Damaged Souls Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

Though the reviews of the time were not unmixed, DAMAGED SOULS remains as the best book by Gamaliel Bradford and unique in the history of letters: a contribution to American history, biography, and literature. Although Taine is supposed to have originated the term, Bradford was the most active “psychographer.” His biographical studies are not so much life stories as spiritual silhouettes.

The introductory essay, applauded as a new departure, the model for interviews in depth, suggests that the souls of Bradford’s subjects are not damned, that each has a unique quality offset by a flaw. While H. L. Mencken suggested that only the first five are worthy of the sympathetic treatment, Barnum and Butler having insufficiently developed or callously overthrown souls, most critics accepted Bradford’s carefully documented verdicts on the minds and hearts he explores.

Bradford, admitting to prejudice, likens Arnold’s manly though misguided vigor and Burr’s personal though selfish charm to Paine’s and Barnum’s blatant and zealous natures. But in all those selected some kind of spiritual flaw appears to explain, even though it does not justify, the stigma that has determined the public reputations of these personages. Bradford’s main purpose, however, was not to stress the stigma but to show his people in their rounded and more human characters. Thus of Benedict Arnold, who abandoned the unfortunate Major Andre, who blackened his reputation for valorous, unselfish deeds, the reader gains an insight into his quixotic nature, his anger and feeling of slight, his physical needs, and his despair. The most telling irony concerns a meeting with Talleyrand in which Arnold dared not reveal himself....

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