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[Review of Frederick Douglass]

FREDERICK DOUGLASS. By Charles W. Chesnutt. In the Beacon Biography Series. Boston: Small, Maynard & Company.

Stonewall Jackson and John Brown are two little biographies which are very creditable to this usually excellent series. It is no light task to give an adequate impression of an eminent man in twenty thousand words. Mr. Chamberlin and Mr. Hovey, however, have succeeded admirably in giving a picture of their men. They have done so by a strict use of the objective method in biography. Each has allowed his interesting subject to stand for itself. The amount of comment in each book is short and incidental; and the emphasis is laid upon putting significant facts in such relief as to show Stonewall and John Brown as they were. Mr. Hovey's style is so "boiled," so reduced to the essential, so much care is taken to select the most direct path, that sometimes the cultivated purpose of the author is apparent. Mr. Chamberlin writes more easily and flowingly and yet sticks very constantly to his subject. John Brown appears in his devoted grandeur in the course of an easy, simple narrative. The career of the pious, picturesque man who failed in business in early life, took up late a great cause, became a bushwhacker and a guerilla for a holy purpose, and fell at Harper's Ferry, is put in a sympathetic, interesting, perspicuous way. Perhaps the most effective part of the book is the account of Brown's interview with Senator Mason and others when he lay wounded and bleeding after the failure of the Harper's Ferry raid. Mr. Chamberlin well says that the report of the conversation as it appeared in the newspaper at the time is a classic; at least, the selection made by Mr. Chamberlin from that report bears out his statement. Mr. Hovey brings out equally well Stonewall's character–his mingled hardness and goodness, his piety and independence. It is made clear how a man can advocate no quarter in war and yet love all mankind in a practical, if not an emotional way. Jackson's military genius, on the other hand, is not quite so adequately pictured. The lightning speed and iron firmness of the hero in action–qualities which make him a phenomenal figure in the public consciousness–do not picturesquely appear in the book, although they are stated well.

The other three books are to a greater or less extent examples of failure in biographical writing. Sam Houston is a poorly constructed book. The method is confused and rambling. So many points in connection with the history of the time in which Houston played so striking a role are touched upon without adequately explaining them that Houston himself does not stand forth in a central light. It is not a simple, connected account of a related series of events with a view to elucidating the character and career of the hero. The faults of Sam Houston, however, are faults of workmanship rather than of taste and style. It is the taste and style of the other two books–Stephen Decatur and Frederick Douglass–which are most noticeable. Each of these books is full of superfluous matter, of unnecessary, voluminous comment and of an uncritical hero-worship. Mr. Brady, in his Stephen Decatur, comments continually on the character of his hero, and in very much the same way in the different parts, does not, therefore, show the development of the man, ostensibly (as a matter of delicacy, as it were) glides over the faults and takes the obviously "patriotic" point of view, which is fitter for the poet than for the historian. His language is unchosen and conventional, and the commonplace quality of the sentiment sometimes approaches the naïve point. "Oh, the pity of it!" he abruptly writes after the description of Decatur's death, and ends with the following bit of false rhetoric: "High, brave, loyal and splendid, the great commodore stands before me, a glorious figure; and I salute him, 'The Bayard of the Sea.' " Frederick Douglass has all the faults of Stephen Decatur and others in addition. It has the sentimental vice of trying to make more of Douglass because of his race than as a man he deserved; and the frequent eulogies take so much space that we are justly indignant at not getting more information. He begins by devoting a valuable page to the very questionable statement that "if it be no small task for a man of the most favoured antecedents . . . to rise above mediocrity, . . . it is surely a more remarkable achievement for a man of the humblest origin . . . to win high honours and rewards, . . . to be deemed worthy of enrolment among his country's great men." On the contrary, it seems to me, that at a time when so many able abolitionists were eager to see the good in any black man and give him all possible help and make the most of his qualities, the possibility of distinction was much greater than under ordinary circumstances; and then, too, Douglass, with his really good abilities, shone more brightly in comparison with the degraded blacks than if he had been white and consequently forced into higher competition.