Frank Harris

Author: 
Year: 
1947

Root's biography of Harris is extraordinary in its enthusiasm for its subject, to the point where it would seem that Root's opinion of Harris might have been higher even than Harris' own. As a result, this is nothing like an accurate narrative of Harris' life, but it is strangely fascinating even so.

The background to this book is as follows: a man called Einar Lyngklip, one of Harris' later disciples in America, had devoted himself to the accumulation of Harrisiana: letters, books, magazines and other papers. When he died unexpectedly in 1942 his wife Pauline sought a writer to use the collection as the basis of an 'appreciative' biography. Her choice was E. Merrill Root.

Root was a poet (hailed by his ex-teacher Robert Frost as one of great promise), professor of English at Earlham College, and Poetry Editor of The American Friend, a Quaker magazine. From what I can gather he was a committed Christian, though sufficiently unorthodox to be able to combine that faith with another in Harris.

It would not appear that Root did much research outside the Lyngklip collection: most of the first half of his version of Harris' story leans heavily on My Life and Loves and is consequently of little interest beyond an enjoyment of its occasionally overwrought style, of which the following may give an idea:-

Frank Harris's body was vibrant with the ecstasy of love. He ached with the ardor of that ecstasy; the loveliness of Eve or Lilith drove him to sweet madness. He was insatiable, avid, love-drunken; he feasted eyes and hands upon love's body; he drank and drowned in the great rivers flowing to the sea. Each love, while it lasted, seemed central; in each he found a different door leading toward the same center. His joy purifies even the dross of his occasional words; the poetry of his love kindles even the prose of his lust. His lovesickness kept him healthy; his love-madness kept him sane. As saints and martyrs die in the white fire, the lover lives in the flame.

Once Root reaches the middle years of Harris' life and his career as an author there is more of interest. Root's views on Harris' work are informed and deeply felt, even though he overrates some of the short stories, the Shakespeare books and Confessional, which he bafflingly considers one of Harris' best.

Root considered Harris to be some sort of secular saint. When he compared Harris with his friend Shaw, Harris was the superior because he was less successful, because he fell out of favour with the world. Harris' sufferings are marks of his spiritual qualities and his genius; Harris himself tended to the same view. But of course suffering and failure are no more the marks of genius than are indigestion or piles: Shakespeare, Harris' great hero, stands as a remarkable conterexample for his comfortable success and popularity in his lifetime.

I found this an entertaining book to read - a forthright passion for one's subject is a fine quality in an author - but Root's readiness to believe the best of his subject (not to mention his willingness to accept amendations of fact supplied by Nellie Harris, perhaps an even less reliable source than her late husband) made him a poor guide to the truth. It does however contain some unique material, of which perhaps the most notable is the description of Harris' final days.