Margaret Sanger, " [ Book Review of HAVELOCK ELLIS: PHILOSOPHER OF LOVE. ] ," Jul 1928.
Published Review. Source: Birth Control Review, July 1928, pp. 210-11 , Margaret Sanger Microfilm, Smith College Collections, S71:0142 .
In that “open letter to biographers” which he dashed off upon the completion of his Study of British Genius, Havelock Ellis pointed out that many biographies were often merely “slices of misplaced history,” and warned all future biographers to study the roots of the lives they recorded. “After the age of twenty, your task becomes easier and more obvious; after thirty, if so far you have fulfilled that task, what is there further left to tell? The rest is but the liberation of a mighty spring, the slow running down of energy. The man recedes to give place to his deeds, whether such deeds be the assault of great fortresses, or the escalade of mighty sentences.”
Houston Peterson, who has valiantly undertaken to write the life of Havelock Ellis* who at sixty-nine is still keenly sensitive to the dangers of this difficult art, has evidently taken to heart this warning. The result is that, intentionally or not, the first chapters, dealing with the hereditary background, with the childhood, youth and early manhood of his subject are far more important to our fuller understanding of this life-giving spirit than, say, the final five chapters, which, in our humble opinion, seem to rely too completely upon quotations from the works of Ellis himself- quotations significant in themselves, but revealing nothing new to any of us who have drunk deep at the spring of wisdom which Havelock Ellis has liberated to irrigate the arid wastes of our Anglo-Saxon world.
But before proffering even these tentative criticisms of Mr. Peterson’s significant biography, we must first express unqualified admiration for the thoroughness which he has documented himself, and for the keen incisive scholarship which has gone into the creation of this book. Instead of carping on its limitations, let us rejoice in the painstaking preparation, the indefatigable research, and the skilful reconstruction fo a life, fascinating and unique in every phase, which this volume reveals to us.
The heredity, the birth, the development of the boy and his early blossoming into a grave maturity, are all recounted with a distinct narrative gift, and practically never with any slurring of the significant steps onward. The excerpts from the early notebooks and diaries, which Havelock Ellis began at the age of ten, are especially interesting. They reveal the remarkable precocity of genius. His admirations and his enthusiasms during his adolescence were indeed immature, but already he was able to articulate and express his thoughts with unclouded clearness.
Mr. Peterson makes us realize that this son of a British sea-captain inherited much of the valiant courage of a race of mariners. Resolutely he dared to voyage alone through uncharted seas of forbidden research. With the uncanny self-reliance of genius, he decided upon this life-voyage when he was a lad scarcely past sixteen. “He would explore the dangerous ocean of sex and perhaps find for humanity an Earthly Paradise!” So exclaims Mr. Peterson, in relating that early decision of young Henry Havelock Ellis, adding Ellis’s own testimony to the effect that he never deviated form this adolescent resolution: “... in all that I have done, that resolve has never been very far from my thoughts.” In 1926 Ellis commented further: “I am sure that I never for a moment anticipated that my efforts in that direction would arouse so wide an echo in the world.”
The far-flung schemes of adolescence, the biographer sagely point out, are often little more than laughable, but here was the decision of a sixteen-year-old, destined to be carried out through a long lifetime. The only satisfactory explanation, I believe, can be discovered when we realize that, like all authentic geniuses, the lonely sixteen-year-old youth, strolling under the feathery eucalyptuses of an Australian village, had developed intellectually and spiritually far beyond what is ordinary considered normal.
Particularly interesting is Mr. Peterson’s account of Ellis’s early perusal of George Drysdale’s Elements of Social Science, and the support the youth found in that anonymous book for his own grave convictions regarding the importance of sex, and his conversion, before his twentieth year, to the doctrine of contraception.
Without wasting space to go further into the many fascinating details unearthed by this industrious biographer, let us recommend Houston Peterson’s book at once as sine qua non to everyone who looks upon Havelock Ellis as one of the outstanding heroes of western civilization. Having done this, and having thanked Mr. Peterson for his generous recognition fo ourselves and the BIRTH CONTROL REVIEW as a source of certain materials, we may turn to a consideration fo certain phases of this biography which please us less than the specific chapters we have noted.
Our criticism is not directed specifically toward this book; it is to all biographers which seek to portray a living man. Evidently in the preparation fo such an interpretation as the present, the biographer finds himself brought into much closer personal contact with his subject than when, in the first flush of enthusiasm, his decision to undertake a biography comes upon him. As he prepares his literary portrait, he is like a painter who must study the anatomy of his sitter, who must approach so closely that he sees details and defects and finally, as so often happens, temporarily loses his vision fo the inner animating spirit--of the movement behind that “liberation of a mighty spring.” The successful biographer must regain the thrill of his initial inspiration- he must not only study every phase of his subject, but must master his own relation to that subject.
With all his competence, and masterly scholarship, I cannot escape the feeling that somehow or other Houston Peterson has failed to sustain the stability of his relationship to Havelock Ellis. Facts he gives us in abundance--details of his life, his friends, his predilections. But after all, we are not so much interested in the elderly literary man who lives in Brixton, and does his own cooking, as we are in that living and eternal spirit who seems to dwell serenely above the limitations of time and space, whose radiance, like that of the life-giving sun, has penetrated beyond oceans and continents, and has performed miracles in creating hope and joy where despair and melancholy had existed before. I am not trying to indulge in poetic fancy. Before the advent of the radio, before the achievements of aviation, the message of Havelock Ellis--“broadcasted” despite the many obstacles put in its way- has been “picked up” in far-away corners of the earth, as innumerable letters from obscure people have testified. It is almost as though- to continue our analogy- provided with a receiving set, these sensitive minds had “picked up” a distant station, and from it had received a deep and beneficent message of human salvation. Those who have had this experience can never look upon Havelock Ellis as a mere mortal. Through him, as through Saint Francis, is irradiated the wisdom of divinity.
Houston Peterson will undoubtedly laugh at this “pseudo-mysticism.” But those of us who find in Ellis a god can never be quite satisfied with a realistic portrait, which, from a distance, slightly diminishes his true stature.*Havelock Ellis: Philosopher of Love. By Houston Peterson. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1928.
Copyright 2003. Margaret Sanger Project