Page images
PDF
EPUB

tails of which we have only the admirable began to direct his reading, at first turning summary.

Not the least interesting pages of the volume are those devoted to the contemporaries of Mr. Clay. The love of fairness is plainly a marked characteristic of the mind of the author; and we feel justified in saying that almost without exception, the judgments that he has passed upon the acts and characters of statesmen contemporary with Mr. Clay are impartial and just — notably those of John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, Andrew Jackson, Albert Gallatin, John Albert Gallatin, John Tyler, Martin Van Buren, and Daniel Webster. The diary of John Quincy Adams was a fortunate source of accurate information, and the reader must be grateful for the confidence which gives him so many liberal quotations therefrom.

Henry Clay was one of the statesmen of whom the State of Virginia was the mother, for he was born in Hanover County in that State, April 12, 1777. His father, John Clay, was a Baptist clergyman, held in great esteem and "remarkable for his fine voice and delivery." He died when the son was but four years old, leaving his widow with. seven children and but a very small estate to support them. What schooling Henry Clay had, was completed at the age of fourteen, when his stepfather placed him in a retail store, where he "devoted himself for about a year with laudable diligence and fidelity to the duty of drawing molasses and measuring tape, giving his leisure hours to the reading of such books as happened to fall into his hands." Then he found a place in the office of Peter Tinsley, clerk of the High Court of Chancery, where he attracted the attention of George Wythe, the chancellor, who often had occasion to visit that office, and "selected him from among the employés there to act as an amanuensis in writing out and recording the decisions of the court. The chancellor, whose friendly feeling for the bright youth grew warmer as their relations became more confidential,

[ocr errors]

him to grammatical studies, and then gradually opening to him a wide range of legal and historical literature." Clay was fortunate in this early friendship with "one of the most honorably distinguished men of his time, in whose office Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall had preceded him as students at law. A few books read under the direction of Chancellor Wythe, and a "short year which he spent as a law student in the office of Attorney-General Brooke, and that can scarcely have gone far beyond the elementary principles of law, and the ordinary routine of practice in court,” and he had most of his equipment for his start in life.

At the age of twenty he emigrated to Kentucky, and within two years he made his. entry into the sphere of politics, in which he was destined almost continuously to remain to the close of his career. His first public avowals were in favor of an amendment to the constitution of the State of Kentucky in favor of emancipation of slaves; later in opposition to "the alien and sedition laws, that tremendous blunder of the Federalists in the last days of their power." In 1803 he was elected to a seat in the legislature of his State. In 1806, before he had attained the age of eligibility to the United States Senate, he was appointed to represent Kentucky in that body, in the place of General Adair, who had resigned, for a single session. Thereafter he had scarcely returned home when he was sent to the State legislature, and was elected speaker of the assembly. In the winter of 1809-10 he was again sent to the United States Senate to fill an unexpired term of two years, Mr. Buckner Thurston having resigned his seat. Upon the expiration of his term in the Senate he was elected to the national House of Representatives, and took his seat November 4th, 1811, No sooner had he appeared in the House than he was elected speaker by a very large majority.

Clay was a leader by nature, and that pre-eminence which was his at the outset of his career was continuously maintained to its close. Nature had bestowed upon him many of her best gifts, and these best used drew to him the admiration as well as affection of multitudes of men. Mr. Schurz's portrayal of him as a young man is worth quoting:

"A tall stature; not a handsome face, but a pleasing, winning expression; a voice of which some of his contemporaries say that it was the finest musical instrument they ever heard; an eloquence always melodious, and in turn majestic, fierce, playful, insinuating, irresistibly appealing to all the feelings of human nature, aided by a gesticulation at the same time natural, vivid, large, and powerful; a certain magnificent grandeur of bearing in public action, and an easy familiarity, a never-failing natural courtesy in private, which, even in his intercourse with the lowliest, had nothing of haughty condescension in it; a noble, generous heart, making him always ready to volunteer his professional services to poor widows and orphans who needed aid, and slaves whom he thought entitled to their freedom, to free negroes who were in danger of being illegally returned to bondage, and to persons who were persecuted by the powerful and lawless, in saving whom he sometimes endangered his own safety; a cheery, sympathetic nature, withal, of exuberant vitality, gay, spirited, always ready to enjoy, and always glad to see others enjoy themselves, his very faults being those of what was considered good fellowship in his Kentuckian surroundings; a superior person, appearing indeed immensely superior at times, but making his neighbors feel that he was one of them. Such a man was born to be popular. . . . It is an important fact that his popularity at home, among his neighbors, indeed in the whole State, constantly grew stronger as he grew older, and that the people of Kentucky clung to him with unbounded affection."

The qualities that most win popular applause seem never to be exhibited by men of the greatest minds- not that they are outside their achievement, but they are allied to natures that for the sake of ambition bend deferentially to popular will, as if the multitude might be in wisdom on a level with, or superior to, the best reaches of the best minds. The supremest intellects experience an irritable impatience with the demand of the masses for mere courtesies and pleasing words, in preference to difficult truths. Daniel Webster never attained the popularity of Henry Clay, because he never offered such sacrifices to the Graces; and yet in the larger accomplishments of education, and in breadth and greatness of intellect, he was to every intelligent apprehension greatly his superior. Mr. Clay's natural abilities were brilliant, but he never attained to the front rank of the great lawyers of the country. "His studies," says Mr. Schurz, "were never wide and profound. . . It is not improbable that his remarkable gift of speaking, which enabled him to make little tell for much, and to outshine men of vastly greater learning, deceived him as to the necessity for laborious study." John C. Calhoun never approached Mr. Clay'as an orator, but Mr. Clay was greatly his inferior in rigid, close analysis, and in the application of a subtle and far-reaching logic. Mr. Clay was undoubtedly the smallest of the great trio that made the time illustrious, but he was as undoubtedly the most successful of the three in the work of the politician and the art of the orator. The speeches that Clay has left behind repel readers by their dullness, and in no way justify the reputation he acquired as a statesman. But the speeches and orations of Webster are a part of the best literature of our country, and will never cease to testify to coming generations the extent of his attainments, and the solidity and greatness of his intellect.

Clay's disposition to seek the cultivation of those qualities that win the people was that which made it possible for him in times

of excitement and impending danger to exercise his best abilities in behalf of the great compromises with which his name is most connected, and for which the people were then most grateful to him. It was a disposition that, allied with ability, made a happy combination wanting in greater men; and without it the present condition of our country might never have been reached, for the designs of the disunionists might have been attained, if the test of their strength had been made at that time, when the disparity of strength between the North and South was not what it was ten years after Clay's death.

In accordance with the method of the series, this biography of Mr. Clay deals only with his public life. Beyond the fact of his parentage, the brief allusion to his experience as a lawyer, the fact that he was fond of card-playing for a consideration, and that he was married and lost by death three children, and did himself finally die, we believe there are no suggestions that he had any life or experience of any kind save as a public man. The great charm of all personal biographies the details of interior life, the

anecdotes that so clearly and often so sweetly illustrate the finer traits of character

is consequently almost wholly wanting here. This is not saying that the volumes lack interest or vitality to those who wish to study the progressive steps in a statesman's life. Mr. Schurz could hardly produce anything that was not full of freshness and living interest. If the level of perfect justness seems not always preserved, it may be that the absolutely perfect view is generally conceived by the reader only, and is almost always impossible to the writer !

A full review of Mr. Clay's career, his early intentions, his intense personality, his prevailing vigor of mind, his inconsistencies, his changed positions, his ambitions, his honorable purposes, his successes and mistakes, is full of interest to every American who carès about the political welfare of his country. This life involves an examination of all the political history of the United States for the first half of this century, and we know of no volumes in which a reader will find his queries therein answered so clearly, fully, and truthfully as in Mr. Schurz's life of Henry Clay.

RECENT FICTION.-II.

[blocks in formation]

(not merely in facts, but in the more subtle coloring and spirit of the whole) between the novel and the biography, is striking evidence of the truthfulness of Mr. Kirkland's work. It scarcely needs such outside evidence, however, for one cannot read it without being convinced that the author writes with knowledge and simple veracity. The middle West is perhaps the newest of all fields for fiction; and the reason of this will not be far to seek, after an attentive reading of Zury, or of any other of the small group of books in which its early life

is depicted. It is evident enough that very few of those who lived this life, and thereby had the knowledge to write of it, were likely to have acquired either literary impulse or literary training. Far different was the case with California, to which from the first hastened no inconsiderable number of adventurous young men of education, literary habits, and social experience, who found it natural to throw their observation into literary form. We cannot at the moment recall any fiction worth mention before Zury dealing with the middle West, except Edward Eggleston's stories, and Howe's two gloomy novels. Mr. Kirkland in some respects excels either of these men. He writes with a more assured pen, a more even and firm literary training. Mr. Eggleston, especially in his earlier books, is sometimes uncomfortably crude, resorts in plot to stock incidents of somewhat violent sort and in character to broad conventional coloring, to give "go"; and Mr. Howe is frankly sensational in the extreme, and frankly an imitator of Dickens. Mr. Kirkland is never crude, and is thoroughly original, in the sense of never depending on conventional types in character or incident, and copying nothing but life. Nevertheless, he is not very individual, and either Mr. Howe's or Mr. Eggleston's stories leave a much more distinct mark on the mind than his. Perhaps by his crude devices, perhaps in spite of them, Mr. Eggleston did attain "go"; and perhaps by his unconscionable imitation and ghastly sensationalism, perhaps in spite of them, Mr. Howe is impressive. Zury is full of excellences, yet it hardly impresses itself on the reader. This is chiefly, we should say, because the plot is not pleasant, and the unpleasant element in it does not make itself seem necessary and inevitable, as it should in an artistic book; partly, too, because the style, admirable though it is plain, direct, and full of intelligence and quiet humor-has not that highly readable

ter.

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

quality that may perhaps be called brightness. The book is more a study than a story; and so fair and literal a study does it seem that the reader is disposed to believe that not only the characters but the main incidents must be drawn from life, and strung with something less than artistic continuity and unity along the connecting theme of the development of Zury's characThis theme is carried through with admirable truth and care. The process by which the kind-hearted boy was developed into the meanest man in Spring County," yet remaining in some sort kind-hearted, and altogether clear-headed, and even liberal-minded, is made so clear that the reader's friendship and sympathy actually remain with the man who could perpetrate the acts of colossal meanness recorded of Zury Pronder. The reverse process, by which a woman's power- we can scarcely say influence, through so harsh and breaking experience was it brought to bear on the man-forced his character back into its more humane possibilities, is made less immediately credible and acceptable to the reader's mind. One assents to it, but only after hesitation. We have said that the theme is carried through with admirable truth and care; yet it is with a good deal less than power. Virtues and vices as strong as Zury's, experiences as dark as Anne's, give scope for a novel that need be none the less realistic for having a good deal of tragic force, and stirring some emotional deeps. One need only think of what Tolstoï, or Turgénieff, or Balzac, or George Eliot, would have done with the material, to see this. Mr. Kirkland has been perhaps in a very wise fear of being sensational too matterof-fact in manner. If he can keep his excellent realism and plain good taste in style, and yet increase in vividness, unity, and emotional power, he has large possibilities before him.

We said above that we should give to a

much slighter book than "Zury" more un'mixed praise. The Story of a New York House comes from a well-trained hand, and it was to be expected that it would be told with finished art. But the reader who opens the little book with anticipations based upon the average of Mr. Bunner's work, will find these anticipations exceeded. It would not be easy for the most captious critic to find a fault with the matter or manner of the pretty and pathetic tale- unless he should make it a fault that it is a little of the order of an "elegant trifle," in spite of its pathos. But it never pretended to be anything else; and even though the story of the fine old Knickerbocker suburban residence, and its descent within the limits of one generation to the squalor of a tenement house, is told with an art that is visibly conscious of itself, there is no occasion to think of it as less than sincere. Indeed, the mood of pensive sympathy that tinges the book is that which must creep into the mind of every passer-by as he looks upon the fate of one of these old New York houses. For ourselves, we find that the story leaves in the mind something of that sense of having caught a glimpse of individual experience as a drop in the vast moving stream of general human life, which is perhaps the most distinctly characteristic effect of the higher grade of art.

Three more American novels, A Child of the Century, Environment3, and Sons and Daughters are of very distinctly inferior grade. Neither of the three is ill-written, nor devoid of a good deal of intelligence; but there seems no sufficient reason why either should exist. It is a waste of time to

1 The Story of a New York House. By H. C. Bunner. Illustrated by A. B. Frost. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1887. For sale in San Francisco by A. L. Bancroft & Company.

2 A Child of the Century. By John T. Wheelwright. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1887. For sale in San Francisco by A.L. Bancroft & Company.

3 Environment: A Story of Modern Society. By Florine Thayer McCray. New York: Funk & Wagnalls. 1887. 4 Sons and Daughters. By the author of "The Story of Margaret Kent." Boston: Ticknor & Company. For sale in San Francisco by Strickland & Pierson.

read them, unless one would otherwise be spending the same time in reading English machine novels, party newspapers, or speculations on the great pyramid or psychic science.

A Child of the Century is a story of a Boston Mugwump and his courtshipeventually successful of a somewhat hoydenish Irish girl from Cincinnati. There is no particular point to it; it does not seem intended to bring out any social moral, or to be a definite study of any phenomena of life; and if it is meant for an old-fashioned love story, it certainly fails to catch the spirit thereof. Nothing could seem more aimless than the manner in which the author saunters through the task he has, apparently without motive, set himself. Yet the book is written with more than average intelligence; the conversation is good; things are neatly, and sometimes more than neatly, said; occasionally, in an indifferent fashion an excellent outline sketch of some side character is dropped upon the paper-as of Strong, the fervid young Mugwump who stands behind the more languid virtue of the hero. The writer seems really to have had material, and had ability, but to be quite without a "motif."

Environment does not lack moral; it is, indeed, in plot and manner a good deal like an old-fashioned Sunday School story, with the religion left out. Yet it is written in a pleasant worldly style, and handles modern slang with an experienced touch and general good taste. It is a gentle ripple of story, agreeably enough told, in which several pairs of lovers glide on with moderate heart aches and manageable yearnings to the desired haven. The moral of the book, however, appears to be in the experience of one of the characters, a high-minded and accomplished woman, who falls for a time into the alcohol habit through the use of brandy as medicine, acting on a predisposition to alcoholism unknown to her physician.

This

« PreviousContinue »