SPEAKING of biography, as we shall be in a minute, I have lately been reading a book which contains much that is best and much that is worst in our ‘modern’ methods — Joseph Fouché, by Stefan Zweig (Viking Press, $3.50). It is generous to call Fouché ‘a politician.’ A sanguinary worker for the Revolution in France, he eventually betrayed the Republic to Napoleon; Minister of Police under the Empire, he ultimately turned traitor and sold himself to the Bourbons; constant to no person or ideal, capable of any duplicity for power, he could be called harsher things than a politician. Napoleon called him ‘the one really perfect traitor’ he had known, and the bitter statement seems to hit the mark.
Here, then, is a person incapable of stirring either sympathy or respect in a reader (Victorians would hardly have bothered to write his life); a person, moreover, furtive by nature, about whom there would hardly seem to be enough real evidence to compose a ‘standard’ biography. What we must have is a psychoanalysis; and that is what Herr Zweig has given us—a character reading, often brilliant in phrasing, suave, and persuasive in its logic. There are, of course, thin passages when only conjecture is at hand; there is no index, no footnotes, and rarely a citation of authority other than the author’s. Fart and presumption have been blended in an ably written and ably translated exposition. Personally I miss the freedom of opinion which I think the best biographies allow, my instinct rebels against the smooth texture of Herr Zweig’s logic, and finally I confess I find tedious rather than exciting Fouché’s endless machinations. I must add that the book is attractively designed — as most Viking Press books are.
Fouche may have been a sly ferret — Taft and Morgan were, as you might say, elephants. You always knew where to find them, and their lives for that reason must have been the easier to record.
IT is increasingly evident that our history is to be written not in chronicles but in biographies: the claims of persons, to use a phrase of Emerson’s, are paramount. It happens that the reviewer has just made his patient and laborious way through a history of the Afghan and Turkish invasions of India, a book which closely follows the Persian annalists, but in which no person genuinely comes to life, though many of them were picturesque and bloodthirsty scoundrels, audibly crying for full-length portraits. To turn from these accurate but meagre outlines of what were in reality heart-stirring events to the richly packed pages of these two American lives, Morgan the Magnificen t by John K. Winkler (Vanguard Press, $.3.50) and William Howard Taft by Herbert S. Duffy (Minton, Balch, $5.00), is exceedingly refreshing. Both are accurate, well written, authoritative, and both have excellent themes.
To purloin the saying of Launcelot Gobbo, the proverb is divided between them: Taft, had the grace of God; Morgan had enough. Not necessarily for that reason, the corsair is the more enthralling subject; his electric tension is much higher. His biographer has done well; he has accumulated a surprising amount of intimate material, considering Morgan’s steady avoidance of publicity. But the strong side of the book is the account of Morgan, not so much as tumultuous man, but rather as banker; an orderly and engrossing array of the facts which writers whose work lies in the financial district of New York possess as part of their professional equipment. And there is considerable insight into character; the studies of Hill and Harriman are admirable, but one doubts whether we are given the full blast of the storm at the time when the corner in Northern Pacific came to its climax.
The adjective in the title is justified by Morgan’s own recorded pleasure when someone dubbed him ‘Lorenzo the Magnificent,’ and there is a genuine resemblance, not only to the great patron of art, but to the Italian warmth of temperament. What one misses is more personal detail. Here, for instance, is a contribution. When Colonel Harvey, on behalf of Morgan, gave a banquet to the plenipotentiaries at the Peace of Portsmouth, the great banker sat between Witte and President Hadley of Yale. As the guests sat down after singing the National Anthem, Morgan said to his scholarly neighbor: ‘Hadley, that is the first time we ever sang a duct in public!’ That playful humor must have been active on innumerable occasions. We should like a fuller record of it.
When we come to measure Morgan, what are we to say? That he was so great that he ought to have been greater. Morgan was a zealous churchman, but one thinks of his interest as being ecclesiastical rather than religious. One is reminded of the Buddhist doctrine that a heroic youth, a man born with exceptional genius and force, may become either a king or a great saint. Morgan elected to become a king. One is inclined to wish that he had chosen rather to be a great saint, something our age has far more poignant need of. Take the evangelist Moody, or General William Booth, both saintly men of quite exceptional force. Add to them Morgan’s genius, his sense of order and tradition and of the finest values in art. and we might have had a man whose name would have marked an epoch.
It is a comment rather upon Taft himself than upon his biographer that the curve of interest in the story leaps suddenly upward when we come to Theodore Roosevelt. His potential is so much higher. He is the real hero — perhaps some of his critics would say the villain — of the tale. William’s genius was rebuked by Theodore’s, as Antony’s was by Cæsar’s, though there is otherwise not much resemblance between our great jurist and the ardent wooer of Cleopatra. Not only was Taft’s quite genuine goodness in violent contrast with the more highly spiced temperament of his grand patron, but his biographer has added to this effect by rubbing out wrinkles. Taft was really a tremendously noisy person; gales of presidential laughter emanated from him. And Taft had the weakness of wishing to be esteemed a funny man; his addresses often appealed to his audiences for a not too expensive laugh. And he found it exceedingly difficult to say ‘No!’ Senator Aldrich discovered that, with the result that we had an upward revision of the tariff, and a change in party government.
Taft’s biographer does not quite do justice to the part which Senator La Follette played in the genesis of the Progressive movement. In the days when he and three of his colleagues sat in the ‘Cherokee Strip,’— four seats on the Democratic side of the Senate assigned to the Republican overflow, — La Follette was protagonist for a genuine revision of the tariff, He fought persistently to make the platform promises effective. At the time when Taft was taking Roosevelt’s place, the outgoing President, who had a certain sympathy with the Progressives, was asked to sound the incoming President. He returned to the little group of earnest thinkers, shook his head, and said, ' Boys, he’s agin you!' So at least the Wisconsin senator told the tale.
Especially excellent are the accounts of Taft’s work in the Philippines and later in Cuba. The biographer has done as well in his record as Taft did in his difficult administrative tasks.