Barrett Wendell and His Letters
THIS is a most significant presentation of a significant life. Mr. Howe explains at the start that his object is to present the man, Barrett Wendell, not wholly as he saw himself, much less as others were apt to see him, but as he really, fundamentally, was. The object has been pursued with discriminating, attentive appreciation, and with the most thoughtful skill in the handling of a vast mass of material extremely difficult to reduce to coördination and intelligibility.
The result is something far different from what superficial observers had been too often inclined to perceive in Mr. Wendell. By such observers his rather striking mannerisms were taken seriously. They set him down as a poseur, a cynic, who liked to dispose of great ideals and great causes by a shallow epigram. They took the little oddities of speech and gesture, the apparent effort to seek distinction at the expense of genuineness, as the essence of the man, all of the man; and they shrank from him, often with incomprehension and sometimes with aversion.
Those who had met him closely in intimate converse, pupils who had followed his long years of conscientious teaching, held a far different view, knew well the high, fine, endearing qualities which lay beneath the superficial oddity. But I think even those who knew Mr. Wendell best must be astonished at the breadth, the depth, the delicacy, let us say without hesitation, the nobility, revealed in the mass of these varied and most suggestive and stimulating letters.
There is the earnestness, the spiritual simplicity, the sincerity, the constant tone of a man who faces life and questions it, determined to take truth and only truth, ‘To me my whole life seems to have been a bewildered effort to begin.’ Is that the attitude of the cynic, the flippant maker of epigrams? There is the thoroughness. The man hated pedantry and pretense, but if you followed him quietly you found that no German Gelehrte did his work with more zeal and patience. There is the large breadth and tolerance of spiritual comprehension. It is true that he was by nature conservative, gloried in being so, liked tradition and consistency, and hated change. Yet back of the conservatism was a dissolving instinct of unconquerable veracity, which found narrow cliquishness detestable in conservative and radical alike.
And what most of all breathes through these letters, as it was radiant in Mr. Wendell’s life, was the human kindliness. For all his petulant outbursts of temper, when fools tantalized him, his heart was gentle and sympathetic as a woman’s. Trouble, suffering, grief brought from him an instant and helpful response. Above all, he was always ready to give his time and thought and attention to the innumerable appeals that were made to him for literary advice and encouragement. ‘For God’s sake, don’t forbid the years to teach you tenderness.’ Whatever Barrett Wendell may have seemed, that shows the sort of man he really was.