Henry Salt, Humanitarian Reformer and Man on Letters

Henry Salt, Humanitarian Reformer and Man on Letters

GEORGE HENDRICK. Henry Salt: Humanitarian Reformer and Man of Letters. With special assistance of JOHN F. PONTIN. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1977. Pp. 228. $10.00.

George Hendrick's book has rightly brought Henry Salt (1851-1939) to our attention. Salt was a tireless reformer active in such causes as vegetarianism, animal protection, prison reform, pacifism, and socialism. He was a writer and literary critic who wrote two plays, numerous articles, translations, and books, among them studies of Shelley, Tennyson and Thoreau. And he was a friend of George Bernard Shaw, William Morris, and Edward Carpenter. Unfortunately, this is a thin work offering no new or significant interpretation of Salt, his work, or his times.

This book takes as its thesis a remark by George Bernard Shaw, that Salt "was original and in his way unique" (quoted, p. 6). On the contrary, the real interest Salt holds for historians is that in many ways he exemplifies middle-class Britain social reformers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A list of Salt's causes is an excellent starting-point for a list of humanitarian causes popular during his era. Other well-known reformers who shared some of Salt's enthusiasms were Annie Besant (vegetarianism), Edward Carpenter (return to the simple life), and Samuel Barnett (opposition to current animal-slaughtering practices). This being the case, it would have been useful had the book attempted to locate Salt in the intellectual and social context of his times and class rather than treating his as an isolated activist. If Salt has a unique position, it is perhaps that he championed a greater number of causes than did some of his contemporaries, or that he took up the particular combination of causes he did. But the author does not deal with either of these possibilities, nor does he make any comparisons between Salt and other reformers of the day.

On the positive side, the book brings forward Salt's hitherto neglected two plays by publishing them in the appendix. They are: A Lover of Animals, first published in 1895, and The Home Secretary's Holiday, first performed in 1902. Both are vehicles for Salt's humanitarian views and typify his use of literary forms for social causes. Thus, although George Hendrick's book has not supplied an interpretive framework, some of the material in it will nonetheless be of interest to those who study turn of the twentieth century social reform and literary trends.

Lois Nettleship

The American Historical Review, Vol. 83 No. 3, June 1978, pp. 730-731