The Life of Joseph Hodges Choate as Gathered Chiefly From His Letters

by Edward Sandford Martin. New York: Charles Scribners Sons. 1920. Two vols. 8vo, x+472 and x+440 pp. Illustrated. $10.00.
MR. CHOATE, as a subject for biography, should have had a Boswell in constant attendance. He spent a large portion of his life ‘on his feet,’where a man is placed, in common parlance, whenever he is engaged in the act of speaking. In courts of law, at dinners and public meetings beyond number, in that best of private intercourse which falls to those who best deserve it, he exercised his gift of ready, witty, persuasive, and moving speech to effective and delightful purpose. This was his natural mode of expressing the distinctive personality with which he was dowered. Only a Boswell could have caught and preserved the flavor of it all.
This biography of Mr. Choate is frankly described as ‘gathered chiefly from his letters.’ They are for the most part letters to members of his own family, and reveal in all their implications a domestic life of rare sympathy and beauty. But the pen of unstudied correspondence was, in his hand, less mighty than the spoken word. Fortunately Mr. Martin has supplemented the letters with many extracts from Mr. Choate’s speeches on special occasions, and in these the effect of the spoken word is readily imaginable. He has devoted almost a third of the first volume, moreover, to a ‘Fragment of Autobiography,’ dictated in 1914. dealing with the boyhood, youth, and early manhood of its subject, and affording a fresh illustration of the value of the austerities of an early Victorian New England training as a background for the achievement of eminence. The shining figure at the American bar, the Ambassador to Great Britain, the foremost citizen of New York, never ceased to use his Salem inheritances as a corrective and standard of valuation that might otherwise have gone fatally awry.
Almost immediately upon Mr. Choate’s death in 1917 another biography of him, lacking much of the essential material accessible to Mr. Martin, was hastily published. One of its chapters, ’The Lawyer,’ appears to have had the unfortunate effect of depriving this authorized biography of an element that would have added much to its interest. This chapter in Mr. Theron G. Strong’s book contains many instances of Mr. Choate’s methods of cross-examination, in which audacity, suavity, and a relentless wit were tellingly mingled. These transcripts of actual word-play in a few of the many momentous legal eases in which he look part provide something of what a Boswell would have gleaned both within and outside the courtroom.
The lack of any substantial interpretation of Mr. Choate through the medium in which he most clearly expressed his individuality is the lack, imposed by necessity, that is most fell in Mr. Martin’s pages. The essential sympathy of spirit between himself and his subject illuminates the best pages of his book, especially the that deal with the perfect climax of Mr. Choate’s great career, and picture the unstinted taxing of his waning physical powers when he gave Voice to the devotion of America and its chief city to the cause of the Allies, embodied in the person of Mr. Balfour; and those last pages of all. setting forth Mr. Choate’s unclouded adherence to ’the eternal hope.’ M. H.