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After reading this book in manuscript, a friend of mine, a man of excellent instincts and sympathies, offered what might have seemed a strange criticism, had I not known his predilections and half anticipated his reaction. “As I look back,” he writes, “I feel a little unhappy over having come through those [latter] chapters with so kindly a feeling toward Watson.” Believing that Watson, in some phases of his later life, became the embodiment of much that was detestable, my friend felt that his own better instincts had been betrayed into a false alignment of sympathies. Granting the damaging character of certain chapters, were they, after all, “sufficiently damning”? Were not the splendid battles of Watson’s early days overshadowed in importance by his later career, and should he not therefore be blamed for certain aspects of Southern society that both my friend and I deplore and condemn? The criticism started an exchange of philosophies, historical and literary, that led to a result somewhat rare in such transactions—an agreement. Only after I had explained my position in some detail, however, was my friend willing to withdraw his criticism and agree with me. In view of this fact we decided that I had best anticipate similar questions among readers of like mind. Readers of another class deserve an explanation. I refer to those whose impressions of Watson were fixed by the last ten or fifteen years of his career. They will likely be puzzled by the first part of the book, just as my friend was troubled by the last—and for much the same reason.
It is usually a truism to say that the life of a man contains paradoxes. To say this of Tom Watson, however, is to make the only broad generalization one can make concerning the man. His life was a paradox. Especially is this true when the two parts of his career, divided by the interval of eight years that began in 1896, are contrasted. One can not arrive at any fair or true judgment of Watson by considering either of these two aspects of his life to the exclusion of the other. When a liberal journal fastens upon Watson the responsibility for “the sinister forces of intolerance, superstition, prejudice, religious jingoism, and mob-bism,” it is indulging in half-truths as surely as does the veriest demagogue it denounces. The term “Southern demagogue” should be recognized for what it is, a political epithet. It does not contribute anything to our understanding of the men to whom it is applied. I hold no brief for men of this type, nor for Tom Watson in so far as he was representative of them. I do insist upon understanding them clearly. I do not believe it is accurate to blame Watson for the “sinister forces” already mentioned. To do so would be to assign him far too important a role, a role that belongs to the vastly more impersonal forces of economics and race and historical heritage. To do so, moreover, would be to miss at the same time the deep meaning of his story. He did not produce those forces: he was produced by them. They thwarted at every turn his courageous struggle in the face of them during his early Populist battles, and they led him into the futility and degeneration of his later career. This was what made his life a personal tragedy. Although I have not sought to impose the view upon the reader, I might confess here my private feeling that his story is also in many ways the tragedy of a class, and more especially the tragedy of a section.