John Jay Chapman

IT is probable at the present time that hardly one reader in a million has ever read a word by or even heard the name of John Jay Chapman. His later writings went almost unnoticed and his early ones are mostly out of print. Yet he was certainly one of the most interesting Americans and one of the most remarkable prose writers of his generation.

Mr. M. A. DeWolfe Howe has just published an admirable biography,1 largely made up of selections from Chapman’s papers and letters, which shows Chapman in all his brilliance and in all his dramatic relief at the same time that it does a good deal to make intelligible the curious eclipse which he suffered. This essay, for which Mr .Howe’s book has provided most of the materials, is an attempt both to appreciate and to explain him.


Perhaps our most vivid impression as we read about John Jay Chapman — especially through the first half of his life — is that we have encountered a personality who does not belong in his time and place and who by contrast makes us aware of the commonness, the provinciality, and the timidity of most of his contemporaries. ‘Yes,’ we say to ourselves in our amazement, ‘people ought to be more like this!’

When John Jay Chapman was twentyfive and studying at Harvard Law School, — it was the winter of 18861887, — he made the acquaintance of Minna Timmins, the half-Italian niece of the Brimmer family of Boston: ‘a swarthy, fiery large-eyed girl, who looked like the younger sibyl of Michael Angelo ’ and ‘had the man-minded seriousness of women in classic myths, the regular brow, heavy dark hair, free gait of the temperament that lives in heroic thought and finds the world full of chimeras, of religious mysteries, sacrifice, purgation’ — such a woman as had hardly existed outside ‘the imagination of Æschylus and the poets.’

‘ I had never abandoned my reading of Dante’ — it would be a pity not to give it in his own words — ‘and it somehow came about that I read Dante with Minna. There was a large airy room at the top of the old Athenæum Library in Boston whose windows looked out on the churchyard. It was a bare and quiet place: no one ever came there. And during the winter we read Dante there together, and in the course of this she told me of her early life in Milan. There were five children, three of them boys, and there were tempestuous quarrels between the parents. I saw that it was from her mother that she had inherited her leonine temperament. The mother had been a fury. I could see this, though she did not say it. . . . The Dante readings moved gradually like a cloud between me and the law, between me and the rest of life. It was done with few words. I had come to see that she was in love with someone. It never occurred to me that she might be in love with me.

An onlooker might have said, “You loved her for the tragedies of her childhood and she loved you that you did pity them.” The case was simple, but the tension was blind and terrible. I was completely unaware that I was in love.’

He felt that she was being made unhappy and decided that ’an acquaintance of hers, a friend in whom she had little interest,’ had been playing with her affections. One evening at ’the most innocent kind of party that you can imagine at a country house,’ he suddenly, without conscious premeditation, invited the man outside and beat him.

‘The next thing I remember is returning late at night to my room. At that time I was rooming alone in a desolate side-street in Cambridge. It was a small, dark, horrid little room. I sat down. There was a hard-coal fire burning brightly. I took off my coat and waistcoat, wrapped a pair of suspenders tightly on my left forearm above the wrist, plunged the left hand deep in the blaze and held it down with my right hand for some minutes. When I took it out, the charred knuckles and finger bones were exposed. I said to myself, “This will never do.” I took an old coat, wrapped it about my left hand and arm, slipped my right arm into an overcoat, held the coat about me and started for Boston in the horsecars. On arriving at the Massachusetts General Hospital I showed the trouble to a surgeon, was put under ether, and the next morning waked up without the hand and very calm in my spirits. Within a few days I was visited by the great alienist, Dr. Reginald Heber Fitz, an extremely agreeable man. He asked me among other things whether I was insane. I said, “That is for you to find out.” He reported me as sane. I took no interest in the scandal which my two atrocious acts must have occasioned.’

He knew now that he was in love with Minna and that, it was he whom Minna loved. ‘ Do you know, Minna,’ he wrote her, in the summer of the same year, ‘the one time in my life during which I lived was that twenty days of pain. I read Henry Esmond, Dickens’ Christmas Stories, one morning — I never shall forget them — Mr. Barnes of New York. Every word of it is glowing with life and love. There was fire in everything I touched — the fire of the activity of that part of me which was meant to be used, which got suppressed all my life till it broke. The depth of the intentions and remote unkempt wells of life and feeling. Browning I used to read anywhere. . . . Somehow I have known the meaning of things, if not for long, and all the while I thought I need rest, I need sleep. You see life is an experiment. I had not the least idea but what [if] I met you all this would run the other way and the pain turn into pleasure. I thought I had opened life forever — what matter if the entrance was through pain.’

He married Minna Timmins, and they lived in New York, where Chapman had been born. He practised and hated law, but was, on the other hand, passionately interested in politics. He had been a member of the City Reform Club, founded by Theodore Roosevelt and others, almost from its beginning in 1882; and later became president of the Good Government Club, which had grown out of the City Reform Club. The Good Government Club had been founded by another Harvard man, Edmond Kelly, for the purpose of fighting Tammany Hall. When Kelly found out that it was impossible to recruit the working class to his club, he gave it up and became a Socialist. But Chapman and another Harvard man assumed the leadership of the Good Government movement, and from 1895 through 1900 he had an odd and very interesting career as a nonsocialist political radical.

In the election of 1895, the ‘GooGoos,’ unable to agree with the Republicans on a common ticket against Tammany, ran a campaign of their own and were defeated; and in all this John Jay Chapman played a spirited and provocative part. He made speeches from the cart-tail in the streets and created a great impression of getting down and manhandling hecklers who were trying to break him up, — he was a man of formidable build and stature, — then going back and finishing his speech and afterwards buying his opponents drinks; and he was able, also, to upset the routine of such accepted professional reformers as Joseph Choate and Godkin of the Post. His announced policy at political dinners was ‘to say nothing that he would not regret’; and he is reported to have been the only person who ever caused the venerable and cultivated Choate to lose his urbanity in public — by pointing out to him that the anti-Tammany organization to which Mr. Choate belonged was guilty of a deal with the enemy. John Jay Chapman did not understand politics as the political reformers did. He combined the extreme exhilaration of hope with the utmost contempt of compromise. He had at this period what the poet Yeats calls ‘the purity of a natural force,’ and he disturbed and frightened people.

But he was presently to collide with another very powerful personality, with whom he had supposed himself to be traveling in the same direction, though he turned out to be crossing his path. In the autumn of 1898, John Jay Chapman was one of the leaders of a group of political Independents, who wanted to nominate Theodore Roosevelt for the governorship of New York. Chapman had an interview with Roosevelt, who accepted the nomination and continued to affirm his willingness to be run by the Independents even after the Republican Party had offered to nominate him, too. But in the meantime the Independents had drawn up a whole Independent ticket; and the Republican boss, Tom Platt, told Roosevelt that if he wanted the Republicans to run him he would have to throw over the Independents — which Roosevelt immediately did.

Chapman had been so unwary as to fail to extract a written promise from Roosevelt, because he had thought a gentleman’s word was enough. He had started down to Oyster Bay to call on his supposed candidate just before the news of his defection broke in New York; and when he got there he found there was no train back, so that he had to spend the evening with Roosevelt. It seems to have been a harrowing occasion, ’for I was not going home leaving any mist or misunderstandings in the air as to how the Good Government Club group viewed the situation. But I went further. I unloaded the philosophy of agitation upon Roosevelt and pictured him as the broken-backed half-good man, the successor of the doughface and Northern man with Southern principles of Civil War times, the trimmer who would n’t break with his party and so, morally speaking, it ended by breaking him.’


Chapman knew very well what Roosevelt had promised him; and the incident gave him seriously to think. He observed that Roosevelt presently persuaded himself that he had never understood the original proposal; and that he thereafter became very vociferous over the damage done progressive movements by fanatics on their ‘lunatic fringe.’ Chapman had been publishing since March 1897 a review called the Political Nursery (originally simply the Nursery), and he now used it to attack Roosevelt’s subsequent activities and those of the supposed reformist mayor, Seth Low, formerly a candidate for the Independents. It was the McKinley-Roosevelt era of American imperialist expansion, and Chapman fought the policy of the United States in Cuba and in the Philippines, as well as denounced the British in South Africa.

This review, which he carried on through January 1901, is probably one of the best-written things of the kind that have ever been published anywhere. Chapman wrote most of it himself, and he dealt with philosophical and literary, as well as with political, subjects. Here he began the characteristic practice which William James described when he wrote of him: ‘He just looks at things and tells the truth about them — a strange thing even to try to do, and he does n’t always succeed.’ But he did succeed pretty often, and he is at his best during this early period.

I shall quote some portraits and comments from his letters, covering his later as well as his earlier years.

Of James Russell Lowell, he wrote in 1896: —

I don’t dislike the man. I think him a fine man, a little dandified and genteel perhaps, but still a good story character. His poetry is nothing but a fine talent, a fine ear, a fine facility — too much morality and an incredible deftness at imitating everybody from Milton down. I cannot read his poems with any comfort — but his early essays I still think the best things he ever did. witty, snappy, ‘smart’ to a degree, and quite natural — they are the only things he ever did that were quite natural. In later life he got all barnacled with quotations and leisure. He pulls out pocketbooks and gold snuff boxes and carbuncled cigarette-cases, and emerald eye-glasses, and curls and pomatums himself and looks in pocket looking glasses, and smooths his Vandyke beard and is a literary fop — f-o-p, fop. Too much culture — overnourished as Waddy Longfellow says — too many truffled essays and champagne odes and lobster sonnets, too much Spanish olives, potted proverbs — a gouty old cuss in his later essays. But in ’54-‘65 he wrote rapidly and most clearly. Belles Lettres is the devil after all. It spoils a man. His prefaces — sometimes very nice, in spirit — but his later prefaces are so expressive — O my! so expressive of hems and haws and creased literary trousers. I feel like running him in the belly and singing out Hulloo! old cockalorum.

Of President Eliot of Harvard (1898):

Read the essays of (Pres.) Eliot. There’s no offence in them. Two by six. Everything in Massachusetts is deal boards. You can put every man in a box — Smug, Smug. He has a good word for pcelry too. It’s the Dodgedom of Culture. My God, how I hate it. He’s the very highest type of a most limited and inspiring pork-chopism. My God, he is hopeful — calls his book ‘ American Contributions to Civilization’ — thinks we don’t understand small parks and drainage — but will learn and are doing nicely. Has a chapter on ‘the pleasures of life.’ It’s all one size. Every word in this work is the same size. The Puritans — the war — the problems of labor and capital — education — all excite the same emotion — i.e. that of a woodchuck eating a carrot.

Of Eliot and J. Pierpont Morgan (1907): —

Pierpont Morgan is the actual apex as well as the type, of the commercial perversions of the era. The political corruption, etc., the power behind all. . . . Now then, at the dedication of the New Medical School, Eliot goes about in a cab with Pierpont, hangs laurel wreaths on his nose, and gives him his papal kiss. Now what I want to know is this

— what has Eliot got to say to the young man entering business or politics who is about to be corrupted by Morgan and his class? How eloquently can Eliot present the case for honesty ? Can he say anything that will reverberate through the chambers of that young man’s brain more loudly than that kiss?

If Eliot is a great man, I want a small man.

Of Theodore Roosevelt (1930): —

I have just read in type-writing a book about Roosevelt — which ought to be called the Night Side of T.R.; for it is wholly malignant — and to that extent ineffective. But it’s true. He was very nearly mad at times — and broke down his mind by his egotism and mendacity. I had a quarrel with him — political, and personal, and deadly. He was a great genius for handling a situation, and with men, in such a way as to get credit — but he was a damned scoundrel. His genius was to flash a light, put someone down a well, raise a howl to heaven about honesty, and move on to the next thing. Such a genius for publicity as never was — and our people, being boy-minded and extremely stupid, found him lovely. His feebleness of intellect appears in bis writings — which are dlull and bombastic — and I doubt whether he will go down as a great man. He’s more like a figure out of Dumas.

In 1898, he published a volume of literary papers called Emerson and Other Essays. In this collection, and in the Political Nursery, he wrote a commentary on authors then popular — Stevenson, Kipling, Browning, and so forth — of which in our day the acumen seems startling. I cannot remember any other American critic of that period — except, in his more specialized field and his more circumlocutionary way, Henry James — who had anything like the same sureness of judgment, the same freedom from current prejudices and sentimentalities. Chapman was then — as, it seems to me, he was to remain — much our best writer on literature of his generation, who made the Babbitts and the Mores and the Brownells, for all the more formidable rigor of their systems and the bulkier mass of their work, look like colonial schoolmasters.

But the long study of Emerson had a special importance. It was something other than a mere essay on Emerson. It was rather an extension of Emerson, a re-creation of Emerson for a new generation; for it was an expression — the first full expression — of Chapman’s own point of view. And what Chapman got out of Emerson was something entirely different from the gentle and eupeptic aspect — though that, of course, was a part of the real Emerson, too — of Van Wyck Brooks’s recent portrayals. What Chapman got out of Emerson was a sort of beneficent Nietzscheanism, as electrical as Nietzsche but less rhetorical.

It had seemed to him at college, Chapman wrote, ‘as if Emerson were a younger brother of Shakespeare. ... I was intoxicated with Emerson. He let loose something within me which made me in my own eyes as good as anyone else.’ It was Emerson who had first made it possible for him to say to himself: ‘After all, it is just as well that there should be one person like me in the world.’ John Jay Chapman was thus a continuator of the individualist tradition of Emerson, which is also the tradition of Thoreau. (Chapman speaks of Thoreau less often, though it seems to me he is in some ways even more closely akin to him.) He had carried this tradition to New York (because, in spite of the influence on his thought of Cambridge and Concord and Boston, he was distinctly to remain a New Yorker); and it had undergone an interesting variation. ‘As I look back over the past,’ he writes, ‘the figure of Emerson looms up in my mind as the first modern man, and the city of Boston as the first living civilization which I knew. New York is not a civilization; it is a railway station.’

Yet the prose of the New Yorker — though beside the New Englanders’, with their Concord flavor and color, it may seem a little steely and abstract (as Henry James’s does, also, beside Hawthorne’s) — is that of the man of a larger world. He was to bring against Emerson a new criticism. ‘Our people are as thinskinned as babies,’ he wrote in one of his letters, ‘and the Massachusetts crowd has never been criticized.’ No one had ventured to stand up to Emerson on the issue of the sexual emotions since Walt Whitman had walked with him on Boston Common and, after listening to all his remonstrances against the ‘Children of Adam ’ section of Leaves of Grass, had replied that he could n’t answer Emerson’s arguments, but that he felt sure he had been right just the same.

If an inhabitant of another planet [wrote Chapman] should visit the earth, he would receive, on the whole, a truer notion of human life by attending an Italian opera than he would by reading Emerson’s volumes. He would learn from the Italian opera that there were two sexes; and this, after all, is probably the fact with which the education of such a stranger ought to begin. In a review of Emerson’s personal character and opinions, we are thus led to see that his philosophy, which finds no room for the emotions, is a faithful exponent of his own and of the New England temperament, which distrusts and dreads the emotions. Regarded as a sole guide to life for a young person of strong conscience and undeveloped affections, his works might conceivably be even harmful because of their unexampled power of purely intellectual stimulation.

And Chapman was to take the Thoreauvian intransigence into society instead of into solitude. His attitude toward politics undergoes a curious development, which is set forth in his two other remarkable books of this period: Causes and Consequences (1898) and Practical Agitation (1900). Causes and Consequences is one of the most powerful tracts ever written on the debasement of American politics and government by business. It begins with a pungent fable about the gradual but complete domination of a small American town by a railroad which passes through it. This, says Chapman, when he has told his story, is the whole history of America since the Civil War. And he shows the results in the general cultural life with a force which was not later to be surpassed by Van Wyck Brooks or Mencken: —

We have seen that the retailer in the small town could not afford to think clearly upon the political situation. But this was a mere instance, a sample of his mental attitude. He dare not face any question. He must shuffle, qualify, and defer. Here at last we have the great characteristic which covers our continent like a climate — intellectual dishonesty. This state of mind does not merely prevent a man having positive opinions. The American is incapable of taking a real interest in anything. The lack of passion in the American — noticeable in his books and in himself — comes from the same habitual mental distraction; for passion is concentration. Hence also the flippancy, superficiality, and easy humor for which we are noted. Nothing except the dollar is believed to be worthy the attention of a serious man. People are even ashamed of their tastes. Until recently, we thought it effeminate for a man to play on the piano. When a man takes a living interest in anything, we call him a ‘crank.’ There is an element of self-sacrifice in any honest intellectual work which we detect at once and score with contumely.

What is one to do in such a world? The diagnosis of Causes and Consequences is followed by the practical programme of Practical Agitation; but Chapman’s practical agitation is of a special and unexpected kind. As a result of his experience as a reformer, he has ceased to believe in the possibility of organized political reform under the American conditions of the time. One of the most amusing and searching passages of Practical Agitation describes the absorption and the complete neutralization of a reform movement by the forces which it has set out to correct. The commercial solidarity of society has rendered organized reform impossible. One might expect such a man to turn Socialist; but he states his position in regard to Socialism as follows: —

The function of Socialism is clear. It is a religious reaction going on in an age which thinks in terms of money. We are very nearly at the end of it, because we are very nearly at the end of the age. Some people believe they hate the wealth of the millionaire. They denounce corporations and trusts, as if these things hurt them. They strike at the symbol. What they really hate is the irresponsible rapacity which these things typify, and which nothing but moral forces will correct. In so far as people seek the cure in property-laws they are victims of the plague. The cure will come entirely from the other side; for as soon as the millionaires begin to exert and enjoy the enormous power for good which they possess, everybody will be glad they have the money.

He does not, therefore, believe much in economics: —

The economic laws are valuable and suggestive, but they are founded on the belief that a man will pursue his own business interests exclusively. This is never entirely true even in trade, and the doctrines of the economists become more and more misleading when applied to fields of life where the money motive becomes incidental. The law of supply and demand does not govern the production of sonnets.

But, ‘when you see cruelty going on before you, you are put to the alternative of interposing to stop it, or of losing your sensibility.’

What then? Here is where Emerson comes in. ‘If a soul,’ wrote Chapman, ‘ be taken and crushed by democracy till it utter a cry, that cry will be Emerson.’ ‘The thing seems to me about this,’ he wrote in a letter of this time, after finishing an essay on the ‘Social Results of Commercialism,’ — ‘Emerson made coherent. It’s all Emerson. I should have had neither the ideas reduced so clearly nor the public to understand them if it had n’t been for Emerson. I can’t imagine what I should have been if it had n’t been for Emerson.’ For Chapman is thrown back on the individual conscience. Here is the situation with which the individual finds himself confronted:

Remember . . . that there is no such thing as abstract truth. You must talk facts, you must name names, you must impute motives. You must say what is in your mind. It is the only means you have of cutting yourself free from the body of this death. Innuendo will not do. Nobody minds innuendo. We live and breathe nothing else. If you are not strong enough to face the issue in private life, do not dream that you can do anything for public affairs. This, of course, means fight, not tomorrow, but now. It is only in the course of conflict that anyone can come to understand the system, the habit of thought, the mental condition, out of which all our evils arise. The first difficulty is to see the evils clearly; and when we do see them it is like fighting an atmosphere to contend against them. They are so universal and omnipresent that you have no terms to name them by. You must burn a disinfectant.

And one can take only individual action: —

You yourself cannot turn Niagara; but there is not a town in America where one single man cannot make his force felt against the whole torrent. He takes a stand on a practical matter. He takes action against some abuse. What does this accomplish? Everything. How many people are there in your town? Well, every one of them gets a thrill that strikes deeper than any sermon he ever heard. He may howl, but he hears. The grocer’s boy, for the first time in his life, believes that the whole outfit of morality has any place in the practical world.

There can have been few codes of morality ever formulated so individualistic as John Jay Chapman’s: —

If you want a compass at any moment in the midst of some difficult situation, you have only to say to yourself, ‘Life is larger than this little imbroglio. I shall follow my instinct.’ As you say this, your compass swings true. You may be surprised to find what course it points to. But what it tells you to do will be practical agitation.

And this code, with high courage and immense energy, he attempted to put into practice. These were intent and tumultuous years, during which he was shaken by many emotions. At the beginning of 1897, after the birth of his second son, his wife suddenly and unexpectedly died while he was reading to her aloud as she lay in bed. The next year he married his friend, Elizabeth Chanler. Through all this he had been speaking, writing, organizing, getting out his paper, practising law, and leading an active social life — while the immovable magnitude of the forces against him was gradually but inexorably becoming clear to him. ‘My own family and connections,’ he wrote, ‘being a lot of well-meaning bourgeois, are horrified at me. But I enjoy it.’ But, ‘Politics takes physique,’ he wrote at another time, ‘and being odious takes physique. I feel like Atlas, lifting the entire universe. I hate this community and despise ’em — and fighting, fighting, fighting, fighting an atmospheric pressure gets tiresome.’ When his friends expressed apprehension, ‘As for insanity,’ he replied, ‘why, I was once examined for insanity by the two most distinguished physicians in Boston [at the time when he had burned off his hand]. It has no terrors. I talked to them like Plato.’

In the summer of 1900, he went out to attend a convention in Indianapolis which nominated ‘Gold Democrat’ candidates to run against both McKinley and Bryan; and he worked hard to organize a ‘National Party,’ whose proposed candidates refused to run. That winter, after an attack of grippe, at the time when his wife was expecting a baby, he suddenly broke down in the midst of a speech in a small town in Pennsylvania. ‘Too much will and self-will,’he wrote his mother.

He retreated to a darkened room. For a year he did not leave his bed, and, when he was finally able to get up, remained for two or three years longer under the delusion that he was unable to walk without crutches. Turned in on his own blackness, the sight of a beautiful sunset or the interior of an Italian church, which he had been induced to come out to look at, would excite him to the point of collapse.


The second half of John Jay Chapman’s life is quite distinct from the first. In August of 1903, one of his sons by his first wife Minna was drowned in an Austrian river; and the shock seems to have brought Chapman to himself. He went back to the United States without his crutches.

He recovered, and thereafter for thirty years led the life of a well-to-do country squire at Barrytown on the Hudson. His second wife’s family, the Chanlers, were among the most adventurous and gifted of that special race, the Hudson River gentry; and John Jay Chapman took his place in their special world. Chapman’s father had been president of the New York Stock Exchange, but had lost heavily in the panic of the seventies, so that John Jay had had partly to put himself through college by tutoring, and he seems to have had a certain amount of difficulty in supporting his family on his earnings from the law.

On the eve of his second marriage, he had been troubled by apprehensions at the prospect of being well-to-do. ‘The first thing you know we’ll be drowned in possessions,’ he wrote at that time to Miss Chanler, ‘and then by thinking of our horses’ health. It is not so easy to keep the keen vision which an empty stomach lends, if you have footmen. I fear a footman. I tremble before a man with hot water. . . . Let’s keep the New Testament open before us. The losing of wrath is to be feared. . . . If I become classed with men at ease about money, the Lord protect me. It is a steel corselet against the heart of mankind and the knowledge of life.’ And there are indications in his later letters that he continued to shrink from allowing himself to be ‘classed with men at ease about money.’ ‘I take rides on the busses — for 4d,’ he wrote a friend from London. ‘You can go at the rate of 10 m. per hour for half an hour. These things recall London — and student days. The cheap things give one most pleasure — when one is old and rich like me.’ And: ‘The food of the rich is disgusting to me . . . messes. Last night I had to go to Childs and eat cornbeef hash and poached eggs, which pulled me round.’

Yet he is haunted by ideas of his affinities with royalty and aristocracy. ‘I never saw children like them,’ he wrote of his sons by his first wife. ‘They are King’s children in disguise, and I am a stepfather to them.’ And, during a visit to an Italian noble, ‘I am having some gold fringe put on my pants and I have assumed the title of Monsignore. It is amazing how easily gentility sits on me. I believe some people are just naturally swells — you know what I mean — and fit well in palaces and eat good food naturally and without effort. I remember the first royal palace I saw — seemed to me — gave me a feeling — just like the old homestead. I often think that Grandma Jones used to say, “the Chapmans were once Kings.” Dearold Grandpa, with his old cotton socks, would n’t he be proud if he could see me hehawing and chaw-chawing with Roman princes! ’

His plays are full of kings and counts and princes. He had himself something of a kingly presence, especially wearing the magnificent beard with which he had emerged from his illness. And it is impossible to escape the impression that the comfort and security of his later years had a certain effect of deadening his responses — or, rather, of insulating him from the active world. He succumbed to the Hudson Valley, in becoming one of its principal ornaments — to Dutchess County, with its cupola’d castles on the towering dark-wooded hills which do their best to give work or give alms to the humble feudal villages along the river bank; to the heavencracking thunderstorms and the heavy and slumbrous summers; to the tradition of public responsibility which Hamilton Fish shares with Franklin D. Roosevelt; to the culture which, where it occurs, is likely to range so much more widely and to seem to have so much more authenticity than that of most wealthy communities in America, and the naturalness and amiability which merge quietly and not unpleasantly with smugness — and all walled-in from the rest of America, alone with the noble river.

The early John Jay Chapman had plunged into the thick of his time. Emerson and Causes and Consequences had been talked about and read, had had their influence. In both his political and his literary writing, he had dealt with matters of current interest. But now, in his second period, Chapman seems to have withdrawn from contemporary life, and tends to confine himself in his writing to history and the classics. He seems almost to be talking to himself, he seems hardly to expect or hope for an audience; and so people cease to listen to him. The second half of Chapman’s career seems inevitably surprising and depressing, though not precisely disappointing, to one who has been stirred by the first. Though he had been able to throw away his crutches, he remained in a deeper sense a crippled man all the rest of his life. Yet the alternative to survival on these terms would, one supposes, have been madness or death; and it is the proof of the authenticity of his genius that, throughout this long period when he is turned toward the past, when he emerges into the present, as a rule, only to raise unreal or trivial issues, he keeps his power not merely to charm but also to arouse and disquiet.

The Americans who graduated from college in the eighties found themselves up against a world which broke most of them. One can see the situation very clearly if one compares the men of the eighties even with those of the seventies. In the seventies, the universities were still turning out admirable professional men, who had had the old classical education, a culture much wider than their profession, and the tradition of the public conscience and the political idealism which had presided at the founding of the Republic. The world which they had found when they got out had not yet become so different from the world for which their education had fitted them that they were not able, on the terms of that old education, to occupy in it positions of dignity. But by the later years of the eighties the industrial and commercial development which followed the Civil War had reached a point where the old education was no longer an equipment for life. It had, in fact, become a troublesome handicap. The best of the men who had taken it seriously were launched on careers of tragic misunderstanding. They could no longer play the rôle in the professions of a trained and public-spirited caste: the new society did not recognize them.

The rate of failure and insanity and suicide in some of the college ‘classes’ of the eighties is appalling. Some men learned the new games and choked their scruples and did their best to cash in; but John Jay Chapman — who had John Jay among his ancestors — was too honest, too fastidious, too proud, and too violently impulsive for this. Others compromised shrewdly, like Roosevelt; but the merest suggestion of compromise seems at that period to have driven Chapman into a frenzy. Almost all were compelled to accept in some way the values of the world of business; but how little this was possible for Chapman is shown by one of his late letters in which he insists that, people may say what they please, business can never be a profession.

Given the fineness of Chapman’s equipment, the overpowering nature of his emotions, and the relentless clarity of his insight, — and given the inescapable conviction of his superiority which made him, for all the ardor of his patriotism, talk about ‘a soul crushed by democracy,’ — there was nothing for him to do but break. And the permanent psychological damage which he had inflicted upon himself by beating his head against the great age of American business was as much one of the scars of the heroism of his passionate and expiatory nature as the hand he had burned off in his youth.

Let us see how he occupies himself now. He begins by writing little plays for children — then, later, attempts some longer plays. The Treason and Death of Benedict Arnold (1910) is not altogether without interest — with its Coriolanian picture of a man of sensitive pride and self-will driving through a perverse course of action.

But on the whole, as his biographer says, Chapman is unable to transmit to his characters his own power of self-dramatization. He shrank from and had little comprehension of the new dramatic forms of Shaw and Ibsen, as he shrank from the world they reflected. The companion of Shakespeare and Æschylus, he followed their methods as a matter of course, with results which were for Chapman rather surprisingly academic. His plays were mostly written in verse; and his verse — he also made some verse translations from the Greeks and published a certain amount of miscellaneous poetry — is usually effective only when it approximates to the qualities of his prose (of which he was a real master), qualities for which verse is not the proper medium. There are a few exceptions to this — notably his fine translations from Dante; but the poet that there undoubtedly was in Chapman — no doubt it was still the Puritan heritage from which he seems in some ways to have traveled so far — functioned, in general, only as a preacher. As a moralist, he is a highly successful artist; and it is as a moralist that he now chiefly figures.


With his illness, a new point of view emerges — really a sort of rarefication of his earlier one. It was before the days of psychoanalysis, and he had been helped through his breakdown by ‘ faith healers.’ Now, in a special personal way, he becomes religious. ‘There was never anyone with more practical notions, or less under the belief that he was religious in his aims, than I,’ he wrote to a friend in 1922 of his early political experience. ‘I wanted to attack practical evils — find out about them anyway, affront and examine them, understand them — and I set out by experiment and analysis to deal with them as a workaday problem. And gradually under inspection and ratiocination they turned into spiritual things — mystical elements, and went back into the envelope of religious truth.’

To one who, like the present writer, is fundamentally unsympathetic with all modern manifestations of religion, the writings on religion of John Jay Chapman — Notes on Religion (1922) and Letters and Religion (1924) — seem genuine and impressive in a way that most other recent religious writings do not. There have been lately in fashion among writers two main ways of being religious: one historical, philosophical, and ritualistic — the convert turns to the Catholic Church; the other through a substitute pseudo-religion, like those of Wells and Bernard Shaw. Chapman gives me the impression of being much closer to the real experience of religious revelation than anyone I have read of either of these schools. Of course, it is intensely Protestant: it is Emersonianism again. We are to look not to any church for direction, but each to his own religious instinct — each is to interpret the Scriptures for himself: —

Christianity accomplishes itself, and this not through a grand, frontal attack on humanity, but rather through the story and sayings of Christ which dart through the earth, pierce men’s ears and heal them, run like elixirs through the languages and habits of men. They are couriers, arrows that live in the ether and need no inns or baiting-places between their flights. The sayings have inexhaustible meanings, and many depths of meaning which the comfortable people of the world cannot hope to fathom — meanings that lie in ambush in the texts, and enter men’s hearts in the wake of grief. A man must have been disgraced and in jail to know many of them.

Yet the instincts of individuals are to unite in communion the whole of mankind. With the capacity for deep humility and the sympathy with American life which saved his sense of superiority from snobbery, he interested himself in popular philanthropies and religions: —

I believe that if we could see the invisible church as it actually exists in the interlacing of all men in God and with each other through the force that makes them live, the alarm of those who are fostering religion for fear it will die out would appear ridiculous. Even the half-charlatan, half-illiterate American religious cults deserve our interest and respect.

The later Chapman is a lesser Tolstoy, fighting out, on his estate on the Hudson, the same kind of long war with his conscience which Tolstoy fought out at Yasnaya Polyana. And we feel about him, as the contemporaries of Tolstoy seem to have felt about Tolstoy, that, whatever his mistaken causes and inconsistencies, there was something in him of incalculable value.

‘Truly,’ he wrote in one of his letters, ‘it is the decay in the American brain that is the real danger, and in my narrow philosophy I see the only cure in self-expression, passion, feeling — spiritual reality of some sort. We’re about dead spiritually— that’s my illusion.’

William James, the one of Chapman’s contemporaries who probably appreciated him most, called him ’a profound moralist.’ ‘I have a notion,’ he once wrote James, ‘that I could tell you what is the matter with pragmatism — if you would only stand still. A thing is not truth till it is so strongly believed in that the believer is convinced that its existence does not depend upon him. This cuts off the pragmatist from knowing what truth is.’ And: ‘It is utter nonsense,’ he wrote another correspondent, ‘ this great passion and little passion — this upper clef and lower clef. All life is nothing but passion. From the great passion of love to the regard for a passing stranger is all one diapason, and is the same chord. The whole of it vibrates no matter where you touch it — tho’ in different degrees.’ His ideal of practical agitation has in this phase subsided to this: ‘I am saying things which will some day be thought of, rather than trying to get the attention of anyone.’ ‘It is an accident when I do right, but I am right,’ he once declared.

He was right by virtue of some force which took possession of him and was stronger than he. We may be puzzled at first by the language in which he had written to Minna Timmins, his future wife, after the experience of burning off his hand: ‘I do think there was something Promethean in it, in the capacity to yield.’ What fire had Chapman snatched from Heaven? And is it Promethean to yield? He meant that a divine revelation had caused him to mutilate himself — the revelation of his love for Minna, which was unable to break through into his consciousness and possess him save by compelling him to recognize, and hence to punish himself for, his mistake.

He wrote later on to Miss Chanler: ‘I . . . have broken and battered down the doors of silence once and forever years ago, and go about the world escaped from that prison, I thank the powers of Life.’ Yet he must break out of it again and again; and his language is always that of yielding to a revelation that invades him from outside: ‘I’ll tell you my philosophy — that there’s only one real joy in life . . . the joy of casting at the world the stone of an unknown world.’ His first love — his first wife and her children, with their fierce natures and their sudden or violent deaths — is itself like a force that seizes on him, a force for which he acts as a conductor and which leaves him partially shattered. And when it is not love, he calls it God.

During this period he published, besides these religious pensées, literary essays, historical essays, essays on social tendencies, and memoirs of New York and Boston. As a writer, he became consistently better: the ‘style all splinters’ of which William James wrote at the time of Practical Agitation is hammered out into an instrument of perfect felicity, economy, limpidity, precision, and point. Some of his most beautiful prose is in his very last writings. And he can still take our breath away by going straight to the root of some subject, by breaking through, with a brusque, direct gesture, all the familiar conventions and pretensions with which it has been enclosed.

In his relation to the literary classics, he was that perhaps unprecedented phenomenon, a highly intelligent and well-educated American who paid almost no attention to the criticism and scholarship of Europe. Well as he knew Europe, he was never afflicted with the nostalgia for it which seized the cultivated Americans of his time. In his judgments of European culture, he was as naturally and uncompromisingly American as Walt Whitman or Mark Twain, The accepted apparatus of scholarship he either quarreled with or disregarded — characterizing, for example, the absorption of Greek literature by the scholarship of the English universities as an incident in the Expansion of the British Empire.

To Chapman, the great writers of the past were neither a pantheon nor a vested interest. He approached them very much as he was in the habit of approaching contemporary persons of possible interest. Not that he judged them by contemporary standards; he would go straight to them across the ages in the rôle of an independent traveler, who is willing to pay his toll to the people that keep the roads but wants to linger with them as little as possible. Sometimes he commits dreadful blunders: he got the relationships mixed up in the Antigone, and he never understood the simple enough principles which govern, in The Divine Comedy, the assignment of the souls to the different worlds — complaining that there was a good deal of injustice. ‘You know,’ he says in a letter, ‘I’ve never known the literature of the subjects I wrote on. I never knew the Emerson literature — except Emerson himself.’

But John Jay Chapman has at least always got there and seen the man himself; and he can always tell you some interesting things about him. To me, the flashlighting and spotlighting of Chapman in his studies of the Greeks, Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe (this last left unpublished at his death and unfortunately not yet printed) are among the few real recent contributions to the illumination of these familiar subjects. He was able to see the fundamental things that have been so long veiled away by convention that most people have never noticed they were there. He saw the basic barbarity of Greek tragedy, which he denounced Gilbert Murray for sentimentalizing; he saw the importance of the pederasty of Plato: Diotima, he writes, is ‘an odious creature, being a man in disguise’; he saw, through all the Dante commentaries, how impossible it is to discuss Dante in terms of mediæval theology.


Aside from this purely literary activity, he carried on a certain amount of agitation, sporadically and in behalf of a strange diversity of causes. His rejection of economics, his failure, when he had recognized political corruption as a mere by-product of the industrial-commercial system, to study the mechanics and the history of that system, had left him without bearings in the political world.

First of all, he went back to the Civil War — one of his grandmothers had been a prominent Abolitionist — and in his book on William Lloyd Garrison fought the battle of slavery all over again with a spirit that would have been more usefully employed in fighting the battle of labor. It was the period of the rise of Bill Haywood’s Wobblies, of the growth of Eugene Debs’s Socialist Party, of Lincoln Steffens’s muckraking movement.

On August 13, 1911, a Negro who had shot and killed a special officer of the Worth Brothers Steel Company in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, was burned alive by a mob under special circumstances of horror. Chapman, who was full of the Civil War, brooded upon this incident till he ‘felt as if the whole country would be different if any one man did something in penance, and so I went to Coatesville and declared my intention of holding a prayer meeting to the various business men I could buttonhole.’

He had difficulty in getting a hall, but finally, four days after the anniversary of the lynching, succeeded in holding the meeting, at which he delivered a strange and moving address. He said that, when he had read in the papers how ‘hundreds of well-dressed American citizens’ had stood by and watched the torture of the Negro, he had seemed to see into ‘the unconscious soul’ of America. And what he had seen there was death —‘the paralysis of the nerves about the heart in a people habitually and unconsciously given over to selfish aims.’ They had ‘stood like blighted things, like ghosts about Acheron, waiting for someone or something to determine their destiny for them.’ It was the old wickedness, not yet purged, of the slave trade, and all America was to blame. They could only open their hearts to God and pray that new life might flow into them. The only persons who attended the meeting were an educated Negro woman from Boston and a stool pigeon sent by the police.

The World War, when it first broke out, aroused him to a new burst of agitation. He was in Europe in August 1914, and went immediately to Balfour, Haldane, and Sir Edward Grey, and told them that it was of vital importance, in order to elicit the sympathy of the world, that the Allies should declare their aims to be nonaggressive and announce their intention, in the event of their victory, of calling a world disarmament congress; and he seems to have been deceived by the intelligence and kindness with which these statesmen listened to him. Later, he went to Wilson and urged him to elicit such a declaration. And he published a book, Deutschland über Alles (1914), in which, in exposing the patriotic propaganda which had worked the Germans up to their present pitch, he advised America to stay out of the war. ‘If America should enter the war, the world would lose the benevolence and common-sense which we now possess, and which is a strong factor in the whole situation. You and I would, in that case, become partizans, cruel, excited, and bent on immediate results.’

In the meantime, however, his son Victor, his sole surviving child by his first wife, had, against his father’s wishes, enlisted in the Foreign Legion and had later become one of the most daring pilots of the Lafayette Escadrille. He was killed — the first American to die in the war — on June 23, 1916. And his father became a victim of that war psychology which he had foreseen and dreaded for America, and which even betrayed him temporarily into applauding his old enemy Roosevelt, whose pro-Ally bellowing and pawing the ground was certainly no more to be taken seriously than the other Rooseveltian impostures which Chapman had so relentlessly exposed.

When Siegfried Sassoon came to New York in 1920 and read his poems and made an anti-war speech at the Cosmopolitan Club, John Jay Chapman — feeling, no doubt, an obligation to speak for his dead son — got up and aroused consternation and hisses by denouncing what he regarded as Sassoon’s philosophy of fear and self-pity. The next day he tried to call on Sassoon and wrote him a letter: ‘Sorry to miss you this morning. It was a suffering occasion last night. I think I suffered as much as you did. If you will do it, why, you must.’ Had he remembered his early philosophy of the value of the individual gesture and reflected that Sassoon, after all, had been doing only what he himself had done when, for example, at that political dinner in 1895, he had made old Mr. Choate’s face turn so pale?

The most wrongheaded of all his crusades, but the one to which he devoted most energy, was his attack on the Roman Catholic Church. He had received, no doubt, a terrifying impression of the bad influence of the Catholics in Boston, but he greatly exaggerated its importance in the United States as a whole; and he had by 1925 become so fanatical on the subject that it was thought best for him to go abroad to distract his mind from it and avoid another breakdown. And at one period he was inclined to believe — in spite of the admiration for Jewish culture which had caused him to characterize himself once as a ‘Hebraist’ — that the Jews, also, were becoming a sinister influence; and he even published a sonnet in the organ of the Ku Klux Klan. (‘The Jews,’ he had written in 1897, ‘have in my experience more faith than the Christians.

They have clever heads, better hearts, and more belief in the power of good every way. They gave to the world all the religion it has got and are themselves the most religious people in it. I work with them day and night and most of the time is spent in prying up some Christian to do a half day’s work.’)

For two years he and Mrs. Chapman conducted a clubroom for young people in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York.

Besides all this, he was continually agitating against the influence of big business at Harvard and harrying with scolding letters the headmaster of St. Paul’s School, as well as old friends in positions of prominence of whose activities he disapproved. One of his correspondents, Mr. T. B. Wells, the editor of Harper’s Magazine, finally retorted by demanding what Chapman had ever accomplished himself more than had been accomplished by ‘a lot of other brilliant fellows who did not make full use of their talents’ to give him the right to call everyone else to account over the way each handled his job. And it is true that one feels a touch of envy in his tone toward men like Wells and Shaw, — even toward his friend William James, whom he admired, — who were doing work of a kind which one would think he ought to have applauded. And there is even an occasional accent of the ignorant and cutting Boston snootiness which he had disliked and ridiculed.

As one reads his later letters — as in reading his work of this period — one is made more and more uncomfortable by the feeling that one is shut in a chamber from which the air is being gradually withdrawn: shut in with a chafing spirit which, baffled of finding an outlet, is sometimes furious and sometimes faint. Then suddenly one recoils and stands outside the cell: one sees how Chapman’s world has narrowed. One remembers all the things that have happened of which there is almost no mention in these letters — almost the whole significant life of the time; and one realizes that Chapman’s interests have become almost entirely confined to the horizons of his old Harvard circle. It is all Harvard College and St. Paul’s School, Porcellian Club and Tavern Club.

He writes to Dr. Drury of St. Paul’s and E. S. Martin of Life as if they were among the great moulders of thought of their age. We have the suspicion that even William James, as distinct from Shaw and Wells, is only admitted to the sphere of Chapman’s interest because he, too, belongs to Harvard. It is the lost traveler’s dream under the hill — the old conception of the caste of ‘college men’ who were to preside over the arts and professions.

One used to see him in those years in New York — in company a figure of a distinction almost exotic for the United States, with his fine manners, his sensitive intelligence, his clothes with their attractive suggestion of the dandyism of another era, his almost Jovelike beard and brow, his deep and genial laugh; or for a moment under a quite different aspect, when one had happened to meet him in the street: walking alone, head drooping and brooding, with his muffler around his neck, in his face dreadful darkness and sadness and fear, as if he were staring into some lidless abyss.

He died after an operation on November 4, 1933. He had loved music, and, when he was a student at Harvard, had had what he described as ‘ an obsession, a sort of self-willed mania for learning to play the violin, for which I had no talent.’ He had worked at it two years, but the students had discouraged him by throwing coal scuttles at his door and hanging alarm clocks outside his windows. After his father’s financial failure, he wrote home, ’I shall sell the violin: it’s no halfway business.’ But when he had been recovering from his breakdown he had studied harmony. Now when he was dying, writes Mrs. Chapman, ‘he kept murmuring, “A soldier lay dying, a soldier lay dying,” I bent over him to catch the words, and he repeated the first four lines of “A soldier of the Legion lay dying in Algiers,” adding, “But there is lack of nothing here,” in a voice of deep feeling. But later, when semiconscious, he began saying, plucking at my fingers, “I want to take it away, I want to take it away!” “What?” I asked. “The pillow?” “No,” he said. “The mute, the mute. I want to play on the open strings.” ’

  1. John Jay Chapman and His Letters, Houghton Mifflin, 1937.