Gamaliel Bradford.

A naturalist of souls; studies in psychography online

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Studies in Psychography










tit 7








The Author wishes to thank the publishers
of The Atlantic Monthly, The North American
Review, The Yale Review, The South Atlantic
Quarterly, and Poet Lore for permission to re-
print articles originally published by them.









AGO 167






"J* analyse, f herborise, je suis un naturaliste
des esprits."





SOME one asked Zola why he used the term,
"Naturalism," when there was nothing about
his work that was essentially different from
realism or from other literary forms that had been
employed for thousands of years before his time.
"I know all that," he said. "You are perfectly
right. But I needed a name to attract the attention
of the public. When I repeat the word over and
over, it is bound at last to make people think there
is something in it. It is like driving a nail. The
first blow does not amount to much; but as you add
another, and another, and another, in the end you
make progress."

1 confess that my use of the word, "Psychogra-
phy," was at first something like Zola's use of
"Naturalism." It was not even my own original
invention, though I had coined it for myself before
I discovered that it had been used by Professor
Saintsbury a few years earlier in discussing the work
of Sainte-Beuve. I did not suppose that it meant



anything particularly new, but it seemed to sum
up processes that have been rather vaguely employed
before and to give them a name which might be
useful in attracting the attention of the jaded, over-
loaded American reader.

I should not now claim that the word meant any-
thing new in substance. All literary and historical
methods have been employed over and over again
and the most we can hope to do is to improve and
modify them. But the more I practise psychogra-
phy, the more it seems to me to represent definite
phases of literary or historical production, phases
worthy not only of a distinct name, but of careful
study and consideration.

I can best introduce what I have in mind by mak-
ing clear one or two things that psychography is
not. In the first place, it is not at all properly con-
veyed or suggested by the word, portrait. I have
hitherto used this term, because it has the excellent
authority of Sainte-Beuve and many others, and
because I have not yet found courage to talk about
"psychographs," and even if I had, publishers and
editors have not. But "portraits" is very unsatis-
factory. To carry the terms of one art into another
is always misleading, and I have experienced this in
the complaint of many critics that as a portrait
painter I could present a man at only one moment
of his career, that I depicted his character in only


one phase, one situation, one set of conditions and

Now the aim of psychography is precisely oppo-
site to this. Out of the perpetual flux of actions
and circumstances that constitutes a man's whole
life, it seeks to extract what is essential, what is
permanent and so vitally characteristic. The painter
can depict a face and figure only as he sees them at
one particular moment, though, in proportion to
the depth and power of his art, he can suggest, more
or less subtly, the vast complex of influences that
have gone to building up that face and figure. The
psychographer endeavours to grasp as many particu-
lar moments as he can and to give his reader not
one but the enduring sum total of them all.

But, it is urged, if the object is thus chronological
completeness, in what respect does psychography
differ from biography*? Simply that biography is
bound to present an elaborate sequence of dates,
events, and circumstances, of which some are vital
to the analysis o the individual subject, but many
are merely required to make the narrative complete.
From this yast and necessary material of biography,
psychography selects only that which is indispensable
for its particular purpose, and as the accumulation
of books becomes yearly greater and greater, it seems
as if this principle of condensation must become
more and more pressing in its appeal.


Finally, psychography differs from psychology in
that the latter does not deal primarily with indi-
viduals, but with general principles, and uses indi-
viduals only for the discovery, development, and
illustration of those principles.

Psychography, then, is the attempt to portray
character, and in discussing psychography we must
evidently begin with a clear understanding of what
character means. The reader will perhaps pardon
my rehearsing the no doubt crude metaphysical
analysis which I have found satisfactory for my own
purposes. Character is quite distinct from indi-
viduality. Individuality, so far as we appear to
others in this world, is a vast complex, based pri-
marily upon the body, the material, physical organi-
sation, and consisting of all the past history of that
organisation, its name and all its actions and utter-
ances in theij sequence and concatenation with other
circumstances and events.

It is, of course, perfectly evident that no words,
no possible abstract instruments of thinking, will
ever suffice to render this individuality in its com-
pleteness. The brush of the painter can at once
attain a result that is impossible to language, and
although the artist in colour never conveys anything
like the fulness of individuality, yet the physical
portrayal he achieves is to all intents and purposes


distinct from the portrayal of any other human
being, and so far individual.

But we poor workers in words have to toil vaguely
after a result which is far less conclusive and satis-
fying. Even the concrete method, employed by the
novelist and dramatist, of letting a personage do his
own deeds and speak his own words, rarely makes
any approach to complete individuality. No single
human action, as verbally recorded, can be confined
to one human being more than to another, and
scarcely any complication of actions. In the same
way no word or combination of words is distinctively
yours or mine, or Csesar's or Napoleon's. A thou-
sand women might have murdered Duncan as Lady
Macbeth did, and a million men might have said
with Hamlet, "To be or not to be, that is the

Fortunately, in the weltering chaos which is to-
taled by the word, individuality, there is one clue
that we can seize, though it is frail and insecure.
As we observe the actions of different men, we find
that they follow certain comparatively definite lines,
which we call habits, that is, the same man will per-
form over and over again actions, and speak words,
which have a basis of resemblance to each other,
though the basis is often obscure and elusive. And
back of the words and actions we assume from our
own experience motives of sensation and emotion,


which serve to strengthen and confirm such resem-
blance. On this vague basis of fact is built the
whole fabric of our study and knowledge of our
fellow men. The generalisation of these habits of
action, sometimes expressing itself very obscurely
and imperfectly for the acute observer in features
and manifestations of the body, constitutes what we
call qualities. And the complex of these qualities
in turn forms the fleeting and uncertain total which
we sum up in the word, character. An honest man is
one who does honest actions. A simple man is one
who does simple actions. An ambitious man does
ambitious actions. A cruel man, cruel actions. And
so on, almost without limit. The importance of
these quality terms is so enormous in our practical
daily lives that we are apt, as with many other
abstractions, to look upon them as mysterious enti-
ties, functions, elements, in some way existing by
themselves and entering into the very fibre and sub-
stance of the man's inmost soul. And so far as his
habits of action are ingrained, vital, rooted deep
down in the solid foundations of education and in-
heritance, these words which express habit are per-
manent and significant, but their significance comes
only from the acts they generalise and the inferred
feelings and emotions that prompt those acts, noth-
ing more.

Character, then, is the sum of qualities or gen-


eralised habits of action. Psychography is the con-
densed, essential, artistic presentation of character.
And it is now perfectly obvious how frail, how in-
firm, how utterly unreliable is the material basis
upon which psychography rests. First, before we
can analyse and generalise a man's habits of speech
and action, we must deal with the historical record
of that speech and action. And here, of course, we
meet the ordinary difficulties in regard to accuracy,
which have become so many and so glaring in the
light of modern historical research. Most of our
knowledge of men's actions in the past depends upon
the testimony of others. That testimony, when lim-
ited in amount, is extremely uncertain, as shown
by the fact that, when abundant, it is usually con-
flicting. In the small number of cases in which
we have the testimony of the man himself, we are
apt to be more puzzled and perplexed than when
we are without it. As with actions, so with words.
It is rare indeed that we can be sure of having even
the substance of f a man's speech correctly reported
to us. Yet for the interpretation of his character
it is often of the utmost importance that we should
have his exact language, and, if possible, the tone
and gesture and emphasis that double or halve its

But these concrete, historical difficulties are but
the smallest part of the problem we have to deal


with in psychography. Supposing that we have
the most reliable record of a man's deeds and ut-
terances, we have advanced but a very little way in
establishing the qualities of his character. What
actions are just, what actions are generous, what
actions are cruel, what actions are foolish*? To
determine these points requires wide reflection on
the bearing of actions in reference to all sorts of
conditions and circumstances, and on a man's own
judgment and others' judgment of that bearing.
The result of such reflection will be different in dif-
ferent minds, and the colour that an action assumes
to you will be very different from what it assumes
to me or to the next critic who considers it.

Further, the generalisation of actions is always
imperfect. A man may do one or several kindly
actions, yet not have the essential habit of kindli-
ness. A man whose ordinary life runs in the con-
ventional groove of honesty may meet some sudden
crisis with an entire reversal of his honest habit.
The most minute study, the widest experience in the
investigation of human actions and their motives,
only make us feel more and more the shifting, ter-
rible uncertainty of the ground under our feet.

The natural question then arises, of what use is
psychography? Why perplex and torment one's
self with the study of character, when the difficulty
is so great and the result so uncertain, when we


seem to begin with nothing and to end with nothing,
to be weaving a skein of shadows into a fabric of
clouds ?

The answer is first, that there is no possible study
more fascinating. The problems of character, in
others and in ourselves, are teasing us for solution
every moment of our lives. The naturalist spends
years in studying the life and habits of a bird, or a
frog, or a beetle. But every beetle is a beetle, and
when you have studied the class, the individual is
practically nothing. With the human class every in-
dividual is infinitely varied from every other and
the field of study is as inexhaustible as it is ab-

Moreover, if psychography is an impossible
science, it is a necessary one. The psychographer
is not a curious dilettante, investigating odd facts to
pass an idle hour. The one form of knowledge that
is practical above all others is the knowledge of our-
selves and of other men. We are all psychograph-
ers from the cradle. The child, almost before it can
speak, learns just what will affect its father or its
mother, and what will not. In our business and in
our pleasure, in our hope and in our fear, in our toil
and in our repose, we are always considering, ex-
amining, calculating upon the action of others. We
miscalculate and mistake and blunder disastrously
again and again, but we still pursue our instinctive


psychography, because it is more important than
anything else to the successful conduct and even to
the mere living of our lives.

Of course, in the vast chaos of individual action
and speech, certain elements are far more significant
than others, and it is largely in the discovery and
interpretation of these elements that the claim of
psychography consists. A man may deliver a formal
oration, carefully framed after conventional models
and tell us practically nothing about himself. I long
since learned that such material as the fifteen vol-
umes of Sumner's collected works was of little or
no value for my purposes. Again, a careless word,
spoken with no intention whatever, a mere gesture,
the lifting of the hand or the turning of the head,
may fling open a wide window into a man's inmost

When one gets to watching for these subtle in-
dications of character, the delight of them is in-
expressible. All history and biography are strewn
with them, but in astonishingly varying abundance.
The Diary of Pepys contains new light on the
writer's soul in every page and paragraph. The
equally extensive Diary of Madame D'Arblay is ar-
tificial, literary, external, and tells comparatively
little about Madame D'Arblay herself. General
Sherman wears his heart upon his sleeve. Material
for depicting him is so plenty that there is only the


difficulty of selecting. General Lee conceals him-
self instinctively behind a barrier of formal re-
serve, and it is only by long study that one comes
across such vivid revelations as his remark at Fred-
ericksburg, "It is well that war is so terrible, or else
we should grow too fond of it."

Of course these revelations of soul are not con-
fined to books or to historical personages. The men
and women we meet in casual daily intercourse are
always telling or concealing the same story of
what they are and what they are not. One or two
apparently trifling instances have stuck in my mem-
ory from their singular significance. A man's wife
was caught unexpectedly, in travelling, with little or
no money, and obliged to explain her difficulties to
the hotel keeper and telegraph to her husband for
assistance. The husband sent it at once, but his
comment was, "To think that my wife should be
stranded in a hotel without money." Just reflect
upon all that little sentence tells of the person who
wrote it. Agair^ I was explaining to a friend a ter-
rible disaster that had happened to another friend
and I was myself so agitated and overcome that I
could not make anything approaching a lucid story.
My hearer was dumfounded by my condition and
after a moment's effort to gather what I was. driving
at, his first word was, "Tell me, at least, does this
trouble concern me?" Think of the depths of hu-


man nature revealed in that! Take still another
instance. A most worthy, affectionate, devoted hus-
band, who was trying to do all that could be done
for an invalid wife, used often to remark, "When
I stand by her grave, I do not wish to have anything
to reproach myself with." Simple, natural words,
perhaps, yet they seem to me distinctly significant
of a certain type of man.

So, every day, every hour, every minute, we are
all of us writing our own psychographs, at any rate
piling up ample material for some one else to do
it for us.

It is sometimes urged that attention to such mi-
nute details in the conduct of historical personages,
not to speak of our neighbours, savours of mere gos-
sip. We degrade history and biography, it is said,
when we make them depend on careless words and
unregarded actions. But if it be true, as I have sug-
gested, that the knowledge of others' characters is
absolutely vital to living our own lives and that just
such careless words and unregarded actions give us
this knowledge of character, then assuredly it is
right we should observe them, no matter how trivial
and apparently insignificant.

It must be admitted that psychography is always
in danger of degenerating into gossip. The dif-
ference between the two is simply that gossip springs
from the desire to saturate our own emptiness with


the lives of others, from a mere idle curiosity about
things and persons, bred by an utter lack of interest
in ourselves. Gossip makes no distinction of signifi-
cance between different facts, but gapes wide for
all, only more eagerly for those that offer more
violent and abnormal distraction. Psychography
picks, chooses, and rejects; in a bushel of chaff finds
only a grain or two of wheat, but treasures that
wheat as precious and invaluable.

Thus far I have spoken of psychography as a
science, that is, of the material with which the psy-
chographer deals. Before I touch upon psychography
as an art, let me turn for a few moments to the writer
from whom I think the psychographer has most to
learn, Sainte-Beuve.

It is curious that Sainte-Beuve should have been
all his life the most exquisite practitioner of psy-
chography and never have known it. I do not mean
that he did not use the word. That is a small mat-
ter. But he always thought and spoke of himself as
a literary critic, all the while that he was doing work
far different from literary criticism.

Indeed, as a mere critic, I do not think that Sainte-
Beuve quite deserves the rank usually assigned him.
He had little knowledge of any literature beside the
classics and his own. Even in speaking of things
French, he is a very unsatisfactory guide, outside of
the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.


If he writes of his contemporaries, his judgments,
when just, are apt to be intertangled with a per-
sonal element of jealousy, which is very unpleasant.
Such pure criticism as his study of Theocritus has
great and peculiar charm, but it is much less common
in his work than is generally supposed.

Where he is really distinguished and original
and unrivalled, is as what he himself called, in a
rare moment of analysis, "a naturalist of souls."
In insight into the deep and hidden motives and
passions of the soul, in power of distinguishing and
denning them, best of all, in cunning and subtle gift
of winnowing material so as to select just those
significant and telling illustrative words and actions
I have spoken of, in all these admirable qualities
he had no predecessor and has had no follower
who can at all approach him. His vast col-
lection of studies of great and striking figures
in French history is something quite unmatched
in any other literature, and it is coming to
stand out more and more and be better appre-
ciated, as it is more widely known. Best of all are
his many portraits of women. Madame de Sevigne,
Madame de Maintenon, Madame Du Deffand, Ma-
dame d'Epinay, and a score of others, representing
entirely different aspects of character, are depicted
with a fidelity, a sympathy, a delicacy, a just appre-
ciation of mental and moral strength and weakness,


which make you feel as if you had known every one
of them all your life.

Now it seems evident enough that it is a mere mis-
use of terms to call such work as this literary criti-
cism. Is it not strange, then, that Sainte-Beuve
should never have got really clear with himself about
what he was doing, but should have insisted that
because these various women wrote letters, there-
fore, in discussing them, he was discussing literature?
The explanation is closely connected with an es-
sential element of his greatness. For he was not
an abstract thinker, not a man of theories or formu-
lae. His attempts to analyse the general character
of his work are rare, and those that do occur are not
lucid or satisfactory. What he did have was an
immense, insatiable desire for observation, investiga-
tion. Few men have personified more completely
than he the spirit of pure scientific curiosity, the
love and reverence for the fact in itself, independent
of argument, or of any effort to use facts as foun-
dations for theoties. One of the ablest of his fol-
lowers, Scherer, points out that in all Sainte-Beuve' s
vast work there is little or no repetition. This is
true, but Scherer fails to note the significant reason.
It is because Sainte-Beuve adores and imitates the
immense individuality of nature. Scherer himself,
Brunetiere, France, Lemaitre, Faguet, Matthew Ar-
nold, all admirers and imitators of Sainte-Beuve,


miss his excellence in this point entirely. Not one of
them left a quarter part as much work as Sainte-
Beuve did. Yet not one of them but in those nar-
rower limits repeats himself over and over in some
philosophical discussion or some abstract theory, as
all readers will immediately realise in regard to Mat-
thew Arnold. To Sainte-Beuve theories were mis-
leading and unprofitable. Human beings were un-
limited in fascination and charm.

Thus, no one was more widely conversant with the
material of psychography than he. Moreover, so
far as the art of psychography consists in the cun-
ning and exquisite selection of illustrative details,
no one has ever surpassed or ever will surpass him.

But there is another phase of psychographic art,
which becomes daily of greater interest to me, and
which Sainte-Beuve practised comparatively little.
This is the phase of composition. His method of
procedure was usually that of simple biography.
After a brief introduction, he followed the chronol-
ogy of his subject, developing different points of
character in connection with different circumstances
or periods. No doubt great variety can be obtained
in this way, as every skilled biographer knows. At
the same time, it seems to me that there is a gain in
swinging clear from this chronological sequence al-
together, and in attaching oneself solely to the pres-
entation of a man's qualities of character, arranged


and treated in such logical sequence as shall give a
total impression that will be most effective and most
enduring. I confess that I had grave doubts about
this procedure at first. I feared that the discussion
of qualities in the abstract would be academic, ped-
agogic, monotonous. Even yet I am not prepared
to affirm that this will not prove true and that in
the end I shall not have to fall back on simple bio-
graphical structure. But my doubt in the matter
diminishes daily. Indeed, it is in this regard that
the originality and significance of psychography im-
presses me most, and I am astonished to find how rich
and varied are the possibilities of artistic presenta-
tion with every individual character. Instead of a
monotonous renewal of the same qualities in the
same order, every individual seems to suggest and
to require a different arrangement, a different em-
phasis. So that I come to feel that Nature herself
is the artist and that all one has to do is to lend a
patient, earnest e^ar to her dictation. It is true that
not one but a dozen possibilities of composition are
indicated in every case and this seems largely to ac-
centuate the uncertainty and unreliability of psy-
chographic art. But, as I have already shown, such

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Online LibraryGamaliel BradfordA naturalist of souls; studies in psychography → online text (page 1 of 15)