by Gamaliel Bradford. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1924. Large 8vo. xiii + 340 pp. $3.50.
WHAT is the peculiar merit of Mr. Bradford’s art, the vivid picturing of personalities in fortypage sketches, based (in this volume) on exhaustive research into their letters, in other volumes on all the biographic material available?
Let me answer by asking another question. How does any one of us first become interested in a notable character, living or dead? Someone tells us about him, briefly, pungently’, out of abundant affectionate intimacy; tells us what sort of person he was, gives us the flavor of his personality. And if the friend who thus shares with us the warmth of his own enthusiasm is not only enthusiastic but discerning, if he has known many other interesting men and describes each in different terms, contrasting them so that each impression sets off and sharpens the others — why then we really stop, listen, and remember.
This is what Mr. Bradford does. In the past twenty-nine years he has painted sixty-nine portraits, and about each artist, soldier, hero, or rascal of them all he seems to know more than most of us know about anyone. He is truly a ‘naturalist of souls.’ He views each in relation to the rest in a sort of galaxy or labyrinth wherein each has its place like the souls in Tintoretto’s ‘Heaven.’
No one else that I know has done this in English. Sainte-Beuve may have written about a larger bulk of individuals (I have n’t counted them to see); but the range of character dealt with is more limited. Mr. Bradford gives us delicately etched pictures of Ovid, of Saint Francis de Sales, of Donne, Leopardi, Voltaire, Horace Walpole, Thomas Paine, Aaron Burr, Samuel Pepys, Eugénie de Guérin, Emily Dickinson, P. T. Barnum, Mark Twain, Benedict Arnold, Whistler, Keats, Grover Cleveland, Samuel Bowles, General McClellan, Joseph E. Johnston, Miss Austen, and four dozen others. In each brief sketch he packs an amazing amount of fact and color. Take, for example, the opening sentence of three psychographs in Mr. Bradford’s latest volume: —
1. VOLTAIRE. ‘Most familiar to us as he appeared in age: the lean, wrinkled, withered face; the vivid mocking eye which seemed to see the underside of everything; the figure shrunken and shattered by the fierce, restless intelligence which soared and plunged and darted into the deepest hiding-places of human folly, vanity, and wickedness.’
2. CHARLES LAMB. ‘A creature of whim and frolic fancy, (who) turned life upside down and inside out, sported with it, trifled with it, tossed it in the air like soap-bubbles or thistle-down.’
3. HORACE WALPOLE. ‘(He) held a mirror to the . . . follies and fascinations (of the eighteenth century). He devoted his time mainly to keeping the mirror bright, polished, and gleaming, and to enjoying mirror and reflection both.’
Not being bothered about origins, grandfathers, and early education, not being under any obligations to trace chronologically the incidents and accidents of his friend’s life, Mr. Bradford comes at once to matters of interest, to individual psychology.
How does he attack his task? With his almost unrivaled experience in the study of personality, he brings to the study of each person a method or framework which is itself the source of novel insights.
Since he asks of every character, ‘ What are your habits about money, about work, about human relations, love, and marriage, about religion; how do you stand toward outdoor nature or art, toward polities and the social life of your time?’ he uncovers a good many unexpected qualities in well-known figures. Edward Fitzgerald’s superlative laziness joined to his hearty enthusiasm for Carlyle’s energy, Flaubert’s dealings with money, Cowper’s brush work, Walpole’s opinion of Dr. Johnson (‘Prejudice, bigotry, pride, presumption, arrogance, and pedantry are the hags that brew his ink’), would not have emerged, I fancy, but for the fact that Mr. Bradford’s delicate art follows a method.
This last volume is as readable, as stimulating, as wise, as any that has come from Mr. Bradford’s pen —which is saying a great deal.