Midwest Portraits: A Book of Memories and Friendships

by Harry Hansen. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co. 1923. 8vo. vi+ 357 pp. $2.50.
THE portraits, which are, with one exception, of writers, are really Chicago portraits, drawn against a background of Chicago. In drawing them, Mr. Hansen has essayed that most difficult of undertakings, the appraisal of living men and women whom he knows intimately in the flesh. He is careful to explain that ‘a book built primarily upon friendships and memories can afford to leave to the more scholarly inquirer problems of technical skill, the more subtle balancing of literary values and the relation of these men to the literature of all time.’ And yet this disclaimer does not deter him from implying that ‘these men,’ whether singly or as a group, have an important relation to the literature of all time. It is this faith or loyalty that gives us the most likable portrait in the book, that of the author himself; and that is sketched unconsciously. His conscious portraits give the impression of having been painted in poses of self-consciousness.
The portrait of the author is an interesting study, for it is of a man for whom the past seems hardly to exist, a man in love with a world as new as department-store varnish, for whom anyone in revolt against the past is by that fact alone an apostle of the future, and for whom the future apparently dawned in Chicago the day before yesterday. Even little details, which one would ignore as slips, contribute to the general impression of ingenuousness; as when he spells Lavengro as L’Avengro, and ascribes to Dickens a hackneyed saying of Bacon’s. And yet his faith in the new is so honest and his admiration of his literary friends so real that one ends by liking him better than one can like them. For there seems to be something wrong with the portraits, and some thought suggests that his sitters have sat so close to him that they have suffered the distortion due to lack of perspective which one observes in a moving-picture ‘closeup.’ The most beautiful can hardly endure such magnification of feature.
The men and women most fully presented are Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Floyd Dell, Robert Herrick, Edgar Lee Masters, Harriet Monroe, Lew Sarett, Wallace Smith, and Ben Hecht, but the pages are dotted with references to other Chicago writers and artists, and the main chapters are linked by general essays on Chicago publishers, literary dubs, bookstores, and magazines. The less personal chapters are very pleasantly written and are full of facts for which anyone who is interested in the city and in the literary history of America must be grateful. As for the portraits, as Mr. Sandburg is quoted as saying, ‘Elephants mean different things to different people’: so undoubtedly do literary celebrities.
R. M. GAY.