Mont Blanc Sideshow, The Life and Times of Albert Smith, by J. Monroe Thorington. 8 vo., 255 pages including appendices, bibliography and index, containing twenty-nine illustrations. Philadelphia. The John C. Winston Co., 1934. Price $2.50.
The author has written a biography of Albert Smith, set in the society and time in which he lived. The research evidenced, the picturesque flow of the narrative and the reproduction of interesting old prints leaves the reader feeling himself in the “Roar of the Crowd.”
The short outline of Smith’s life in the Foreword is an admirable “prologue to the omen coming on,’’ while the opening chapter contains the charming story of the childhood of “the boy who never grew up,” enthralled by dreams of romantic adventure and particularly by that vision which became the keynote of his life— the Great White Mountain.
The hero’s connection with Punch, his relations with Leech, Jerrold, Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, P. T. Barnum and othersare told, and how Thackeray is introduced to Barnum in New York by a letter from Smith. Smith has a hair-raising adventure in a balloon; he voyages to Constantinople and the Nile, and eventually to China.
Feminine climbers will realize the strides they have made in mountaineering accomplishments since Smith’s day when they read his comments of his trip (for it was scarcely more than that) to the Jardin: “Indeed we are told that, now and then, young ladies were found bold enough to make the attempt. How on earth (he might have added ‘on ice’) they contrive to traverse the Ponts, or climb the Couvercle, I cannot very well make out.” Smith was not a mountaineer of much experience, but in his day all paths had not been blasted out and made easier by iron stanchions.
Dr. Thorington tells in short space the story of Smith’s ascent of Mont Blanc in 1851. According to C. E. Mathews it was the thirty-seventh ascent of the mountain all by way of the Grands Mulets. Smith writes of this at greater length in his Story of Mont Blanc, a volume that Dr. Thorington says “mountaineers will read and re-read long after many another book of the high hills is forgotten.”
Does the author’s liking for his hero cause him to pass lightly over his foibles? One thinks that the quotation from Annals of Mont Blanc, that “scores of men who afterwards distinguished themselves in the exploration of the great Alps, first had their imaginations fired by listening to the interesting story told at Egyptian Hall,” must have been written in extenuation of the severe criticism which preceded it. It is certain that some of Smith’s statements do more credit to his ability as a showman than they do to “his taste exact for faultless fact,” yet he lived at a time when men were afraid to think for themselves and to say what they thought. Hence Smith’s method was a new departure and had more than its share of disapproval. He was the first one who refused to take Mont Blanc seriously, and it was due in large part to his influence that mountain ascents came to be considered “good fun.”
But that Smith was a great showman there can be no doubt. His Mont Blanc Show began in March, 1852, and, running for over two thousand performances, terminated only at his death, May 23rd, 1860. A link with the past is that Mr. Fresh field, atthe age of nine, heard the lecture and remembered the “absurd picture of the Mur de la Cote. I was very much disappointed ten years later by the reality.” Dr. Thorington carries us through these last years, making the show vivid by the remarkable accumulation of material industriously assembled and cleverly selected.