THE material is present for several exciting novels and a monograph on prison reform but unfortunately the two various themes are so interwoven in this biography of the pioneer prison reformer that it is all much time wasted by the reader who wants to carry away any definite impressions.
Like many biographers of more or less obscure public men, or men prominent only in their own profession, Chamberlain has included pages of genealogy which are interesting only to members of the family and has magnified the virtues of his subject without placing his faults in the proper strong light. He presents the familiar case of an artist too close to his work to gain perspective.
Chamberlain has not the ability to narrate the story with sufficient life to make the book interesting for its many live situations, but he has devoted much time to the preparation of his material. It is unfortunate that he has not restricted himself to Osborne's approach to what is still a live situation and allowed a clear view of the work remaining to be done.
Cambridge is a poor place to have such a book reviewed because it is impossible to read the chapter on "Fair Harvard" without nausea. "Soon after his matriculation it was noised about the Yard that a freshman up in Thayer Hall was a jim-dandy at the piano. Tom was all of that. He could glance over a piece of difficult music he had never seen before, throw it aside, and play if off fluently from note memory, a feat few have been able to master' . . . One distinction in particular contributed to his prestige. This was his election in his sophomore year as conductor of the Pierian Sodality, the college musical society . . . . . As he grew older he found a keen enjoyment in charades and masquerade balls, spending weeks prior to his school vacations planning brave entertainments for the recess."
All this "made inevitable his election to the Hasty Pudding Club, the college dramatic society that was the goal of all undergraduate Thespians." This sort of slush continues throughout the volume but after a hundred pages the reader starts on the account of his work as liberal politician and prison administrator.
Osborne changed with years and it is easy to understand how Chamberlain might have fallen to such sentimental depths. There was a fair for adventure in his make-up that made the mayor of Auburn dress as a tramp, ride the rails and visit music halls. For balance there was an unobtrusive charity that helped dozens of now prominent actors, business men, and artists.
After page 150, the book becomes interesting, and after 250 pages have been covered, the reader enters the relevant part of the discussion on prisons which gives the book its only claim to value. The narrative becomes animated and gives the impression that the writer knows what he is talking about without being deceived by the worship of years. The Mutual Welfare League of Auburn and Sing Sing is discussed in a manner interesting to all who have considered the problems of prison administration either from a governmental or sociological view.
Chamberlain is at home in the latter part of the book, where he deals with Osborne's problems in a convincing manner. Still it is "the great Osberne," but he has reached a position where, the attitude is more justified and the narrative springs to life with primary source experiences. The warden goes from Ossining to Porstmouth Naval Prison and experience the same trials because of his advocacy of liberal methods, but again comes away victoriously.
From a purely literary standpoint the treatment of Osborne's death ranks high enough so that we regret that the same inspiration is not evident throughout the volume--just as we regret that Chamberlain did not start his story in the middle.