Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of A Life of Washington,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. IX: Literary Criticism - part 02 (1902), pp. 13-16


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[page 13:]

A LIFE OF WASHINGTON. BY JAMES K. PAULDING. NEW YORK: HARPER AND BROTHERS.

[Southern Literary Messenger, May, 1836.]

WE have read Mr. Paulding’s Life of Washington with a degree of interest seldom excited in us by the perusal of any book whatever. We are convinced by a deliberate examination of the design, manner, and rich material of the work, that, as it grows in age, it will grow in the estimation of our countrymen, and, finally, will not fail to take a deeper hold upon the public mind, and upon the public affections, than any work upon the same subject, or of a similar nature, which has been yet written — or, possibly, which may be written hereafter. Indeed, we cannot perceive the necessity of any thing farther upon the great theme of Washington. Mr. Paulding has completely and most beautifully filled the vacuum which the works of Marshall and Sparks have left open. He has painted the boy, the man, the husband, and the Christian. He has introduced us to the private affections, aspirations, and charities of that hero whose affections of all affections were the most serene, whose aspirations the most God-like, and whose charities the most gentle and [page 14:] pure. He has taken us abroad with the patriot-farmer in his rambles about his homestead. He has seated us in his study and shown us the warrior-Christian in unobtrusive communion with his God. He has done all this too, and more, in a simple and quiet manner, in a manner peculiarly his own, and which mainly because it is his own, cannot fail to be exceedingly effective. Yet it is very possible that the public may, for many years to come, overlook the rare merits of a work whose want of arrogant assumption is so little in keeping with the usages of the day, and whose striking simplicity and naiveté of manner give, to a cursory examination, so little evidence of the labor of composition. We have no fears, however, for the future. Such books as these before us, go down to posterity like rich wines, with a certainty of being more valued as they go. They force themselves with the gradual but rapidly accumulating power of strong wedges into the hearts and understandings of a community.

From the preface we learn, that shortly after the conclusion of the late war, Mr. Paulding resided for several years in the city of Washington, and that his situation bringing him into familiar intercourse with “many respectable and some distinguished persons” who had been associated with the Father of his Country, the idea was then first conceived of writing a Life of that great man which should more directly appeal to the popular feeling of the land, than any one previously attempted. With this intent, he lost no opportunity of acquiring information, from all authentic sources within his reach, of the private life, habits and peculiarities of his subject. We learn too that the work thus early proposed was never banished from the mind of the author. The original intention, however, was [page 15:] subsequently modified, with a view of adapting the book to the use of schools, and “generally to that class of readers who have neither the means of purchasing, nor the leisure to read a larger and more expensive publication.” Much of the information concerning the domestic life of Washington was derived immediately from his cotemporaries, and from the “present most estimable lady who is now in possession of Mount Vernon.” In detailing the events of the Revolution, the author has principally consulted the public and private letters of Washington.

The rich abundance of those delightful anecdotes and memorials of the private man which render a book of this nature invaluable — an abundance which has hardly more delighted than astonished us — is the prevailing feature of Mr. Paulding’s Washington. We proceed, without apology, to copy for the benefit of our readers such as most immediately present themselves.

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On page 106, vol. i., we find the following interesting particulars:

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The following account of his last illness is copied, we are told, from a memorandum in the handwriting of Tobias Lear, his private secretary and confidential friend, who attended him from first to last.

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We proceed with some farther extracts of a like kind taken at random from the book.

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In regard to the style of Mr. Paulding’s Washington, it would scarcely be doing it justice to speak of it merely as well adapted to its subject, and to its immediate [page 16:] design. Perhaps a rigorous examination would detect an occasional want of euphony, and some inaccuracies of syntatical arrangement. But nothing could be more out of place than any such examination in respect to a book whose forcible, rich, vivid, and comprehensive English, might advantageously be held up, as a model for the young writers of the land. There is no better literary manner than the manner of Mr. Paulding. Certainly no American, and possibly no living writer of England, has more of those numerous peculiarities which go to the formation of a happy style. It is questionable, we think, whether any writer of any country combines as many of these peculiarities with as much of that essential negative virtue, the absence of affectation. We repeat, as our confident opinion, that it would be difficult, even with great care and labor, to improve upon the general manner of the volumes now before us, and that they contain many long individual passages of a force and beauty not to be surpassed by the finest passages of the finest writers in any time or country. It is this striking character in the Washington of Mr.Paulding — striking and peculiar indeed at a season when we are so culpably inattentive to all matters of this nature, as to mistake for style the fine airs at second hand of he silliest romancers — it is this character we say, which should insure the fulfilment of the writer’s principal design, in the immediate introduction of his book into every respectable academy in the land.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of A Life of Washington)