Salt and His Circle
Times Literary Supplement, October 5, 1951
STEPHEN WINSTEN: Salt and his Circle. Hutchinson.
A hundred years have now passed since the birth of Henry S. Salt, who may be briefly described as the founder of the Humanitarian League and the author of numerous liberal biographies and reformist pamphlets. When Salt was born, two popular naturalists were living, old Charles Waterton and young Frank Buckland, both men of an entertaining independence and idiosyncrasy; and Salt may again be termed in brief a man of the school of Waterton and Buckland, or, more generally, one of the English eccentrics.
With considerable assistance from Bernard Shaw, who “was tempted at one time” to write a life of Salt but recoiled from the labour—for Salt live busily on until 1939—Mr. Winsten has put together a lively, sketchy book about the man whose own autobiography bears the title Seventy Years Among Savages. It contains, indeed, a prefatory piece by Shaw, enlightening on the domestic dissonances of Salt’s first marriage and other private histories, but bearing in its errors of fact and the thrusting forward of Shaw himself as the business in hand the marks of a failing mind. Mr. Winsten leaves this pathetic paper as he received it and adds corrections of its confusions, Herman Merivale for Melville, Cambridge for Eton and so on. On the other hand, he appends a memoir of Shaw by Salt where the mistakes are attended to in the margin by Shaw. It will be recalled that Salt celebrated the seventieth birthday of his friend with an epigram, summing up his future praise as delight
that wit so keen
Could flash from heart so kind.
In one way and another Mr. Winsten attempts to retrieve passages of Salt’s life and friendships in the form of conversations, and the movement once called “simple life” is thus presented with a comfortable air of intimacy. Salt’s friends were many and from many places, and the figure of Shaw or even Edward Carpenter does not monopolize the scene. Mr. Winsten even has the distinction of printing what has rarely been delivered to the common eye, a letter from Mr. Ralph Hodgson. Altogether, his book is a collection of personalia, and the writings of Salt come into it chiefly as they may be so regarded. The list of books which he published, given at the end, is rough and ready—it will serve for most purposes, but the bibliography of H. S. Salt was necessarily a mazy affair. It is easy to date his edition of part of Godwin’s Political Justice, 1929; the original date was 1890, but Salt might himself forget that.
Meredith once wrote to Salt that he observed him in the byways of the book world, and that the best work done by inconspicuous persons. At all events Salt wrote a vast quantity of occasional pieces, much of it in periodicals and especially propagandist periodicals. He was an old-fashioned author, content with making his meaning as clear as he could; he wrote his own funeral address, and we read there, “Names are very liable to be misunderstood; and when I say that I shall die, as I have lived, rationalist, socialist, pacifist, and humanitarian, I must make my meaning clear. I wholly disbelieve in the present established religion; but I have a very firm relation; but I have a very firm religious faith of my own—a Creed for Kinship. . . .” Salt’s Shelley Primer, one of his affirmations of a life’s devotion, has lasting merits, but avoids anything like high style even in reflections of the theme. Propagandist as he was, he had humour; attacking the meat-eaters, he was obviously pleased to do so by parodying a lyric of Shelley’s as “Cupboard Love’s Philosophy.” He took a hint from Defoe in publishing, ostensibly against his own side, The Brutalitarian, No. 1. His collection of verses Homo Rapiens is at once a plea for nature and wisdom, and an exercise in the art of amusing poetry. And yet, Mr. Winsten records, The City of Dreadful Night was his bedside book.