Thursday, January 22, 2015
All the Great Prizes
The time with Lincoln and his subsequent career as a journalist and writer who knew everyone from Mark Twain to Brett Harte were interesting. His various friendships, especially with Henry Adams (so close they built houses together on Lafayette Square that are now the Hay Adams Hotel), are also interesting. I'm abandoning the 600-page book more than halfway through, however, for a couple of reasons.
One is that as admirable as Hay was in many ways he is not a particularly sympathetic individual. He was something of a dandy, and, having married into an industrial fortune, something of a playboy. He put off entreaties of his father-in-law (the source of his fortune) to return home because of the latter's growing depression over a fatal accident on one of his railroads, so that Hay could gallivant around in Europe visiting all his wonderful friends. While he dallied, his father-in-law committed suicide. The author then relates in excruciating detail Hay's infatuations with a couple of the belles of Washington and his letters that would make an adolescent blush. Taliaferro would have us believe that these relationships, if not exactly Platonic, were not consummated, which is a stretch even for that period.
But that brings us to the second reason. Taliaferro has taken Hay mostly through the interim period between Lincoln and Roosevelt without giving much sense really of what was going on in the Gilded Age. The biography seems driven by research in Hay's correspondence and makes little effort to put his activity -- or for much of the time, his inactivity -- in the context of the times. We get glimpses and glances of social ferment as labor forces rise up against the oppression of the plutocracy, but nothing more. Hay, of course, a Republican and plutocrat, has little use for any of that while he writes his gushing letters to his current infatuation, but a true appreciation of his role in history would make such context desirable.
The long and short of it is that Hay has justifiably been forgotten, except for those elusive appearances in the lives of others. Interesting and prominent in his time, he was not a great man. He was in fact a snob and a social climber who lived by his wits and charm, with enough of each to be a zelig in American history. I have too little time to read biographies to spend it on a second-rate figure. So now I'm tackling The Last Lion, William Manchester's epic biography of Winston Churchill.