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Biographies of Absorbing Passion

DEMOSTHENES. By Georges Clemenceau. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 1926. $2.50.

By J. C. Furnas .

THERE are two ways of writing biography: one, to emphasize the human character of whoever is being portrayed, delving into his mannerisms, his emotional constitution, stray scandals and so forth; the second, to deal with the man in connection with what he accomplished in other words, to regard him as a brick in the structure of things rather than as a human being. Both these books are written with the second purpose. To Mr. Bradford, Darwin is the work he did; to M. Clemenceau, Demosthenes' personality is not worth a tenth the space demanded by his significance in world history.

It is something of a surprise to find Mr. Bradford apparently changing his method of attack. His previous work, "Damaged Souls," for instance, has dealt largely with people as such and left their life-work and their historical significance to someone else. It may be that this apparent change only reflects the discovery the writer made: namely, that there is very little to Darwin outside his scientific pursuits. He depicts a marvellous scientific machine with human attributes. Time and again, he attempts to draw some picture of what the man was like, what his family thought of him, how he disciplined his children, his sufferings from an unruly stomach; but every time he must let himself be overwhelmed by the preponderance of science in Darwin's life.

The sources from which a portrait of Demosthenes might be drawn are, of course, much scantier than those Mr. Bradford had at hand. Still, it is probable that even if Demosthenes had lived in the last century, M. Clemenceau would not have treated him much differently. Here again it is what the man did, what he meant to his contemporaries and to us that assert their right to be treated fully. And it is surprising to read this book and reflect that it was written by an old man, a professional politician; even in translation it is a sweeping, rhythmic picture. American politicians must be a different breed; young and vigorous, they neither think nor write so well. The jacket hints that the whole book may be a spiritual biography of Clemenceau himself--which is something for the Tiger and no one else to decide. And, however that may be, the situation in Greece during the Macedonian invasions, the magnificence of Demosthenes' stand against the forces of petty politics, corruption and disunion among the Greek states is more than capable of standing on its feet and challenging admiration because of its force. The author goes deeply into the implications of Demosthenes' failure. In this final ruin of Greece into a diluted varnish spread over the Oriental and Roman worlds, he sees the virtual end of the one manner of life that might, if it had stayed on its feet, have been the salvation of the world. Demosthenes is Prometheus borne down by Chaos and Old Night; and only flick-ford's book is the chapter on "The Destroyer" where he assesses Darwin's work in its relation to what the world thinks and does now and may think and do in the future. The research which absorbed his life, the obsession with hypothesis and demonstration that robbed him of everything but the passion for work, exploded the dream of Genesis so that we now dismiss it as folklore or, more mincingly, as allegory. God, Heaven and Hell were stripped of reality and are now only bloodless metaphysical abstractions to very orthodox people. Whether the Darwinian form of biological theory is ever fully demonstrated or not, says Mr. Bradford, never again will special and immutable creation be found in the mental tool-chests of thinking men. And what Darwin thought of reconciling science and religion is plainly indicated in a quotation in one of his letters about an orthodox admirer: "He says he is chiefly converted because my books make the Birth of Christ, Redemption by Grace, etc., plain to him! How funny men's minds are!"

It is disquieting to see so clearly that historians and biographers are more and more becoming cultural book-keepers. When one contemplates a great man now, there is little thought of whether or not he swore, heartily and fell in love: one must deal with the questions: "What did he do for us? If he had not lived and behaved so, wherein would our life be different?" And such profit and loss statements have their absorbing interest, even if their appearance may be a sign that humanity sees the sheriff approaching to seal up the door.

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