The American Historical Review/Volume 23/Reviews of Books/Frederick the Great

Frederick the Great: the Memoirs of his Reader, Henri de Catt (1758–1760). Translated by F. S. Flint, with an Introduction by Lord Rosebery. In two volumes. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 1917. Pp. xl, 312; 344. $7.50.)

After Frederick the Great had separated from Voltaire through incompatibility of temper, and after he had thrown De Prades into a fortress on a charge of espionage, it was a Genevan Swiss, Henri de Catt, whom he selected as his literary crony. Officially Catt was the king's "reader"; actually he was his listener; for Frederick liked to follow the advice which he often gave to others that the best way to clarify one's own thoughts is to express them to someone else. Catt joined the king in camp in March, 1758, and for more than a score of years thereafter it was his duty, after dinner, to listen reverentially to his patron declaiming French tragedies, to correct and criticize his mediocre verse, to place adroitly sympathy or compliment, and to tell the king what his officers were saying about him. Great men, and even men not great, often have need of such retainers. Johnson had Boswell, Goethe had Eckermann, Byron had Moore, and so forth. Catt was a devoted admirer, but his incense was not of that gross kind, burned by others, which obscures the idol and defiles the worshippers.

During the bitter years 1758–1760, in which Frederick suffered at Olmütz, Hochkirchen, Zorndorf, and Kunersdorf, and in which he was bereft of his beloved mother, brother, and sister, Catt kept a very brief Diary of all conversations and journeys with the king. Many years later he artistically amplified the Diary into Memoirs. Neither the Diary nor the Memoirs were used by Carlyle, nor by any German historians to any extent until they were published by Koser in 1884. Mr. Flint's translation of the Memoirs, preserving something of the savor of the original French, is excellent. Either he, or Lord Rosebery in the charming estimate of Frederick and his Boswell, might well have warned the reader of the difference between the Diary and the Memoirs. The former, not here translated, consists of disconnected jottings and is wholly without literary form. It is of much value, however, to the meticulous biographer of Frederick, because of its unvarnished accuracy. The Memoirs, on the other hand, put together in pleasing narrative form, have doubtless much greater interest for the general reader, but are not quite so trustworthy. They betray a naive tendency on Catt's part to magnify his own importance. But the prominence which he assigns to himself is not always in harmony with his own statements in the Diary. When Frederick hears of the death of his brother, the Prince of Prussia, it is to Catt, according to the Memoirs (I. 187 ff.), that he at once pours out his grief; according to the Diary he was not called to see the king until four days after the sad news had come. In the Memoirs, Catt has also an eye for dramatic effect. For, according to the Diary, it was on August 14, 1758, that Frederick busied himself writing an improvement on Rousseau's Ode to Fortune; in the Memoirs (I. 286) Catt places this episode ten days later, on the 24th, so that it dramatically takes place on the eve of the battle of Zorndorf, and Catt is saying, "Yes, Sire, I doubt whether the generals whom you have to combat ever write verses on the eve of a battle."

Admitting, however, that there is a mixture of Dichtung und Wahrheit in the Memoirs, they nevertheless give a generally veracious, favorable, and intensely human picture of a really great man. They recount his foibles, jokes, hemorrhoids, poems, and persiflage. Often the weary head of the state would exclaim to Catt, "What a dog's life I have to lead!". He even had thoughts of resigning the crown to his brother, in order that he might retire to the literary delights of Sans Souci. Catt gives many amusing anecdotes illustrating Frederick's fondness for practical jokes on other people; but there are also plenty of stories evidencing the king's essential generosity and genuine solicitude for the welfare of others. Frederick frequently adverted to his miserable youth and his hard study for the tasks of life, but he seems to have had a more kindly appreciation of his father's severe character than one would gather from the pages of Carlyle or Macaulay.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1967, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 55 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.