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Mighty Men That Were of Old

A VICTORIAN AMERICAN, HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW. By Herbert S. Gorman. George H. Doran Company, New York. 1926. $5.00.

By K. B. Murdock .

EMERSON made his Journals his "savings-bank" for his ideas, his impressions of his contemporaries, and of the world as he saw it, as well as for his record of the events of his life. The Journals as published, however, fill ten volumes, and many a reader who has found time for Emersons "Essays" has lacked courage to attack the longer work. No one need now be thus cheated. Mr. Perry's "Heart of Emerson's Journals" gives in one volume a selection from the original ten, which, chosen by a student and lover of Emerson, presents the Concord philosopher's strength and weakness, his human and his prophetic quality, as no other book has done. Mr. Perry has managed with great skill to show many sides of his many-sided subject. There appears not merely the Emerson of sculptors and builders of memorials," there is also the flesh-and-blood Emerson, flying out angrily in the face of what he hates, mourning the death of his son, or grimly reticent after minor disaster, as in his laconic entry one day: "House burned." The book is brief enough to be read even in our busy times, and read it deserves to be if Emerson is to be read at all.

Emerson was not at ease with Long-fellow. To him the popular poet seemed too much hedged about with formality, too loftily perched on the Cambridge Parnassus. Mr. Gorman, owever, sees in Longfellow "our great Victorian," "an American Victoria," "a fascinating man ... no more dead than the era between 1830 and 1880 in New England is dead", and one who must be understood, with his age, if we are to see "what we are and from what curious urges we evolved." Mr. Gorman is careful not to claim that his portrait "is the man," and professes to give nothing more than a picture of the man as he sees him. He is equally modest in disclaiming any attempt to shed new light on Longfellow's career, or to criticize his works in detail. The reason of his book, he explains, is the poet's reprpesentative quality in American letters of his day.

The Longfellow who is often more European than American, sentimental didactic, too imitative often, bookish in inspiration, didactic, and typical of much of the narowness in his time and environment, has been often displayed before. So far as facts are concerned, Mr. Gorman repeats with accuracy for the most part. It may not be ungenerous, however, to remark that his summary (pp. 96-97) of American literature before Longfellow seems unhappy in its choice of critical epithets, and shaky in its chronology. One may be excused for disagreeing with the biographer's view that Longfellow's appreciation of wine is an "exotic note" and an escape "from the starker Puritanism of his training," when it is remembered that belief in the legitimate use of wine--and of New England rum--seems pretty well marked in successive generations of New England Puritans. It is difficult to accept the idea that Longfellow is "the first figure in American letters to discover Europe as a rich mine." What of Irving, and was even Irving the first? Is it wise to say that the poet projected a drama on Cotton Mather but nothing came of it (pp. 226-227), when that redoubtable Puritan figures as he does in the New England Tragedies? And, surely, Joel Barlow's Columbiad, even though it may be "mercifully forgotten," need not be pushed further into oblivion by misspelling its title. This, no doubt, is a mere slip in proof-reading. So, of course, but none the less diverting for that, is Mr. Gorman's new promulgation of the classic "howler" that the metre of Hiawatha is "trochaic diameter."

Far more serious are other faults in the book. Mr. Gorman loves sweeping statements, many of which seem to come near exaggerations. When he remarks in summing up the poet's work, "Not once have the deep springs of life been touched in living verse," there seems to be room for a saving, "Well, hardly ever!"

Mr. Gorman gives the impression of a writer trying hard to be just, but perhaps unconsciously viewing his subject from a fundamentally unsympathetic standpoint, and with a complacent assurance that the art and criticism of the moment are necessarily more worthy than the art and criticism which Longfellow felt to be best. No doubt we have left him far behind, but it is not always as easy to be sure of it as is Mr. Gorman. There is still room for more than one kind of mind in poetry. It is reasonable to disgree with the way in which Longfellow chose to approach his art, but it might present him more fairly to admit that he may have been right, even though today he seems misguided, rather than to assert as dogmatically as Mr. Gorman seems to do one's conviction that he was far astray. In judging his character apart from his work the biographer says that he was not troubled by the "perilous and incomprehensible moods and passions that animate the poet's soul," that his grief was real but "does not touch those dark levels of tragedy that mark great love affairs," that "his nature, be it repeated again, is not deep but shallow." All this may be true, but how be sure? Admitting that all the moods and passions and dark levels of tragedy are not to be found in his writing, just as there is rather shallowness than depth in much of it, need one be so confident in pronouncing him to have lacked all of which he did not choose, or feel able, to write? Some of the poet's letters show clearly that he believed in reticence where his deepest feelings were involved, that one's heart was not to be worn upon one's sleeve. This may have been a defect in his nature, and a serious deficiency in an artist, but certainly it invalidates an attempt to discover from what he set down in black and white all that he was in his most secret heart.

Mr. Gorman hints that his book may cause "various Longfellow disciples" to take umbrage. "Longfellow disciples," if such there be, are not likely to be disturbed by a repetition of what has often been said before. Others, not "disciples," but familiar with Longfellow's life and writing may find the pages of this biography dull, since they offer neither new facts nor a very original interpretation of the old ones. Nor does the form and style of the book seem to add to its interest. There are, to be sure, pen sketches of the externals of the poet's world, which are often vivid and readable, even if a few may not be strictly accurate. There is, too, throughout the book a almost constant use of the present tense alone--a trick of style fast becoming hackneyed in contemporary biography--which is no doubt meant to add liveliness to the narrative, but often seems to approach tedious affectation. There is even a "Time Spirit," who writes down now and then Mr. Gorman's views on his subjects present and future fame. Where these devices appeal, the biography will. Elsewhere it is likely to interest only those who come to it unfamiliar with Longfellow's rather uneventful life. By such this book will be welcomed, unless they prefer a less personal record from which they may more freely form an opinion of their own.

Today there are few who can find Longfellow as interesting as Emerson. Possibly if Longfellow had revealed himself as completely anywhere as Emerson did in the Journals, and could have as wise and sympathetic an editor of his own words as Emerson has found in Mr. Perry, the case might be different. But dissimilar as their subjects are, and unequal as are their merits, these two books make very clear that there was more than one sort of American in the days of Victoria, and more than one exponent of the varied ideas of the period. This is worth while, for it points a warning against the sort of generalization which is fatally easy when one attempts to sum up the ideas of a region or period or circle by such vaguely defined words of all work as Puritanism, Americanism, Victorian, and the like

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