SEVEN hundred and five new volumes of biography were published here in 1931. It is impossible, of course, to pay our respects to all these worthies: you can’t go to a funeral every day in the week. The best one can do is to follow where curiosity or admiration leads.
An authorized biography, Thomas A. Edison, by Francis Trevelyan Miller (Winston, $1.50), is a rather attractive case of hero worship. The book bears the subtitle, ‘The Romantic Life Story of the World’s Greatest Inventor,’ and I personally wish the text had not been colored with quite so romantic a touch. Edison’s greatness speaks for itself; it does not need to be glorified by legends or rosy rhetoric. However, this fault is outweighed by more positive recommendations: the book recommends itself by its comprehensive and detailed record of Edison’s career, by its simplicity of style and format, its multiplicity of fine photographs, and its sensible price, which brings it within the range of a large public.
Curiosity led me on to John Jacob Astor, by Kenneth Wiggins Porter (Harvard University, 2 vols., $10.00). The work is primarily a study of a business career, and not a biography. It is the systematic ordering and interpretation of all the documentary evidence which research could find of Astor’s policies, transactions, and achievements in business. Little attempt is made to present a living man, endowed with special personal qualities and conscious of himself as someone alive in the world. Now and then the curtain begins to be drawn for a glimpse of this kind, as when we see Astor and a daughter being entertained in Montreal, or when we learn how he received the news of the disaster to the Tonquin and how lightly he seemed to take the losses of the Astoria project. But for the most part the work is a sustained analysis of Astor’s business in all its phases, from the time when he arrived in America with a consignment of ‘German flutes’ to the time when the fur trade, the China trade, and real-estate transactions in New York, not to mention a dozen other varieties of enterprise which Mr. Porter treats exhaustively, had built him up an enormous fortune. This first venture in ’Harvard Studies in Business History’ sets a high level of scholarship. Might not further studies do something more to present the subject as a living figure?
Certainly it was curiosity of a more romantic blend that prompted me to glance into The Real Romanovs, by Gleb Botkin (Fleming Revel 1, $3.00). Anyone who puts his nose into this Russian chronicle is pretty sure to read on to the end. The author is the son of the Tsar’s physician; he lived adjacent to the royal family in the fairy-tale flays of Tsarskoc Selo; he and his father companioned the tragic family in Siberia and up to the time of the killing, in which the elder Botkin was also a victim. This story of the Romanovs in power and in exile, with its incredibly romantic chapters about Anastasia, the Grand Duchess who is supposed to have returned from the dead, is a warm-hearted, impulsive record, very human, very inconsistent in its judgment, but readable in every detail and at times very close to drama.
Then I wanted a fillip. Something with lightness and pungency. I found it in Swiss Family Manhattan, by Christopher Morley (Doubleday, Doran, $2.00). This gay record of a marvelous Swiss family (first cousins of the Robinsons) who come to America in a Zeppelin and are marooned on the steel framework of the Empire State Building is the kind of conceit, the kind of first-rate entertainment, that no one but Morley can do so well. Ironic with a zest, always contemporary enough to be plausible, never carrying his literary conceit too far, this New Yorker in Swiss clothing ticks off his time and place inimitably.