Marble Faun

Santayana: The Later Years

by Daniel Cory
Braziller, 384 pp., $7.50

Despite its subtitle, this book is not a life study. Cory, who was Santayana’s secretary and philosophical disciple, offers little by way of character analysis. Neither does he report the opinions of others who knew Santayana or make an effort to relate his earlier years with the later ones. Santayana’s philosophy is hardly discussed, his intellectual development largely ignored. The book is simply an account of the Santayana that Cory knew between the years 1927, when they met, and 1952, when Santayana died. And yet it is entirely fascinating, vivid throughout, in places sad and moving. This is so because Cory had the piety or wisdom to let Santayana speak for himself, both in letters and conversations. Written to Cory over the period of twenty-five years and sewn together with a slight biographical thread, the letters alone make up 60 or 70 per cent of the contents. In effect, this is Santayana’s last book. It is by no means his least interesting.

In some ways, the writing is Santayana’s most personal and humane. At their meeting in 1927 Santayana was sixty-three, Cory twenty-two. Long since retired from teaching. Santayana was living in Rome, financially secure, peacefully harnessed to a routine of work and leisure, steadily producing the major books of his final years. From this splendid elevation in his life, Santayana was able to write Cory letters that are frank, intimate, freely revealing, and more authentic than many other pages for which Santayana is known. In the security of his relationship with Cory, how much more likeable Santayana appears than in the collection of letters to other people that Cory edited several years ago! There one often senses strain, affectation, even pettiness, as Santayana forces himself to acknowledge a gesture from some remote acquaintance, or tries to justify his existence before those who still count as authorities for him, or else rejects the arguments of an alien critic. Here, however, Santayana speaks his heart directly, boldly, with the simplicity that a great and lonely man might use in addressing a dedicated grandson. Even Persons and Places, also written in Santayana’s later years, lacks the immediacy of a real human being which rises from these letters to Cory. For in his autobiography, as in so much of his work, Santayana reveals his mind and hides himself. The persons and places that he had encountered are idealized in the autobiography, not in the sense that their impurities are denied, but rather in being raised to the level of literary and philosophical dignity, serving as a subject for reflection and the basis of wise generalizations. In this book, Santayana half-consciously, as if he knew what he was doing but preferred not to discuss it, allows himself to pose in his pajamas. It is now a clichà to speak of Santayana as a detached spirit trying to live as a human being; this is a myth his formal writings encourage for devious reasons of their own. To his one …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.