Two books acquired recently, one new, one older, started me thinking about the different views of Harris that people have. Some are adulators, who take Harris at his own estimation, and believe that he was a great man brought low by jealous prudes; at the other extreme there are those who think he was a congenital liar and villain, a fraud, blackmailer and pornographer. The truth, of course, is to be found somewhere in the middle, to the inconvenience of those whose taste is for the black and white, without shades of grey.
Star-Spangled Eden, by James C. Simmons
Carroll & Graf, New York, 2000
Let us start with someone in the adulatory camp. Simmons' book is in a form he has used before: the reworking of other people's writings into a narrative about travel in the past, in this case material by and about English visitors to 19th Century America. His previous works have included one about real-life Robinson Crusoes and another about English visitors to Arab lands. For the reader this approach has the advantage that it is somebody else who performs the labourious task of locating and sifting through what must be huge amounts of material to find the most precious of pearls. Additionally Simmons takes some trouble to place his stories in their historical context, so that overall the experience of reading a book such as this is most satisfying: one has been entertained and educated at the same time, and one's appetite has been whetted for more - reading this volume made me want to hunt down the works of Richard Burton, for example.
A danger in this approach is that travellers are notoriously prone to exaggeration and deceit when recounting their adventures. It must always be a temptation to place oneself in a better light, to make oneself the hero of a story rather than merely an onlooker, to make oneself a witness to events that one actually heard second- or even third-hand. Who can check what actually happened in the middle of some vast empty wasteland, or the depths of the jungle?
Given this, the writer may choose to point out the unreliability of his or her sources, or set aside the problem and let the reader assume that what is presented is accurate, without saying whether it has been verified or not. Simmons chooses to do the latter - with one notable exception, when his source is Frank Harris.
I will quote Simmons in full, as I think what he says is remarkable:-
Any biographer of Harris has to deal with the persistent charges that he sometimes falsified events in his life. "As I came to maturity I found that my memory ... began to colour incidents dramatically," he freely admitted in My Life and Loves. Certainly, in recounting the events of his own life he revealed an excellent sense of narrative drama; the events and people come alive for the reader. As with all his non-fiction we have to ask how much of it is true.
Professor John F. Gallagher, who edited the scholarly edition of My Life and Loves, wrote in his introduction to that book: "There is the question of whether Harris invented sex episodes in the hopes of increasing sales or heightening effect, or whether his memory played him false in recalling details. It does not seem likely that a man who could accurately quote at length, say, from Swinburne's Anactoria and from Macaulay's essay on history fifty years after reading them would find it difficult to remember the faces and anatomies of women. And those persons still alive who knew him best deny there was any necessity for invention by him."
Does Simmons really expect us to accept this as a defence of Harris' veracity? Professor Gallagher said that Harris had a phenomenal memory and a lot of real sexual experiences, so he didn't need to make anything up, an argument which in itself is somewhat shaky, but in any case only applies to the sex episodes, and not to what Simmons gives most space to, the cowboy stories.
What really grates is the fact that Simmons has read Philippa Pullar's biography, in which she showed, based on primary sources, that Harris' cowboy adventures were fictions, mainly because he did not leave England until mid-1871, and not therefore have been in America in 1870. Simmons repeats Harris' dates without comment, and worse, dismisses Pullar's biography in his notes at the end of this volume: "[it] suffers greviously from her hostility towards her subject". For a hack like Simmons to denigrate Pullar's work, which for all its faults towers over his, is grossly unfair and indeed smacks of intellectual dishonesty.
Simmons' book makes very enjoyable reading, but its truths must be held suspect. Can he not bear his heroes to be flawed: or is it that his style is not suited to argument, so he shuns it?
Edwardian Occasions, by Samuel Hynes
Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1972
This volume collects Hynes' literary essays about Edwardian writers from the Times Literary Supplement and other places. The piece "Frank Harris: the Complete Literary Rascal" is the first in the volume; it was originally published in the TLS in November, 1969.
Hynes' view of Harris contrasts strongly with that of Simmons, in that he regards him as a colourful and interesting character, with some talent but an overwhelming ego. Hynes thinks that Harris' literary strength was as an editor and a biographer of others. He calls My Life and Loves a "poor thing", a "monument to that abnormal vanity", but it is to Hynes' credit that he sees this as something to regret, that "it would be a pity if such a complex and often entertaining literary rascal were to be remembered, not by his best writing, but by this, nearly his worst".
One may disagree with Hynes' literary judgements, but overall his assessment of Harris is thoughtful and fair. He allows Harris to be a human being, rather than that super-monster he created in his autobiography.
Here then we have both an idolator and a sceptic: one, Simmons, who finds it hard to believe ill of Harris and the other, Hynes, who can appreciate Harris as a character without having to raise him much above the common. Other views include those of such as Stanley Weintraub, author of The Playwright and the Pirate, who cannot see anything good in him, or Enid Bagnold, who loved Harris though she knew his faults too well.
What Harris did to inspire such unquestioning loyalty as exhibited by Simmons and E. Merrill Root is something of a mystery, especially when the evidence of his fallibility is so easy to find. We have the example of Hesketh Pearson and others to show how a disciple could awake into disillusionment; perhaps these others fell too far asleep and never woke up.