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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By James Parton (1822–1891)

JAMES PARTON, though in thought and feeling an American of the Americans, was born in Canterbury, England, February 9th, 1822; coming to New York with his widowed mother when he was about five years old. He went to a classical school in Westchester County, New York, passed some years in Europe, and then set up a school of his own in Philadelphia. He had a passion for Greek, and when he was a lad urged his mother to let him become a barber, that he might have time enough between customers to study the language: but Willis, whom he knew, had set the fashion of being literary, and Parton followed it by contributing to the Home Journal; becoming in time assistant editor of that paper, and marrying “Fanny Fern” (Sara Payson Willis Eldridge), Willis’s sister.

His first book, a ‘Life of Horace Greeley,’ appeared in 1855. He had spent infinite pains upon it, and had chosen a typical American for his subject, with the result of producing the portrait of a living man; not a eulogy nor an invective, but a picture, vivid, entertaining, abounding in anecdote. The book made, as Greeley described it, “mighty interesting reading,” and it sold at the rate of thirty thousand copies in the first year or two. After this we hear no more of Greek. In a few years Parton had become one of the best-known writers in America; the most eminent example, perhaps, of what can be attained in letters with an innate love of literature, adaptability, inexhaustible industry, and a painter’s eye to effect. Always a descriptive writer rather than a deep-searching historian, he could draw most impressive pictures, brilliant in coloring and dramatic in setting, while no man better knew the journalist’s business of striking while the iron was hot; sending in his lives and biographies when the public demanded them. At the same time he had, in common with Hazlitt and De Quincey, the fashion of defending the underdog, who never wanted a friend when Parton was present: not for the reason that incited Hazlitt, because he was combative, but from a love of fair play and a natural independence; and perhaps because the advocate was first of all a journalist, inspired with the journalist’s curiosity to see both sides.

He held the theory that it is the good in a man that goes astray, and that ought to alarm and warn his fellows; and that vice, after all, is an excess of a virtue. With none of the pugnacity of a partisan, he shows a certain adroitness in confessing the weaknesses of his heroes, that makes a direct appeal to the generosity of the reader. Moreover, by taking the stand that all religions are of human origin, and that the religion of the future will be founded on the love of man for man, without regard to prevailing theologic conceptions of the Deity, he wrote in a comfortable and tolerant state of philosophic skepticism. With these qualities and characteristics, with enormous powers of industry and application, he sent out from his study a long list of books, which became the most popular series of biographies in America.

The life of Greeley was followed three years later by that of Aaron Burr. In this book Parton chose the period most interesting in the history of the United States,—that after the Revolution. Old things had passed away; the conquering Democratic party had arisen; the States had become America, and the strange contradictory figure who had helped to make them so had passed by, rising in glory and setting in mysterious gloom. This life of Burr, vivid, picturesque, and swift-moving, is as entertaining to-day as when it appeared in 1858.

His ‘Jefferson’ and ‘Andrew Jackson’ are in a way quite as interesting, although the task of writing them was perhaps not so congenial; for Parton, heart and soul a Democrat, had no occasion to use therein that peculiar talent for defense which is so conspicuous in his lives of Burr and Voltaire. Both the ‘Jefferson’ and ‘Jackson,’ though pieces of special pleading, have the picturesqueness and eventfulness of well-constructed fiction, while they are never consciously untrue to fact. Their chief value, however, lies less perhaps in their literary quality, or in their erudition, than in their contribution of much curious information and personal anecdote gathered from out-of-the-way sources, and put before the reader in an entertaining form. No man was ever freer from what Macaulay calls the “disease of admiration”; but on the other hand, none knew better how not to belittle great deeds and noble aspirations. His respect for success never chilled his sympathy with failure, and he had an instinct for discerning the causes of both failure and success.

In 1877 appeared his ‘Caricature and other Comic Art,’ a book showing much study, keen humor, and the historic sense. Indeed, the book, though seeming to exhibit a deviation from his familiar path, is really a contribution to political history.

In 1881 appeared Parton’s life of Voltaire, on which he had spent more than twenty years of study. His admiration for his hero was unbounded; and his accumulation of facts, anecdotes, and letters throwing light upon the time is amazing. It is true that Parton had reasoned out no philosophy of history that prompted him to portray a system of morals or politics. He did not concern himself with theories of objective or subjective influences. Yet whatever this biography may lack, it remains, as an eminent English critic has declared, a genuine life of Voltaire, and not a critique upon his life and character like the works of Strauss and Morley. It is a life which makes the English and American public for the first time acquainted with the great Frenchman, somewhat in the same sense in which they have long been acquainted with Johnson or Scott. This book, a labor of love, was Parton’s last serious production, though his busy pen was never laid aside during his lifetime; and his name appears on the title-page of several compilations, collections of brief biographies, and essays. He died at Newburyport, Massachusetts, October 16th, 1891.