HASTY arithmetic tells me that seventy-nine volumes of biography have appeared in recent months. In the face of so many true stories and confessions one has to pick and choose. The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge (Cosmopolitan Press. $3.00) attracted me: it has a pleasing type page and the most appropriate end papers of the season. All the way through the book I felt that I was the American people looking into a mirror. There we all are drawn to the life. The reader’s impression is of a very definite, but thin, personality with a philosophy based on simple convictions transmitted from his father and grandfather. He has a great deal of shrewdness, much right-mindedness, and, serving God and man as honestly as he has done, he is utterly convinced that Providence is looking after him. With this I quite agree.
It seems to me that Mr. Coolidge has done a very serviceable job. He is free of most of the self-consciousness of the biographer; he is not mawkish, nor given to self-praise, but. sets down the truth simply as lie sees it. His style is. J think, the result of his political writing and speaking. The paragraphs are formed of terse, thrifty sentences; yet each is closed with a phrase whose twist or emphasis suddenly gives a sting to the words that have gone before. What distinction the book has comes from an occasional passage which shows genuine feeling. He loves his father. He loves what has become an entirely conventional memory of his mother. He is appreciative of his wife and admires his boy. He is a patriot, too, and I wish him well.
To Mr. Charles Johnston of New York we turn for an estimation of some other Americans of intellect, a group in contrast to the biographies of action which he reviewed for us last month.
AMERICANS OF INTELLECT
IN conceiving and carrying out his study of Hawthorne (Little, Brown, $3,50), Newton Arvin has undertaken ail almost impossible task, which he has brought to a successful issue. To paint a picture of the external life of a personality so fugitive and secretive is already much; to analyze and present his writings in detail is something more; this biographer undertakes in addition to discover and reveal the spiritual keynote of Hawthorne’s character, to bring to light, in the old phrase, the moral of the story, and in this exceedingly difficult undertaking he succeeds. The moral is what Buddhists call ‘the dire heresy of separateness.’
A function of the novelists, rarely fulfilled, is to supplement the chronicles, to paint vignettes on the margins of history, to incarnate in living figures the form and pressure of their time, adding atmosphere, color, and personal warmth to the dry records of the historians, Nathaniel Hawthorne lived through periods of American history full of vital significance, but we seek in vain for any genuine impression of them in bis books. The. Scarlet Letter is enacted ostensibly in Colonial Boston, The Marble Faun in modern Rome, but in psychic atmosphere they are as remote as the Mountains of the Moon. It is futile to seek in Hawthorne for the spirit and local color of any period, especially his own.
What, then, is his claim to greatness? Something more universal, as his biographer sees it. Through his willfully cloistered years Hawthorne discovered a principle, not of American history, but of universal life, and this principle he has incarnated in a score of persons, in different settings, with the poignant intensity that gives permanent life to his writings. The principle is the destructive power of egotism, which poisons and disintegrates the spiritual nature. In this sense, the essence of Hawthorne’s biography is a moral; the author is successful because he establishes the validity of this moral.
The Life of Weir Mitchell by Anna Robeson Burr (Duffield, $6,00) stands in complete contrast. Its unity lies not so much in the spiritual insight of the biographer as in the robust and vigorously radiative personality of Doctor Mitchell himself. And, while he wrote historical novels, and may even lay claim to have invented the American romance, the primary interest is not in these purposed pictures of Colonial life and the Civil War; it is rather hi the personality of the gifted physician, as incarnating three generations of Philadelphia, when Philadelphia was still the representative city of the nation.
Boswell paints for us, incidentally, the London of George III, and the picture is invaluable because of its unconscious sincerity. In somewhat the same way this biography brings to life again an older Philadelphia, but with the difference that the city, rather than the man, emerges as the major theme.
In one of his letters Weir Mitchell says that his writing wants the permanent style that makes a master. It is a true criticism, marking the limitation of his stories and his verse. He has a better chance of survival, not as a writer, but as a robust and picturesque figure, representative of an interesting period of American history.
A biographer may give us a familiar picture of the external events and appearances of his subject’s life, or he may seek a more intimate insight into the deeper significance of that life. In writing of Emerson, Phillips Russell (Brentano, $5.00) has chosen familiarity rather than intimacy. He is a writer of American biographies, rather than a convinced, intuitive student of Emerson. He presents us with a mass of detail, all exceedingly interesting, picturesque, and accurate; but at the end we feel as if, in this study of Emerson, we had everything except Emerson himself.
Our biographer draws certain comparisons between the thought of Emerson and some of the more philosophical conclusions of contemporary science. One is inclined to think that he is on the right track, but does not go far enough. Our astronomers suggest that we may find the underlying reality in the Logos, which is essentially the Oversold of Emerson. But they hardly pass the threshold of the dwelling in which Emerson has his permanent abode. Modern science applies the surface powers of the mind to the analysis of natural law. Emerson uses deeper faculties to study the spiritual laws, of which natural laws are the outer covering, as did the great Orientals before him. So we shall be well advised if, following the counsel of the biographer’s Afterword, we turn from the biography to the essays. We shall thus get the real man.
Reading the Life and Letters of Stuart P. Sherman, by Jacob Zeitlin and Homer Wood bridge
(Farrar and Rinehart, $10.00), one remembers it is customary to speak of Stuart Sherman as a critic — the most vigorous, perhaps the most distinguished, in American letters. Yet one doubts whether that is his chief claim to consideration. The texture of his writing will hardly stand comparison with Sainte-Beuve, with Lessing of the Laocoön, with Matthew Arnold, It would be difficult to choose from among his essays anything equal to Arnold’s studies of Burns or Victor Hugo, which establish canons that are valid for all literature. Nor does he attain the distinction of Arnold’s verse.
The broader significance of Stuart Sherman seems to be that he incarnated in himself, and recorded in his writings, a period of transition in American thought and ideals which may change the whole future history of the nation. He began with Hawthorne, Longfellow, Lowell, Holmes, as his cardinal points. He ended with the most modern of the moderns. And he incarnated each stage of the transition with immense energy and enthusiasm.
Sherman’s permanent place remains undetermined — perhaps because the value of modern American writing is still undetermined. Our crusaders of modernity have discovered aspects of life, not always fine or worthy, all of which have been thoroughly canvassed in the older literatures. It is yet to be seen whether they have discovered, or will discover, anything that is genuinely new. If they odd values to human life, they may open a new era of literature, and of this new era Stuart Sherman may prove to be the prophet.