Woodrow Wilson: Life and Letters. Youth, 1856-1890; Princeton, 1890-1910

A Blessed Companion Is a Book

by Ray Stannard Baker. Garden City: Doubleday. Page & Co. 1927. 2 vols. 8vo. XXXIV-325, x+357 pp. Illus. $10.00.
THE reading of this book recalls a frequent experience of war time. Again and again some of us would read in the morning paper a public utterance of Woodrow Wilson, and exclaim inwardly, ‘ That is wise and true and perfectly expressed. Then, later in the day, perhaps at the lunch table, a friend, or a whole company of friends, accustomed to look upon everything from the President through eyes that did not see with ours, would take the very words that had seemed so impressive a few hours before and hold them up to scorn for their exhibition of folly, insincerity, and general worthlessness. There was never a more striking illustration of the possible divergence of opinion upon a clear and concrete point among persons of supposedly equal intelligence and candor. If we were right, our friends were all wrong, and vice versa. If we were content to wait for time to vindicate our attitude of mind, so, forsooth, were they.
Now a decade, more or less, has passed, and it is probably still too early for readers of these two volumes to divest themselves of preconceptions. The narrative which Mr. Baker is distilling from literally five tons of material carries Wilson only through his presidency of Princeton. The number of volumes that will be required to complete the biography has not been vouchsafed, but, if the scale of the first two be maintained, if can hardly be less than five or six. The two now issued follow upon many books that may fairly be called preliminary — the Page and House, the Lane and Houston volumes, and a shelf of others approaching the finally central figure of the war period from a variety of angles. Kven these two volumes of Mr. Baker’s must be counted preliminary to that ampler revelation of Wilson which must await the publication nf his own more intimate records of his later years.
Yet here is quite enough to set the scene — and to whet the appetite. It must be said at once that Mr. Baker is performing his gigantic task with a masterly hand, displaying in general a just sense of proportion, an abundant, knowledge of social and academic backgrounds, and an essential, though nut a blinded, sympathy with his subject. The figure that emerges is that of an eager, sensitive, high-minded, ambitious man, blending fun with earnestness, recognizing in himself ’au idealist with the heart of a pool,’ finding in that recognition something ‘tragical, rooted through all his manhood, with a firmness that has grown rare, in the religious faith of hiardent youth, contenting himself as a teacher with ‘a merely talking profession’ while he was burning for a career as statesman and orator which would give full play to the power he felt within, the ‘power to speak and In organize action.’
‘Fifty-four years of his life,’ says Mr. Baker, ‘he spent in preparation, ten in living, three in dying.’ These volumes deal with the long period of preparation, and in all the annals of America it would be hard to find another man in a post of supreme responsibility so thoroughly equipped by thought and special study to deal with the largest issues of government. At Princeton he met with defeat in his two chief efforts to place the social and intellectual life of the college on the basis in which he believed — a basis in which there are still many waiting believers. Touching the first of these defeats Mr. Baker says, ‘He was always expecting human beings to act upon the highest motives — and for public rather than private ends. It was one of the great elements of his power as a leader — as it was of his weakness!’ The whole story of the Princeton struggle with powers stronger than himself is told with manifest restraint and fairness. As an instance of preparation it has by no means its least value in preparing the reader for Wilson’s course in the overthrow to which he and the world cause he made his own were destined. In this also there are still many waiting believers.
There is so much to enjoy and admire in these volumes that it may be superfluous to raise one question—whether it was necessary to illustrate with quite so many letters of intimate affection the great felicity of Wilson’s first marriage.