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Dizikes Does Morphy
April 2006


    John Dizikes, Professor Emeritus of American Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz,  wrote a book, Sportsmen and Gamesmen, published in 1981, in which he examined, within a loosely interpretive concept of "games & sports," individuals, particularly from 19th century America, who somehow transcended the paradigms of the times and changed forever our understanding and appreciation for our pastimes. 
    One of these great individuals that Dizikes examined was Paul Morphy.  Despite his meticulous research, Dizikes made some errors - most of which can be attributed to his seemingly and almost inexplicable unawareness of Lawson's 1976 seminal work, Paul Morphy: the Pride and Sorrow of Chess. However, his ideas on Morphy, as well as his understanding of the world in which Morphy lived is rock solid, innovative and compelling.

"...a 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 aristocracy." [Dizikes]

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." [Dizikes]

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?" [Dizikes]

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. Léona Queyrouze  (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."   [Dizikes]

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."  [Dizikes]

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.” 


Dizikes concludes with the inescapable observation that -
"The wrong culture produced Paul Morphy. The one with everything left out brought him in."


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