. “Turning to me the President said, ‘In working in the anti-slavery movement you may naturally come in contact with a good many people who agree with you, and possibly may overestimate the number in the country who hold such views. But the position in which I am placed brings me into some knowledge of opinions in all parts of the country and of many different kinds of people; and it appears to me that the great masses of the country care comparatively little about the negro, and are anxious only for military successes.’ We had, I think, risen to leave, and had thanked him for his friendly reception, when he said, ‘We shall need all the antislavery feeling in the country, and more; you can go home and try to bring the people to your views; and you may say anything you like about me, if that will help. Don’t spare me!’ This was said with a laugh. Then he said very gravely, ‘When the hour comes for dealing with slavery I trust I will be willing to do my duty though it cost my life. And, gentlemen, lives will be lost.’ ”

Though Mr. Conway’s peace principles kept him out of the army, even as a chaplain, one memorable instance reveals his quality of courage in facing the perils of the hour. This was the seeking out of his father’s slaves in Virginia and piloting them,through hostile demonstrations at Baltimore, into freedom in Ohio. A little later in England his courage completely outran his discretion in a correspondence with Mason, the London representative of the Confederacy. But in looking back upon it all he is now courageous enough to acknowledge that one of his letters, pledging the abolitionists to act in accordance with his own views, should never have been written.

In the field of literary history the Autobiography throws many lights upon persons and books. Here, perhaps, there is no more important contribution than that which Mr. Conway makes to an understanding of Froude’s course with regard to Carlyle. It is Mr. Conway’s ingenious theory that Froude was naturally a maker of romance, that Carlyle diverted him from following his true bent, to which he returned after Carlyle’s death. As if that were not dangerous enough in a biographer, Mr. Conway offers the further explanation that Froude produced his book in a desperate hurry in order to be the first in the field with a life of Carlyle. “Had I been superstitious,” says this friend of both men, “I should have personified Froude’s imaginative genius as a dæmon which, having been exorcised by Carlyle, returned to wreak posthumous revenge upon his memory.”

There are of course many illuminations of religious and social conditions in England. All the more because of Mr. Conway’s personal antagonism to most things in the established order, his plea against the disestablishment of the English church has a peculiar interest. He makes the heartiest recognition of the valuable service rendered by clergy and church to the British nation. It is not to be expected that all will relish the form which his plea has taken: “Disestablishment would be like a toppling down of lighthouses on rough moral coasts. As for the creeds and formulas, they have no more effect on the masses than if they were in Latin; they offend only the few that can understand them; altogether, with the music and the responses, they make a pretty Sunday concert. It is the refinement and the benevolence of the clergyman and his family that practically make his gospel.” The free-thinking societies, he believes, have their uses in helping the broad churchmen, in criticism and restraint. “Had there been no Martineau, there had been no such Archbishop of Canterbury as Frederick Temple, and no such Dean as Stanley.” Whether this is true or not, it would be easier to resent Mr. Conway’s own dogmatisms if he would not write such passages as this last bit to be quoted. He tells of watching the adoration of the decorated Bambino in Rome: “The doll with its staring eyes faced one with a tu quoque ; I, too, had all my life been decorating one Bambino after another, — the Messiah, the Redeemer, the prophet, the martyr, the typical man, the reformer, the altruist, the free-thinking teacher.”

Fragmentary as these comments on the nine hundred and more pages of Mr. Conway’s book must be, they have quite failed in their purpose if they have not expressed the conviction that here is the remarkable record of an extraordinary life. The life has had so frequent and variant departures from the beaten paths that no one reader can possibly follow them all with sympathy. Yet he must possess a limited intellectual and human curiosity who will not take uncommon pleasure in their overflowing history of a radical personality and career of the most highly developed type. “The Complete Come-outer ” might serve as title for both man and book.

In contrast with Mr. Conway’s autobiography, as that of an American transplanted in England, the Memoirs of Henry Villard 2 stand forth as the record of what a transplanted European may do in America. Though a portion of it is written in the third person, this also is an autobiography. What separates it from other books of its class is that it is a characteristic illustration of American possibilities. Such a career as Mr. Villard’s might of course be made in any reasonably free country; yet its progress is probably more typical of American conditions than it could be of any other.

Henry Villard landed in New York in 1853, eighteen years old, without money, without a friend in the Eastern states, and utterly ignorant of English. He had the advantages of excellent inheritances and a good bringing up in Germany. His early struggles, not only to make his way to relatives in the West, but to keep himself alive, put him to rigorous tests of character and endurance. A buoyant nature carried him through almost incredible hardships to the humble dignities of law student and journalist. His first newspaper enterprises were by no means always successful, and for a time were distinctly special in character, in that most of his writing was for GermanAmerican periodicals. But with his own growth and the course of events, his opportunities greatly broadened. Before the war he had important assignments as a special correspondent, — for example, to report the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and the state of affairs at and about Pike’s Peak at the height of the gold excitement.

His greatest journalistic opportunity came with the service to be rendered to the New York Tribune as its war correspondent during the Civil War. It is of course the successful correspondent’s good fortune to be sent to the most interesting, because the most dangerous, spots. The element of personal risk enters as clearly into some of Mr. Villard’s narratives as if he had been the most active of fighting men. During the war he probably held his employment in higher regard than in later years when he wrote, “The harm certain to be done by war correspondents far outweighs any good they can possibly do. If I were a commanding general I would not tolerate any of the tribe within my army lines.”

But the results of his war experience have been put to capital use. By the exercise of all his faculties of memory and research he has given full and valuable accounts not only of scenes actually witnessed, but of such a field as Chickamauga, which he could study and describe with all the skill of a military expert. His battle descriptions will of course have their chief uses for special students of separate engagements: it seems almost beyond the skill of man to make a particular battle live again for the “general reader.” Mr. Villard’s personal sketches and estimates of the commanders, however, have all the authority and interest of original portraits, in which a trained hand and a discerning eye have worked together. There are in his pages no more interesting personal glimpses than those of Lincoln, to whom he stood so near on various occasions that the heroic outlines were by no means the most observable. Lincoln’s propensity for stories of more than doubtful taste is emphasized. He is even heard to exclaim with reference to his wife’s ambition that he should become Senator and President, “Just think of such a sucker as me as President!” Yet the most enduring outlines also appear, together with a few rapid drawings of Mrs. Lincoln far from favorable to her memory.

Mr. Villard’s transition from journalism to finance was one of the most significant developments of his career. His ownership of the New York Evening Post represented both of these interests. In the story of his connection with the Northern Pacific Railroad the most picturesque phase of his activity as a financier is presented. His triumphal journey as creator of the road and host of the international excursion to witness its completion is rapidly followed by the collapse of the undertaking, and his own temporary downfall. To these in turn succeed the unbroken confidence of friends, and his restoration to power. That he continued to the end his journalist’s practice of observation and effective expression the account of a visit to Bismarck, included in the completion of the Memoirs, bears abundant witness. The total picture of Mr. Villard himself is that of an embodiment of energy and steadily high ideals. The sanguine hopes ending so often in disaster were merely typical of an excess of the very qualities demanded for eminence in the two callings of journalist and financier.

No question of transplanting could ever have been raised about Andrew Jackson.3 The foundations of Bunker Hill are no more firmly American. The title of this new record of his life — History of Andrew Jackson — seems to imply that he is to be regarded as a town, country, or institution, rather than a person. In spite of this elevation of his qualities, the title hardly justifies itself, for it does not appear that the old word Biography would have been misleading or inadequate. The title is rapidly followed by a dedication to President Roosevelt, “the embodiment in our times of the Jacksonian spirit.” Now this may be taken as a compliment or the reverse. The President’s best friends may well ask what parallels are to be found in his record for Jackson’s defiant disregard, on more than one historic occasion, of those under whose military authority he stood. Mr. Roosevelt’s surviving opponents will possibly rub their hands at Mr. Buell’s reference to a long category of incidents in which General Jackson “did right, but did it in the wrong way. That seemed to be something more than a habit. It amounted to an idiosyncrasy.” Here, they will say, is the warrant for the dedication. Yet even so devoted a follower of Jackson as Mr. Buell must offer defenses and explanations which his latest successor has never required. Similarities of spirit may of course be noticed, but, with all allowances for the different periods to which the two men have belonged, it would be hard to find in the present “embodiment” such undisciplined hatreds and such failures to apprehend more than one point of view as every life of Jackson must record.

Mr. Buell makes a frank disavowal of the judicial attitude. “We” — he says, with an unrestrained fondness for the plural pronoun—“shall make no pretensions to the function of arbitrator. It would be absurd for a man whose grandfathers both voted for Jackson whenever they had the chance, to assume such a function.” Fulfilling this state of mind he not only describes Jackson’s hatred of England, Federalism, and his chief political opponents, but adopts a liberal share of the same sentiment. From such tokens — as from laxities of style sufficient to rouse a suspicion that every statement will not bear scrutiny — the reader finds his confidence in the historical value of the book impaired. Nor is it reassuring to note how much value is placed upon reported conversations with political, social, and military veterans of eighty and thereabouts at the time Mr. Buell interviewed them. Let these interviews be preserved by all means, but as side lights rather than prime authorities.

If, then, the book be taken with all these grains of salt, — for which even a teaspoon may be needed, — it will be found to possess compensating virtues. It does create a vivid impression of Jackson’s unique personality, his really heroic qualities of physical courage, his primal sort of honesty and bigness. His limitations are displayed, though chiefly by the implications and suggestions of Mr. Buell’s constant use of cudgels against “ the General‛s ” adversaries. One regrets that Major Jack Downing’s familiar portrait of him is not taken even seriously enough to be mentioned. But the accepted Whig view of Jackson comes in for its share of opprobrium, — and it is well to remember that his second winning of the presidency was achieved by an electoral vote of 219 to 49. This is only another way of saying that Mr. Buell’s estimate of Jackson happens to coincide with that of the vast majority of Jackson’s contemporaries in America. To the author’s credit it must also be said that he has performed with marked success the difficult task of giving a fairly intelligible account of the two great battles of Jackson’s life, — the battle of New Orleans, and the fight against the United States Bank. In common fairness, moreover, one should remember first and last, that the author’s death has deprived the book of that final revision which would doubtless have made it more satisfactory to him. Even without that advantage this is manifestly one of the works to which future students of the man and period must have recourse.

Still another record of a typical American, albeit of quite a different type from Jackson, is the new volume with General Robert E. Lee for its theme.4 It has a higher documentary value than the life of Jackson, for many of its pages are filled with General Lee’s own letters, especially to members of his family. Since the son who has brought these letters together was but a boy when the Civil War began, it is natural enough that more than half of the book has to do with the five years of life that remained to General Lee after 1865. The great commander is shown primarily in his family relations. Even the war chapters reveal with special clearness his constant, loving thought for wife and children during the crucial years of his life and of their personal fortunes. Together with the rare quality of tenderness which is revealed, there are unceasing evidences of a religious faith and devotion more characteristic of the seventeenth than of the nineteenth century. To this is joined a pitiful regard for children and suffering soldiers, quite beautiful in its manifestations. It is worth noting that shortly after Mr. Conway escorted his father’s slaves to Ohio, General Lee, in the very midst of the war, remembering the terms of his father-in-law’s will, which provided for the manumission of his negroes at a certain date, took the necessary measures to set them free. Equally significant are the pictures of occasional meetings of Lee, the shining figure of the Confederate army, with his son, still a boy in the ranks, bearing all the hardships of the commonest soldier. One memorable picture of the great general portrays him at a review of twenty thousand infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia. Mounted on his faithful “Traveller,” he rode at a rapid pace along the far-reaching line of soldiery, accompanied from point to point by the division commanders. “When the General drew up, after this nine-mile gallop, under the standard at the reviewing-stand, flushed with the exercise as well as with pride in his brave men, he raised his hat and saluted. Then arose a shout of applause and admiration from the entire assemblage, the memory of which to this day moistens the eye of every old soldier.”

The descent from this pinnacle of military splendor to the place of the defeated leader is a matter of familiar history. But the dignity and beauty of the individual life in which the lost cause was chiefly embodied receive a fresh illumination from these pages. The uneventful work of the president of a small and crippled college was taken up with courage and hope. After leading the young men of the South in fruitless war, Lee was well content to train them for reaping the fruits of peace. With perhaps an undue profusion of letters — for they bear a somewhat unvaried burden — he is shown in all his quiet personal relations. His interest in friends and kinsfolk of every age has its important representation. Through this interest he kept in vital touch with that social life of the South in which his birth and circumstances entitled him to so conspicuous a part. The love and veneration with which the whole South regarded him is summed up by a young cousin recalling one of Lee’s visits to “Shirley.” “We had heard of God, but here was General Lee!” Enveloped in this atmosphere, he might well have been forgiven the utterance of regrets and resentments. Yet these do not appear, and one realizes that simple religious faith was the force which held them in check. Indeed, so high a spirit steadily reveals itself that the reader is left wishing it might have been universal in the South, and met with a corresponding spirit in the North. Then the existing history of Reconstruction could never have been written.

The reader of Mrs. Davis’s Bits of Gossip5 should turn quickly from its title to the few words with which the little volume is introduced. “It always has seemed to me that each human being, before going out into the silence, should leave behind him, not the story of his own life, but of the time in which he lived, — as he saw it, — its creed, its purpose, its queer habits, and the work which it did or left undone in the world. Taken singly, these accounts might be weak and trivial, but together, they would make history live and breathe.” Just because Mrs. Davis has successfully done something like this, she has wrought a more important result than that which her title suggests. The recollections she has jotted down are informal, and not invariably accurate in the letter. But they are full of a larger truth in spirit and feeling. Her girlhood in West Virginia gave her a vantage point for just observation to the North and to the South. From the South came stories of a code of honor responsible for tragic dealings with human life at the hands of both men and women. In the nearer North were the Scotch-Irish settlements of Pennsylvania, with conditions of moral and religious austerity well deserving the record which Mrs. Davis has made. Traveling still farther northward she came to Boston in the sixties with unusual opportunities for seeing the men and women who were contributing most to the intellectual distinction of the region. By reason of her very lack of New England traditions there is a refreshing novelty, even at this late day, in the quality of the impressions recorded. Especially in Concord a sense of remoteness from the struggle with which the nation was torn came vividly home to her. Yet it was Hawthorne, the veriest dreamer of all the company she met, who saw most clearly that the actual war was something beyond their apprehension. A misfortune of Mrs. Davis’s geographical view-point is that in the ranks of the abolitionists, whom she describes as “A Peculiar People,” she enrolls all the antislavery element. This, however, may be but a reflection of a Southern feeling that to all opponents of slavery, within and outside of political parties, belonged the title which in the North was reserved for the radical Garrisonians. But this is obviously a matter rather of the letter than of the spirit. In her treatment of persons, as of conditions, the spirit demands and secures the first consideration at her hands. Accordingly she has produced a genuine and stimulating little book.

1 Bits of Gossip. By REBECCA HARDING DAVIS. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.

  1. Autobiography, Memories and Experiences of Moncure Daniel Conway. In two volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.
  2. Memoirs of Henry Villard, Journalist and Financier, 1835-1900. In two volumes. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1904.
  3. History of Andrew Jackson, Pioneer, Patriot, Soldier, Politician, President. By AUGUSTUS C. BUELL. In two volumes. New York : Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1904.
  4. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee. By his son Captain ROBERT E. LEE. New York : Doubleday. Page & Co. 1904.