Men or Angels
THROUGH pessimists foresee the end, up to the present the public’s appetite for biography continues unabated. In the last three mouths of 1929), for instance, 150 ‘new biographies were in active circulation. Before the New Year is very old, comes the new stock: February (the ’Lincoln month’ among publishers) produced two new lives of the great President; and March, two fresh volumes on Columbus. Mr. Charles Johnston, who has a cool head for history, is a proper man to trust with the inevitable comparisons.
PAUL CLAUDEL and Jacob Wassermann were keenly conscious that the life of Columbus is no commonplace history of a man, but an event in some sense cosmic, and therefore demanding unusual treatment. The one has summoned to his aid poetical imagination, the other fantasy. We may take fantasy to be a picturing of what, is only part truth, or less, while imagination bodies forth in forms an invisible reality. Jacob Wassermann’s Columbus (Little, Brown, $3.50) is possessed by the fantasy that Columbus is the antetype or model of Don Quixote, who came into being more than a century after the momentous voyage; the author believes the high adventures of the Knight of La Mancha will shed illumination on the sailor who discovered a new world. Yet one may hold that this comparison of Don Cristobal and Don Quixote is rather a mirage than an insight. It is true that both had valiant hearts, but it is the essence of that last flower of knighthood that his dreams darken and perturb his will, while in one sense no man ever had a more veridical vision than Columbus, save only that his vision fell short of the achieved fact. He promised to his loyal-hearted queen new lands; his voyages brought fo her throne a territory more than twenty times as large as Spain, a territory stretching from the salt marshes of Utah and the snow-crowned mountains where the Rio Colorado springs up, through a hundred degrees of latitude to the icy cliffs of Cape Horn. He promised his queen gold, and from the lands he discovered came to Spain gold enough to fill many times his three caravels to the water line. He promised his queen glory; her name, because linked with his, is preserved in perpetual remembrance. Because of the mirage of his fancy, Jacob Wassermann never brings his picture of Columbus to a sharp focus, but it is the virtue of his book that be carries the story forward through all four voyages, till the news came, to Columbus that Vasco da Gama, sailing eastward, had in truth discovered the Indies which eluded the Genoan sailing west. The story gains in dignity and tragedy toward its close.
To his Book of Christoper Columbus (Yale University Press, $5.00) Paul Claudel brings creative imagination and the symbolism of a significant orchestral setting. His book is in form somewhere between the Masque of the Jacobeans and the insubstantial pageant that Prospero’s magic conjured into being. The leaves are decked, in black and while, brick-red and indigo, with mystical figures, caravels, Aztec gods, Santiago of Spain, magnificently girded with the bands of Orion, and at last the soul of Isabella in celestial glory. What does this portentous imagery express? Something of the straining spirit of Columbus, driven forward by Vision; something of the clear faith of the queen penetrating to the heart of truth within his dream; something of mediæval devotion piereing the vapors of superstition; a sense of the mystery hidden within this discovery of a new world.
In two recent lives of Lincoln — Ludwig’s Lincoln (Little, brown, $5.00) and Albert Shaw’s Lincoln:
A Cartoon History (Review of Reviews, $8.00) — there is a similar antithesis of procedure, Emill Ludwig, who began by writing verse and went on to draw fulllength portraits of Napoleon, of Goethe, of Bismarck, has perfected his method: from an omnivorous study of sources to extract every vivid incident or phrase which illumines his hero for the time being, to keep a strong beam of light on the central figure all the time, to omit nothing that enkindles with poignant feeling some part of the portrait, and, so far as is possible, to allow everything else to linger in half shadow. His forest never hides the one great, tree.
Albert Shaw, dean of our magazine editors, treats the life of Lincoln much as, month by month, he has dealt with the Progress of the World: there is the same gathering of innumerable accurately gauged events, the same firm editorial sentences, the same wealth of illustration lighting up the double columns. But here the forest, even the undergrowth, engrosses our vision; other trees constantly come between us and the big sequoia. One feels, through his large and numerous pages, the heat and stress of stormy years, the dust of conflict is in one’s nostrils, bygone days and hours troop living before us, but, in that whirl and turmoil, we too often lose sight of Lincoln. Ladwig shares Times’s magic, the selective memory of events, the heightened feeling which an unrolled future casts back on past days, the sense of Lincoln’s relation to the spiritual life of mankind — all that has been creatively revealed in the two generations since his martyrdom. We are deeply grateful to Albert Shaw for indefatigably assembling so many pictorial relics of those tremendous days. We also feel a certain thankfulness that the art of the cartoon no longer flourishes, with its human-headed beasts and birds, its bearded ladies, all with ribbons of eloquence streaming from their closed lips. We may make these differing methods clear by one or two examples. Albert Shaw says little of the early romances of Lincoln’s life. Ludwig gathers every fact. It is he who records Lincoln’s Intolerable grief over Ann Rutledge: ‘I can’t bear to think of her lying out there alone!' It is Ludwig who gives the line story of young Abraham proposing not to marry the sturdy, matter-of-faet damsel who pressed him somewhat hardly. Again, it is he who depicts Lincoln as fleeing at first from his wedding with Mary Todd, and who, throughout his book, adds much that is poignant concerning Mrs. Lincoln, revealing her as a true woman, loyal, passionate, exacting. Yet Albert Shaw gives us one speech that Ludwig misses, though it would have been pure gold for his procedure. Addressing the Missourians, Lincoln said:—
‘Old John Brown has been executed for treason against a State. We can not object, even though he agreed with us in thinking slavery wrong. That can not excuse violence, bloodshed, and treason. . . . So, if we constitutionally elect a President, and therefore you undertake to destroy the Union, it will be our duty to deal with yon as Old John Brown has been dealt with. We shall try to do our duty. . .'
Essentially the same immortal Lincoln emerges from both books. As was said of a still greater martyr, ‘sometimes he has the face of a man, sometimes the face of an angel.’