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John Jay Chapman

Brief life of a neglected critic: 1862-1933.

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A youthful but pensive Chapman and one of his many later works.

A youthful but pensive Chapman and one of his many later works.

Photomontage by Bartek Malysa. Photograph of Chapman courtesy Harvard University Archives. Text image courtesy Harvard College Library.

"Great men," wrote John Jay Chapman, A.B. 1884, "are often the negation and opposite of their age. They give it the lie." He was writing in 1897 about Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the remark states the theme of his own life and its defect. Chapman is one of America's lost writers; indeed, he may be the best of them. On his particular subjects, literature and politics, he is unique, invaluable--and quite forgotten.

Chapman's generation takes us from the Civil War to the time of Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Ford, and Edith Wharton. The son of a respected Wall Street figure and the great-granddaughter of John Jay, the nation's first chief justice, Chapman studied law at Harvard before returning to New York City to practice. There he plunged into Reform politics, opposing Tammany Hall and in general attacking the pervasive corruption of the Gilded Age.

Chapman was a man of extreme, sometimes violent impulses: his Harvard friends had called him "mad Jack." His political work in the 1890s was by no means cloistered: though a patrician to his fingertips, he was more than willing to harangue the Broadway crowds at the tumultuous political rallies of the time and even to leave the platform to grapple with hecklers. Nevertheless, most of his reform efforts consisted of writing and organizing. From 1897 to 1901, he published at his own expense, and mostly wrote, a reformist monthly, the Political Nursery, which Edmund Wilson later called "one of the best written things of the kind which has ever been published anywhere." In 1898 Chapman actively promoted Theodore Roosevelt as an independent reform candidate for governor of New York, but the alliance collapsed when Roosevelt chose instead to run, successfully, as the candidate of the state Republican organization, which Chapman held no better than Tammany Hall.

Perhaps the failure of Roosevelt's reform candidacy stood in Chapman's mind for the failure of reform itself, and helped push him to withdraw from politics. This he did around the turn of the century. At the same time, his circumstances had become easy enough for him to give up his law practice. After his first wife's early death in 1897, he had married Elizabeth Chanler, a member of the Astor family, and by 1901 they had moved to an estate at Barrytown on the Hudson River. There Chapman concentrated on literary work.

In his Political Nursery, Chapman had proved himself a fluent writer whose paragraphs somehow convey complete candor and integrity. "He just looks at things and tells the truth about them--a strange thing even to try to do," wrote William James. In his writing on letters, Chapman perfected his distinctive style: correct, precise, but at the same time simple, direct, and informal. As a writer he is very much the descendant of Emerson, asserting the individual as the highest, the only source of truth; but Chapman is a better writer than Emerson. He is clearer and more pointed, and he has what Emerson lacks--humor.

Chapman's form was the literary essay: complex, artful compositions in which the author records the response of his own mind and heart to the work at hand, not as a scholar but as a reader. At his best, in essays on Shakespeare, Emerson, Whitman, or Browning, Chapman can seem to present these familiar authors for the first time, to renew and redirect our understanding of them.

He also wrote social criticism and history, in particular in his long 1913 essay on the abolitionist agitator William Lloyd Garrison--an extraordinary work of biography, a study of character and the force of history, a painful meditation on the depth and permanence of the tragedy visited on American society by slavery. In all, Chapman published nine collections of essays, as well as plays, poems, and translations of Dante, Sophocles, and Euripides.

He was never a large-selling author, but among educated readers of his time he had a considerable name. Today, however, his works are mostly out of print. Wilson and other biographers seem to relate this neglect to Chapman's disillusioned retirement from practical politics around 1900, and no doubt they are right to do so; certainly Chapman never sought fame. And as certainly, his highminded Emersonian individualism put him against the grain of his own age. But there are other factors. For all its aristocratic ease, Chapman's life was often dark and troubled. In a horrifying episode when he was a law student, he assaulted and beat a supposed rival in love and later, tormented by remorse, deliberately burned his left hand in a coal fire so badly it had to be amputated. All his life he was subject to breakdowns and bouts of apparently psychosomatic illness. During World War I, in which he lost a son, he became--quite against his character--a hysterical war-lover, and in the 1920s he took up the paranoid cause of crank anti-Catholicism. These late obsessions must have discredited him, especially among the skeptical younger generation, and contributed to his being dismissed and ultimately almost forgotten.

That he should be lost, however, is our misfortune. Any writer must be known by his best work and not by his blindnesses--and Chapman, with his gift for renewing the classics and his lucid, uncompromising view of our history and political life, can only appear today as an author of whom we stand in need.