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Reading, Writing, And History
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
Readable as it is, however, it is necessary to know how many of these day-by-day accounts were actually set down at the time and how many of them were fixed a decade later to make them fit in with what Welles and everyone else then knew. The answer, as Mr. Beale has found it—and no one will need to do this particular job over again—is that Welles was fairly human. He could go back, later on, to make a comment look more perceptive, to give himself credit for a little more foresight than he could have had at the time, to touch up a characterization in the light of knowledge that came long after. His diary, as originally published, was in fact rather substantially revised—partly by Welles himself, and partly by his son Edgar, who went over it with John Morse, who wrote the introduction, and toned down certain parts that might have led to unpleasantness or, possibly, to libel actions. Welles, for instance, was opposed to strong drink, and when he saw statesmen or generals tipping the glass, and showing the effect, he wrote about it; most of which entries dropped out by the time the diary got into print. During the war Welles got a favorable impression of Grant, but he felt differently a bit later, and wrote that the general was “a wicked and bad man,” that he was “deceptive, cunning, ambitious and unreliable,” and that he had “low and vulgar instincts and tastes.” These comments vanished before publication date.
The Diary of Gideon Welles, edited, previous errors corrected, and with an introduction by Howard K. Beale. W. W. Norton and Co. 3 volumes, boxed. $28.50.
Now the thing can be seen as Welles originally wrote it, and it is possible to see what Welles himself added or changed in later years and what his literary executors and editors changed after he himself was gone. As source material for the historian, the text is at last set as straight as anything of this kind can be. Its interest for the general reader is enhanced at the same time.
All of which leaves Welles, as a diarist, precisely where? At the conclusion of his exhaustive preface, Mr. Beale sums it up:
Because Gideon Welles was accurate, fair-minded, and cool-tempered to an extent marvelous in his day, this diary is valuable beyond most diaries. Even after his later emendations are eliminated, Welles remains a remarkable judge of men, and the prognostications that he did make before he began revising leave him a man of surprisingly prophetic insights. As a judge of men and an observer of passing events, Welles is surpassed by few chroniclers.