W. H. Hudson: A Portrait

by Morley Roberts. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. 1924. 8vo. xiv+310 pp. $5.00.
ADMIRERS of Hudson have waited eagerly for this book. So little was known authentically about him, his secrets were so jealously hidden that a kind of external mystery has grown up, veiling still further the aloofness and independence of the man’s inward self.
To the curiosity of those who seek in a biography a record of dates, events, facts, — the framework and dry bones of a once vital soul, — Mr. Roberts’s book will be plainly disappointing. Himself utterly without such preoccupation — or assuming that it is, in fact, a mere vulgar curiosity—he throws us once in a while a crumb or scrap of fact, but only to provide a background for his portrait, to accentuate a light or deepen a shadow. We learn, however, that Hudson’s mother was a New Englander and that his father, of English-Irish stock, was American born. Owing to ill health, the Hudson ménage moved to South America and settled in the Argentine, where Hudson was brought up, a bilingual English boy among the wild Guaehos and Indians of the Pampa whom he described so vividly in The Purple Land. Something of the Spanish dignity and courtesy he always retained, though he found his true ultimate home when he went to England. Mr. Roberts describes the years of poverty and disappointment there, the slow grudging acceptance of Hudson, first as a fieldnaturalist and later as a prose-writer of strange power, and finally, in his old age, a recognition of his performance and a full measure of fame.
Mr. Roberts, however, is always trying to paint his portrait, to express his elusive personality. A difficult task. When Hudson sailed from South America, never to return, his younger brother said to him wistfully, ‘Of all the people I have ever known, you are the only one I do not know.’ Mr. Roberts knew him as long and as intimately perhaps as any man, but from first to last his attitude is wonder and a wild surmise; he could not wholly understand this friend who never entirely revealed himself to man or woman, who expressed in his writings only a portion of the ‘ variety of a world in him.’
If Mr. Roberts’s method seems at times fumbling and uncertain, it is due perhaps to the difficulty of his task and to the humility with which he approaches it. His book will not rank among the great biographies, nor did he harbor the illusion that it would. With fidelity and devotion he has shown us the Hudson likeness, and if his work is incomplete, he has given us a clearer understanding than we had before of that profound and many-sided nature. At least he conveys to us a sense of the authentic qualities of Hudson, his complete independence, his insatiable curiosity as to all forms of life, his sympathy for birds and animals, his courage, his strange, wild spirit, his power to bate and to love. The book is stamped with a kind of emotional fatigue, a sense of loss, a sadness which is easily understood, coming from one who wrote, ‘He was not only a great man, but a great friend, and his loss has been like the setting of the sun.’
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