Henky James

THE MAN of the MONTH HFNRY JAMES Charles William Eliot [Houghton Mifflin, 2 vols., $10.00]
PRESIDENT ELIOT, said Mr. John Jay Chapman, ‘belongs to a class of men who fill a great place in the public eye and are suddenly and ungratefully forgotten; the class of worthies. Twenty-five years from now, young men will be shamelessly asking. “Who was President Eliot?”’ Fifteen of these years have passed since Mr. Chapman made his prophecy, twenty-one since Mr. Eliot resigned his office, and now in Mr. James’s definitive biography we have, as we have never had before, the man and his achievement placed before us in such detail and with such a picture of his environment as should enable us to judge of the justice of Mr. Chapman’s estimate.
The biographer has been well chosen. Born and bred in Eliot’s Cambridge, Mr. James has, in addition to the advantage of abundant opportunity of first-hand observation, the additional one of being non-academic and of having lived long enough at a distance from Harvard to achieve a fortunate detachment. His attitude toward his subject is appreciative and admiring but not fulsome, discriminating but not grudging. His knowledge of the background is ample. His style is clear and direct, with passages of restrained feeling and unforced elevation. He never comes between the portrait and the spectator.
‘The purpose of this book,’ as stated in the Prefatory Note, ‘is to delineate [Eliot’s] character, not to hallow his memory or to chronicle all his achievements,’and this is a true account of the emphasis employed. In treating a life as long as Mr. Eliot’s, so full of activity in so many fields, there was a grave risk of producing a work so ponderous that no one would read it through, and of enumerating events till the outline of the personality was lost. Perhaps Mr. James’s outstanding merit is his power of selection and his rigor in rejection. As a result the narrative reads rapidly and holds the interest, and the picture of the man stands out with great distinctness and vitality.
As far as possible Mr. Eliot is made to draw his own image. His opinions are mainly stated in language drawn from his speeches and writings and a discreet use is made of his letters. He had a vast correspondence, but he was not one of the great letter writers. His epistolary style differed little from that of his published writings, and it would have been a mistake to make the book chiefly letters. But we are glad to have enough of his family correspondence to disclose sides of his nature more intimate than the public was permitted to see in his lifetime.
Doubtless many people will be disappointed with what seems to them a scanty treatment of incidents and activities that engage their special interest. The reviewer, for example, for professional reasons would have liked to hear more of Mr. Eliot’s changing attitudes toward the education of women and of how he got the money for the remaking of Harvard. But to have satisfied all such desires would have made the book of an unmanageable size and would have defeated its main purpose of vivid portraiture of the man.
Though the biography contains numerous passages of analysis and interpretation, it closes without any attempt at a final summing up of Mr. Eliot’s personality or any estimate of the degree of his greatness. One regrets this modesty on the part of the author, for such a characterization would have been what one would have liked to compare with the sentences quoted at the beginning of this review. One may be sure that it would have made evident their hopeless inadequacy.
There is an element of condescension and patronage in Mr. Chapman’s term which is wholly inappropriate. No man ever condescended to Charles William Eliot; no man ever patronized him. That is one evidence of his greatness. Every reader will pick others for himself— his brilliant powers as an administrator, his knowledge of men, his extraordinary skill in leadership without any of the meaner arts of it, his blazing candor, his justness, his courage, his patience and persistence, his passion for service, his indomitable faith that the right way must ultimately be taken, that truth will prevail. All these are exhibited again and again, and with them his limitations, such as his slight æsthetic endowment, his restricted sense of humor, his narrow imaginative range.
What Mr. James has added that will be new to many whose contacts with Mr. Eliot were purely professional is the evidence of a warm and deep emotional nature. To his more magnificent qualities which awed so many men this book has added great tenderness, a capacity for romantic and chivalrous devotion, and a pathetically repressed craving for affection. This affection he found abundantly in his family circle, but it now seems clear that, largely through his conception of the demands of his official position, he deprived himself of a much wider range of affectionate relations of which his nature was capable and for which he yearned. The myth of the glacial Eliot is destroyed.
W. A. NEILSON