Up to Now: An Autobiography

by Alfred E. Smith. New York: The Viking Press. 1929. 8vo. 434 pp. Illus. $.5.00.
AT a private dinner in May of this year, some forty Harvard professors, representing every department of learning and including scholars of international distinction, had as their guest the late governor of the State of New York. Seldom has an occasion furnished more dramatic contrasts. The circumstances of that dinner shed much light upon American society; they also furnish the clue to the understanding of Governor Smith’s career. Undeniably he is one of those rare personalities who arouse and permanently retain public love and devotion. Wholly unlike Fox and Clay, and in his career far happier than either, Smith is very much like them in the control he has exercised over men’s feelings through imagination. Imagination, however, is merely the instrument of persuasion. It is the art whereby insight and understanding are made to prevail.
And herein lies Governor Smith’s greatest significance. Neither charm nor contagious humanity makes him share with George Clinton the distinction of having been elected four times governor of New York. The man who spoke to the Harvard professors at that dinner moved them not by his bonhomie but by his knowledge of the business of government. He addressed them as one of their own number might have addressed them, save that he talked with more vivid reality, with deeper insight, with more subtle understanding, about the pulls and pressures, the stresses and strains, of government than do professors of government. As Governor Smith concluded his two hours’ talk on the actual workings of the present-day government of the State of New York — on what statesmanship is like in action — one of the diners, a Boston brahmin who admires Governor Smith but did not vote for him, exclaimed, ‘I wish Aristotle might have heard that!’ Without knowing it, Governor Smith is an Aristotelian. His thinking follows the impact of fact. Perhaps, since he has a mind open to fact and powerfully responsive to its meaning, it may have been a real advantage to Smith to have been free from the usual book learning about government.
In this book we are given Governor Smith’s own account of the evolution of a modern statesman. I venture to believe that this personal story, together with the ‘source material’ contained in the collection of Smith’s state papers published last year, would serve as an illuminating introduction for young Americans into the problems of government. Certainly it has more reality, more insight, more meaning, than any book by any professional political scientist that comes to mind. To an extraordinary degree in this instance, the style is the man. The outstanding characteristics of Alfred E. Smith, conceded alike by political friend and enemy, are stamped on every page of this book — simplicity, sincerit y, urbanity, and love of his kind.
But Up to Now is more than an important political document. It is one more chapter in the story of American civilization. The United States is a culture in process. Its virgin lands, and the variety of peoples that have come to it, are its distinguishing characteristics among nations. More light is shed upon the clash and fusion of groping forces in America in valid autobiographies of significant American personalities than in most of the writings of professional historians. Governor Smith’s autobiography joins these books of illumination. It belongs to the literature of America in the making — on the shelf of Americana it must be placed alongside the autobiographies of Booker T. Washington, Jacob A. Riis, Mary Antin, Michael Pupin. All these books revivify one’s Americanism — not the Americanism of formal salute to the flag or the demand for a great navy, but the Americanism of which Emerson was the prophet and Lincoln the political symbol.