young man who went on the most extraordinary sporting journey of the
1850's, and who is the one indisputable genius in the history of American
games, Paul Morphy."
As anyone with even a passing interest in Paul Morphy knows, Morphy,
after easily demonstrating his superiority in Chess over the rest of the
world, retired from public play and eventually reached the point of
abandoning Chess altogether. His mental health gradually faded and he
exhibited many peculiarities.
Dizikes takes a holistic
view on this matter that seems both rational and proper. The main thrust
of his arguments, however, is that Morphy's decline was more attributable
to his environment that any other factors and in order to understand the
man, it's necessary to first understand his influences.
Morphy was a Creole. "Creole
society," Dizikes wrote, " represented a cluster of anomalies."
It was a small, closed
culture of people who for a time wielded almost autonomous power in
their limited area. This power led to a somewhat aristocratic, snobbish
and overbearing sense of self-importance as well as some peculiar
traditions. The small size of the culture left them vulnerable to the
masses that started populating the area and, while their influence
decayed, they still retained those same traits and customs which, stripped
of the clothes of power, stood naked and exposed to the world - but when
the real power was fading, maintaining the superficies was all that was
left. This is the situation into which Paul was born and raised. His
father's generation was possibly the last of the truly influential
Creoles. Paul was raised under the assumption of genetic and cultural
superiority as well as with a certain code social behavior.
Chess was never embraced in
America as it was in other countries.
"chess shared in the
general disapproval directed against sports and games: it was seen as
frivolous and wasteful. In addition, it had special disadvantages
peculiar to itself. The game seemed too difficult ever to be popular. It
also seemed effete, too closely associated with the idleness of the
Dizikes tells us that
Morphy's exploits gained him respect mainly due to Americans'
nationalistic impulses. If he had excelled in horse-racing or hunting,
that would have gained him respect in and of itself, but Chess only gained
him honor as the conqueror of the Old World. Or more simply put, Americans
respected the deed, but not the man. The idea that America had never
before bested it's European rivals in any arena made Morphy's exploits all
the more satisfying, but, that the arena was Chess and not some "real"
endeavor, or even some "real" sport, mitigated the effect somewhat and
made Morphy himself forgettable once the effect wore off.
"True, in a moment of
nationalistic fervor Americans had made a fuss about Morphy, but in the
uproarious jingoism of the 1850's, Holmes, Lowell, and all the rest
toasted him mainly because he had trounced the foreigners. Paul Morphy’s
success, like that of the other sportsmen of this decade, was most
interesting to Americans as an episode in cultural foreign relations."
After Morphy repudiated
public Chess, his presence slipped from the national consciousness and
eventually, to some degree, from that of the Chess community.
"All that remained now of his fame as a
chess player was the memory of the great journey a quarter of a century
earlier. Outside New Orleans he was only a name, and even that was
half-forgotten. His walks and the opera were all that occupied his
interest. Or were they? Morphy once told a friend that he had a
chessboard and pieces close at hand. And he apparently kept up with some
aspects of contemporary chess. One wonders if he was aware, in 1874, of
the death of Howard Staunton, on June 22, his own birthday?"
It was a long fall from being a man,
considered one of the true geniuses of the 19th century, who
was admired mainly for his mental capabilities and his impeccable behavior
to a shell of the former man, pitied for his mental incapacitation and his
peculiar behavior. With no cataclysmic cause for such a reversal, the
reasons for this mystery have become a source of speculation throughout
the years. Some people follow H. J. R. Murray's (author of "A History of
Chess) thought that Morphy “fell into a settled melancholy with which
chess had nothing to do.” Other's, like Ernest Jones (author of
The Problem of Paul Morphy),
believe that chess had everything to do with Morphy's mental decline.
Ernest Jones' approach was
purely Freudian with implications of latent homosexuality and Oedipal
desires. Jones projected Morphy's failure to engage
Howard Staunton, a symbol in Morphy's mind of
the authoritative father, in a match as being later manifested through
Morphy's inability to cope with the adult world and his complete
dependence on his mother.
"He insisted that in
seeking validation of the manliness and maturity of chess, Paul had the
support of his mother, who in this respect opposed his father; given
Jones’s premise about rivalry of father and son, this was to be
expected. But such bits of evidence as we have offer little support for
this interpretation, which mistakes the nature of Thelcide Morphy's
influence and vastly underrates it." [Dizikes]
Dizikes carries the idea
even a step further indicating that all Paul's positive influences
throughout his life had been masculine influences. His father and his
uncle both taught and encouraged his chess play. His uncle even arranged
matches for stakes when Paul was still a child. That Paul went to the
1st American Chess Congress
so soon after his father died strongly suggests that such a thing was in
keeping with his father's wishes. Paul had positive feelings towards most
players with whom he came in contact: Löwenthal, de Rivière, Maurian,
Fiske, Meek, etc.
In The End of an Era: New
Orleans 1850-1860, Richard Reinders talks about the establishment of a
neo-Creole culture after the disintegration of the original Creole power
base. The object of this re-defined culture was to preserve Franco-centric
elements and to re-interpret the Creole history, downplaying their faults
while mythologizing their perceived superiority. Into this group that
began to take root after the Civil War fell several who used Paul Morphy
as a means to that end. Dizikes cites
Regina Morphy-Voitier (Life of Paul Morphy in the Vieux Carré of New
Orleans and Abroad)
and Louis Albert Morphy (Poems and
Prose Sketches, with a Biographical Memoir) as likely suspects.
(The First and Last Days of
Paul Morphy - written under the pseudonym "Constant Beauvais") also
falls into this group.
"'No society,' wrote Paul Morphy’s niece
many years later, 'was ever more exclusively select than that of the
Vieux Carré of New Orleans . . . based upon an aristocracy descended
from noble families of Spain and France.’ This note of snobbery sets the
tone of the social traditions within which Paul Morphy grew up."
Even Frederick M. Edge noted Morphy's aristocratic demeanor on a more
personal level in a letter he
wrote to D. W. Fiske in April of 1859.
"You know that any laborer in the South is regarded as a slave: he
has come so to think of me. I made the proposition to him to accompany
him to Paris as his secretary, etc., if he would pay my expenses, which
I would pay at some future day. He ultimately got to think me a nigger,
actually telling me one day, "you will write, you must write, you are
paid to write". No other man but myself would have forgiven him
that." [F. M. Edge]
Regarding the Civil War,
often mentioned as a contributing cause for Morphy's mental problems,
indicating that his mental health was directly tied to his financial
health, Dizikes wrote, "However much the Civil War interrupted the
progress of Morphy’s life and career, it cannot explain what happened.
Horse racing was devastated, and yachting was rendered impossible, but
chess playing could have continued had Morphy wished it; and it certainly
could have been taken up again when the war was over." Morphy's
abandonment of Chess had nothing to do with the Civil War, though the war
undoubtedly contributed directly to his financial situation and indirectly
to his state of mind.
In so many words, Dizikes
points out that a series of events, none of which had been seriously
entertained, put Morphy in a unique situation in a remarkably different
world than that for which he was prepared. First, his father died
unexpectedly and soon after, Morphy, who at first declined his invitation
to the 1st Chess Congress, became not only the most
celebrated chess player in America or even in the world, but in all known
history to that point in time - a position for which he was
temperamentally ill-suited. Yet, even in his crowning moments of glory,
his mother commanded him not to play in public. The Civil War came and
went as did the Morphy fortune and the one thing Paul could do better than
anyone else in the world, the one thing that could allow him to contribute
to the family's well-being, was forbidden for him to do.
"...New York led to
Europe, which was also impossible to refuse; and, astoundingly, Thelcide
saw her son come into an inheritance glorious beyond anyone’s imagining.
After that, nothing could ever be as it had been planned, or as it had
been before. What kind of an inheritance was it? As Thelcide saw it,
Paul came back crowned with chess glory but incapable of doing anything
with his laurels. He came back not because his mother commanded him to
do so but because he agreed that there was nothing else to do, no place
else to go. The South in which Paul Morphy lived was, for all its veneer
of gentility, a harsh and competitive place. The crown of Philidor was
worse than useless in a society where masculine prowess was so prized,
where the power to command was so nakedly based on force."
Morphy, a product of his
society, a society that had all but ceased to exist except in the minds of
those who live within its closed walls, wasn't prepared for the world at
large. But his own family circle, to where he withdrew from the outside
world, was even more restrictive. Without his father's more cosmopolitan
presence, Morphy was dominated by his mother who cared little for his
chess talent and appreciated even less his chess achievements. Dizikes
accurately pinpoints this and further repudiates Ernest Jones'
psychological profile of Morphy.
"Helena, the younger sister, never
married and always lived at home. Edward and Malvina married and left
home while their father was still alive. Paul and Helena did neither.
Thelcide maintained the house on Royal Street all those long years after
the death of her husband (she outlived him by twenty-eight years),
keeping Helena and Paul very close beside her. In that spacious,
rambling house, with its many rooms, she shared a bedroom with Helena,
while Paul slept in a room
immediately across the narrow hall. A later family member stated that on
his return from Europe, Paul Morphy solemnly promised his mother that he
would never again play chess for money or for any private stakes, that
he would never play a public game, or a private game in a public place,
and that he would not allow the publication of his name in connection
with any aspect of chess. Paul
Morphy could neither escape from nor destroy the queen on his side of
the board. Thelcide made her son ashamed of his playing, so he would
give it up. It was chess and chess alone that could in some measure free
him from the grasp of this imperious and possessive woman."
Thelcide Morphy never did
see the bigger picture nor did she ever truly appreciate the marvel of her
youngest son. In a sense, she stole not just Paul's chess playing but even
his mental equilibrium.
"From Thelcide's point of view, her son’s
triumphs must inevitably lead to a disastrous denouement. There remained
nothing for her to do but take care of him and protect him, wondering
all the while at the capriciousness of the gods who bestowed such gifts
on this perennial child of hers, who was at once both a son and a
puzzling stranger. A few days after Paul Morphy’s death, Thelcide Morphy
responded to the condolences sent her by the Manhattan Chess Club,
expressing gratitude that “a few superior minds have not forgotten
him, in this world where everything disappears so rapidly,” and
concluding with a touching reference to “that which was the glory of
the son and the everlasting grief of the mother.”