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Damaged Souls Analysis

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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.

Thomas Paine’s character was formed in rebellion, Bradford believes, and his restless nature and brilliant verbal insights formed a platform for vigorous action. His work was inspired by love of humanity rather than by the egoism so marked in his exterior. There is no reason why he did not advance in the cause of the poor and the downtrodden, though rebellion was his method and violence often the result. His exterior appearance, his slovenly habits and lack of cleanliness, his addiction to drink in a drinking age, only illumine his lack of selfish concern and his higher loyalties.

Aaron Burr, by contrast, had no ideals, but exhibited a most joyful, forthright nature. He indulged himself in the pleasures of companionship, especially that of women whom he found irresistible, and he lived off those who were drawn into his confidence and bewitched by his charm. His strange projects are to this day inexplicable, perhaps not even realized in the planning, though his “villainies” seem to be the result of lack of consideration. Burr’s love for his daughter and her tender but open-eyed concern for him form a...

(The entire section is 707 words.)