The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Biography I.



By William Roscoe Thayer

BIOGRAPHY is the key to the best society the world has ever had. By the best society I do not mean those exclusive circles, based on wealth, privilege, or heredity, which have flourished at all times and in every place. I mean the men and women who, by the richness of their talents or the significance of their careers, or, it may be, by some special deed, have emerged from the throng. One of the strongest instincts planted in us is our aversion to bores. Biography, as by a short cut, admits us to the fellowship of the choice spirits of the past four thousand years, among whom we shall find entertainment in endless variety. And not entertainment only; for entertainment is not the end of life, but its sweetener and strengthener.

To develop our talents for good, to build up character, to fit ourselves, like the cutwater of a ship, to cleave whatever seas of experience Fate may steer us into, to set ourselves a high, far goal and always consciously, through storm or shine, to seek that goal that is the real concern of life. On this quest biography shows the way by example.

Most of us have intervals of tedium or depression when we try to get out of ourselves. Or it may be some stroke of ill-fortune, some sorrow, some moral lapse, some desperate blunder, locks us up within ourselves as in a dungeon. Then biography comes to our rescue, and we forget ourselves in following the career of other men and women who may have passed through similar ordeals. The loneliness of grief loses some of its poignancy, the agonizing isolation which sin creates round the sinner is broken in upon by the knowledge that others have suffered or failed, and yet found strength to endure and to return.

Evidently, great fiction, whether it be in the form of drama, tragedy, or novel, serves the same purpose of taking us out of ourselves, by teaching us how imaginary persons plan and act, undergo joy or pain, conquer or fall. I do not wish to belittle any fiction which can justify itself by substantial charm or symbolical import; and as I shall discuss later some of the relations between fiction and biography, it will suffice to remark now that the highest praise that can be bestowed on the creations of fiction is that they are true to life. Achilles, sulking in his tent; Othello, maddened by jealousy; visionary Don Quixote, mistaking windmills for giants; Mephistopheles, Becky Sharp, Colonel Newcome, Silas Marner, and all the other immortals in the world of fiction live on by virtue of their lifelikeness. But life itself, and not its counterfeit, is the very stuff of biography.


One reason why biography dropped behind in the race for popularity with fiction is that it was taken for granted that the biographer must deal in eulogy only. His subjects were usually marvels—we may almost say monsters—of virtue. Most of us are so conscious of being a composite of good and bad that we are properly sceptical when we read of persons too pure and luminous to cast a shadow. We tolerate the pious fibs carved in an epitaph on a tombstone—the lapidary, as Dr. Johnson remarked, is not under oath; we discount the flattery of the avowed panegyrist, but when the epitaph or the eulogy is puffed out through a volume or two of biography, we balk and decline to read.

Lives of this kind are seldom written nowadays. They are too obviously untrue to deceive any one. Candidates for political or other office may connive at pen portraits of themselves which no more resemble them than Apollo; but these productions, like the caricatures of the day, are soon forgotten. In earlier times, even among English-speaking folk, laudation was the accepted tribute which the lower paid to the higher. Among monarchs, prelates, nobles, generals, poets, artists, or persons of the smallest distinction whatsoever, modesty could not be called a lost art, because it had never been found. And only recently a prime minister, equally cynical and subtly subservient, divulged that even he could not appease his sovereign's appetite for adulation. In general, however, it is now commonly the fashion to assume the virtue of modesty by those who have it not, and the professional flatterer finds fewer opportunities than formerly. Yet we need only glance at the biographies which have come down to us from the ages most addicted to artificial manners and speech in order to see that these, too, bear the stamp of sincerity. There is always the unconscious record, the expression or tone peculiar to the time, to betray them; and then, few writers have ever been cunning enough to dupe more than one generation—their own.

Nobody need forego the inestimable delights of biography from fear of being the dupe of some devious biographer. It requires no long practice to train yourself to sift the genuine from the false a branch of intellectual detective work which possesses the zest of mystery, abounds in surprises, and can be carried on at your own fireside.

So inevitably does temperament register itself that it cannot be concealed even in autobiography, which some persons unwisely avoid because they suppose that those who write their lives set out with the deliberate purpose of painting themselves as more wise or virtuous, clever or courageous, than they really were. But though any special incident narrated by a Benvenuto Cellini cannot be verified, the sum of his amazing "Life"[1] reveals to us Cellini himself, that perfect product of the Italian Renaissance in its decline—versatile, brilliant, wicked, superstitious, infidel, fascinating, ready to kill himself toiling to perfect a medal, or to kill a neighbor for some passing whim. Even Goethe, who wrote the most artificial of autobiographies, recomposing the events of his childhood and youth so as to give them sequence and emphasis that belong to a work of fiction, even he, Olympian poseur that he was, could not by this device have hidden, if he had wished, his essential self from us.

We may well dismiss, therefore, the suspicion which has sometimes hovered over biography. The best lives are among the most precious possessions we have; even the mediocre, or those less than mediocre, can furnish us much solid amusement; and there are many biographical fragments which reveal to us the very heart of their subject, as surely as a piece of ore-bearing quartz the metal embedded in it.


The delights of biography are those of the highest human intercourse, in almost limitless diversity, which no one could hope to enjoy among the living. Even though you were placed so favorably that you became acquainted with many of the most interesting personages of your own time, were it not for this magic art, which makes the past present and the dead to live, you would still be shut out from all acquaintance with your forerunners. But, thanks to biography, you have only to reach out your hand and take down a volume from your shelf in order to converse with Napoleon or Bismarck, Lincoln or Cavour. You need spend no weary hours in ante-chambers on the chance of snatching a hasty interview. They wait upon your pleasure. No business of state can put you off. They talk and you listen. They disclose to you their inmost secrets. Carlyle may be never so petulant, Luther never so bluff, Swift never so bitter, but they must admit you, and the very defects which might have interposed a screen between each of them living and you are as loopholes through which you look into their hearts. So you may come to know them better than their contemporaries knew them, better than you know your intimates, or, unless you are a master of self-scrutiny, better than you know yourself.

The mixed motives which we seldom dissect in our own acts can usually be disentangled without difficulty in theirs. Through them we discover the true nature of traits, fair or hideous, of which we discern the embryos in ourselves; and however far they rise above us by genius or by fortune, we see that the difference is of degree and not of kind. The human touch makes us all solidaire. Were it not so, the story of their lives would interest us no more than if they were basilisks or griffins, phantasmal creatures having no possible relations with us.

Just now I mentioned at random some of the very great statesmen and leaders in religion and letters, access to whom in the flesh would presumably have been impossible, but with whom the humblest of us find many contacts in their biographies. Often we are surprised by a thought or feeling or experience such as we have had and scarcely heeded, but which at once takes on dignity from being shared with the illustrious man. Still, the touchstone of biography is not merely greatness, but interest and significance; and herein it coincides with its twin art, portraiture. The finest portraits, assuming equal skill in the technique of their painting, are not of kings and grandees, but those which embody or suggest character. Queen Victoria's face, though a Leonardo had painted it, could never rivet the world's attention or pique the world's curiosity as Monna Lisa's has done. In ten minutes one has revealed the uncomplex and uninspired nature behind it; while after four hundred years the other still fascinates us by its suggestive and perpetually elusive expression.

So the lives of persons who were inconspicuous, measured on the scale of international or enduring fame, are sometimes packed with the charm of individuality. Such, for instance, is "The Story of My Heart," by Richard Jeffries. You may not like it—one friend to whom I recommended it told me he found it so exasperating that he threw it into the fire—but you cannot deny, if you are reasonably sympathetic, that it is the genuine utterance of a genuine man. Solomon Maimon's biography is another of this sort, in which we see an unusual personality shackled by the cruelty of caste. John Sterling had talent, but he died too young to achieve any work of lasting note; and yet, thanks to Carlyle's exuberantly vital memoir of him—which reminds me of one of Rembrandt's portraits—Sterling will live on for years.


These examples will suffice to prove that a great biography does not require a great man for its original; but it does require a great biographer. For biography is an art, a very high art; and, if we judge by the comparatively small number of its masterpieces, we must conclude that the consummate biographer is rarer than the poet, the novelist, or the historian of similar worth.

The belief that anybody can write a life is one of the widespread fallacies. As if anybody could paint a portrait or compose a sonata! When some notable person dies, it is ten to one that his wife or sister, son or daughter, sets to work to compile his memoir. The result, at its best, must present a partial, family point of view, hardly more to be trusted than the official biographies of kings and queens.

It was the public relations of the gentleman that warranted writing about him at all; but from his wife—doting, perhaps—or from his child—spoiled, possibly—we shall hear of him chiefly in his role as husband or as father.

Personal affection, devotion even, may be and usually is a handicap, which the family biographer cannot overcome. The wise surgeon does not trust himself to perform an operation on his dearest; neither should a biographer.

Knowledge, sympathy, and imagination the biographer must possess; these, and that detachment of the artist which is partly intuition and partly a sort of conscience, against which personal considerations plead in vain. Thus, although Boswell, the master biographer among all those who have written in English, felt toward Johnson admiration little short of idolatry, yet, when he came to write, he was the artist striving to make a perfect picture, and not the worshiper hiding his idol in clouds of incense. Sir George Trevelyan was Macaulay's nephew, and therefore likely to be hampered by family reserves; but in him the quality of biographer so far surpassed the accident of nephew that he, too, was able to produce a biography which portrays Macaulay as adequately as Boswell's portrays Johnson.

Such exceptions simply prove the rule: detachment—which ensures fairness—and knowledge, sympathy, and imagination—uniting in a faculty which we may call divination—are indispensable.


The taste for biography, if it be not born in you, is quickly acquired. Many and many a person has had it first aroused in boyhood by Franklin's "Autobiography,"[2] that astonishing book, which enchants you when you are young by its simplicity and its teeming incidents, and holds you when you are old by its shrewdness, its tonic optimism, its candor, its wisdom, its humor. Franklin has done for himself what Defoe did for the fictitious Robinson Crusoe; but his sphere was as wide as Crusoe's was confined. Follow his fortunes and you will soon be swept into the main currents of history, not in Philadelphia or the Colonies only, but in Europe. And after you have digested the information which Franklin provides so naturally, you will recall again and again the human touches in which his book abounds: his remarks on his marriage: his confession that, when he began to take an account of stock of his moral condition he found himself much fuller of faults than he imagined; his admission that he acquired the appearance of humility though he lacked the reality; the irony of his report of Braddock's conversation;—but to mention its characteristic passages would be to epitomize the book. Each reader will have his favorites and when he reaches the end of the fragment, with its unfinished sentence, he will regret to part from such a mellow companion. What a treat the world missed because Franklin died before he had narrated his experiences between 1775 and 1785, that decade when, we may truly say that, if Washington was the Father, Franklin was the Godfather of his country.

Perhaps, however, you were led into biography through other channels. The life of Napoleon or of Cæsar, of some painter, poet, man of letters, inventor, or explorer, may have been the first to attract you; but the outcome will be the same. You will feel that you have gained a new companion, as real as your flesh-and-blood intimates, but wittier, wiser, or more picturesque than they; a friend whose latchstring is always out for you to pull; a crony who will gossip when you desire, who will never desert you nor grow cold nor yawn at your dulness, nor resent your indifference. For the relation between you is wholly one-sided. His spirit is distilled in a book, like some rare cordial in a flask, to be enjoyed or not according to your mood. He bestows his all—himself: but only on condition that you supply the perfect sympathy requisite for understanding him.

This relationship between the reader and the dead and gone who have perpetuated themselves in literature is absolutely unique. In all other affairs there must be reciprocity, the interplay of temperaments, the stress of moral obligation; but in this transaction the author gives all, and the reader takes all (if he can) without thought of making returns, and without incurring the imputation of being a sponge or a parasite. If you are a free man, no intermediary stands between you and the author who draws you or repels you according to the subtle laws of affinity. Rarely, rarely among the living is that condition for ideal companionship realized.


Because of the unique terms which exist between author and reader, we associate with sinners not less than with saints, and are unburdened by a sense of responsibility for their acts. In daily life few of us, happily, come face to face with perverts and criminals; but through biography we can, if we will, measure the limits of human nature on its dark side in the careers of such colossal reprobates as Cæsar Borgia and his father; or monsters of cruelty like Ezzelino and Alva; or traitors, spies, and informers, from Judas to Benedict Arnold and Azeff; or of swindlers and more common scoundrels, George Law and [[w:Alessandro Cagliostro}Cagliostro]] and latter-day "promoters," and that peculiarly offensive brood—the pious impostors.

In the long run, however, we make our lasting friends among those who are normal but not commonplace, who seem to carry our own better traits to a degree of perfection which we have not attained, or who have qualities which we lack but envy. Unlikeness also is often a potent element of charm. I recall a frail little old lady, the embodiment of peace, so gentle that she could not bear to have a fly harmed, who devoured every book about Napoleon and seemed almost to gloat over the details of his campaigns. Conversely, more than one great captain has concentrated his reading in one or two books of religion.

Having entered the realm inhabited by those who live through the magic of biography, we cannot dwell there long without meeting friends for whom we have sought in vain among our actual associates. In finding them we often find our best selves. They comfort us in our distress, they clarify our doubts, they give fresh impetus and straight aim to our hopes, they whisper to us the mystic word which unfolds the meaning of life; above all—they teach us by example how to live. Then we feel that our gratitude is barren and unworthy unless it spurs us to emulation. Unenviable indeed is he whose heart never

ran o'er
With silent worship of the great of old!
The dead but sceptered sovereigns, who still rule
Our spirits from their urns.

No matter what his creed may be, no man is so self-sufficient and original as not to be under the sway, whether he acknowledges it or not, of dead but sceptered kings; and biography brings them nearer to us and humanizes them, and thereby adds to the pertinence of their teaching. These are the supreme benefits conferred by biography; but as no healthy soul lives continuously in a state of ecstasy, so there are many moods in which we turn to other companions than the prophets. We require relaxation. Our intellect not less than our spirit craves its repast. Honest amusement is its own justification. Biography offers the widest possible choice for any fancy.


One of the surest ways to secure unfailing pleasure is to naturalize yourself as a member of some significant group. Take, for instance, Dr. Johnson and his circle. Having disclosed to you the imperishable Doctor, Boswell will whet your curiosity as to the scores of persons, great and small, who figure in the biography. You will go in pursuit of Sir Joshua Reynolds and of Garrick, of Goldsmith and of Burke: and you will soon discover that a mere bowing acquaintance with any of these will not satisfy you. When Gibbon enters the scene, you will be drawn to his autobiography. Chatham and Fox, North and Sheridan, must all be investigated. You will wonder why the other members of the Club unite in declaring Beauclerk the peer of the best of them in wit; and after much digging, you will conclude that, for lack of other evidence, you must accept Beauclerk on the strength of their commendation. As your circle widens, it will take in Fanny Burney—whose memoirs are so much more readable now than her "Evelina"; Mrs. Thrale—that type of the eternal feminine, whose mission it is to cheer Genius by appreciating the man in whom it dwells; Mrs. Montague, the autocratic blue-stocking, who made and unmade literary reputations; and many others, from Paoli the vanquished patriot of Corsica to Oglethorpe the colonizer of Georgia.

The material for knowing Johnson's group is extraordinarily rich. It consists not only of formal biographies and histories, but of letters, recollections, diaries, anecdotes, and table talk which are often the very marrow of both history and biography. You cannot exhaust it in many seasons. Horace Walpole alone will outlast any fashion. Little by little you will come to know the chief personages in youth and in age, from every point of view. You can watch them develop, or trace the interactions of one upon the other. The minor folk also will become real to you—Lovett, the trusty servant, and the old ladies with whom the Doctor drank tea, the chance frequenters of the coffeehouses where he thundered his verdicts on books and politics, the pathetic derelicts whose old age he solaced with a pension. You will experience the pleasure of filling gaps in the dramatis personæ and the stage setting, or in discovering a missing link of evidence. And so at last you can mix with that company at will. No matter what the cares and torments of your day, at evening you can enter their magic city, forget your present, and follow in imagination those careers which closed in time so long ago, but live on with undimmed luster in the timeless domain of the imagination. And during all this delightful exploration, you have been learning more and more about human nature, the mysterious primal element in which you yourself have your being.

Instead of the province over which Dr. Johnson rules, you can choose from among many others. Take up the Lake School of poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats—the mid-Victorian statesmen and men of letters—the founders of our Republic—Emerson and his contemporaries—and by the same method you will find your interest wonderfully enhanced. It is not the surface of life, but its depth and height that it behooves us to know; and we can get this knowledge vicariously from those who have soared highest or dropped their plummet farthest into the unfathomable deeps.


Autobiography is an important and often very precious product of biography. The common prejudice, that because it is egotistical it must be tedious, does not hold water. The impulse toward self-expression exceeds all others save the instinct of self-preservation. The artist blessed with great talent expresses himself through that talent, whether it be painting or sculpture, literature or eloquence. Let him strive never so hard to be impersonal, the tinge of his mind will color it; the work is his work. Men of pure science discover abstract laws by experimenting with material sterilized as far as possible from any taint due to a personal equation; but this does not lessen our interest in them as human beings. Far from it. We are all the more curious to learn how men, subject to our passions, contradictions and disabilities, have succeeded in exploring the passionless vastitudes of astronomy and the incomputably minute worlds of atoms and electrons.

We rejoice to find Darwin worthy of being the prophet of a new dispensation—Darwin, the strong, quiet, modest man, harassed hourly by a depressing ailment, but patient under suffering, and preferring truth to the triumph of his own opinions or to any other reward.

If self-conceit, or egotism, be rather too obtrusive in some autobiographies, you will learn to bear it if you regard it as a secretion apparently as necessary to the growth of certain talents as is the secretion which produces the pearl in the oyster. If a pearl results, the pearl compensates. And, after all, such conceit, like the make-believe of little children, is too patent to deceive us. It is the thought that they are trying to humbug us into supposing them greater than we know them to be that irritates us in the conceit of little men. But since conceited men have been great, even very great, although this blemish in them offends us, it ought not to blind us to their other positive accomplishments! And how much harmless amusement we owe to such unconscious humorists! When Victor Hugo grandly announces: "France is the head of civilization; Paris is the head of France; I am the brains of Paris," are we seized with a desire to refute him? Hardly. We smile an inward smile, too deeply permeating and satisfactory for outward laughter. So Ruskin's inordinate vanity in "Præterita" cannot detract from the iridescent beauties of that marvelous book; it seems rather to be the guarantee of truthfulness.

Whatever may be your prepossessions, you cannot travel far in the field of biography without recognizing the value, even if you do not feel the fascination, of autobiographies, of which in English we have a particularly rich collection. I have spoken of Franklin's, to which Gibbon's may serve as a pendant. It discloses the eighteenth-century cosmopolite, placid, rational, industrious, a consummate genius in one direction, but of tepid emotion; who immortalized in a single line his betrothal which he docilely broke at his father's bidding: "I sighed as a lover," he writes, "but I obeyed as a son."

Halfway between the man of pure intellect, like Franklin and Gibbon, and the man of sentiment, comes John Stuart Mill,[3] in whom the precocious development of a very remarkable mind did not succeed in crushing out the religious craving or the life of the feelings. Newman's "Apologia," largely occupied in the vain endeavor to transfuse the warm blood of the emotions into the hardened arteries of theological dogmas, stands at the other extreme in this class of confessions.

Contrast with it John Woolman's "Journal,"[4] the austerely sincere record of a soul that does not spend its time in casuistical interpretations of the quibbles propounded by mediæval theologians, but dwells consciously in the immediate presence of the living God.

Our only quarrel with Woolman is that, owing to his complete other-worldiness, he disdains to tell us facts about himself and about his time that we would gladly hear.

In other fields there is equal abundance. Many soldiers have written memoirs; enough to cite General Grant's, to parallel which we must go back to Cæsar's "Commentaries." Authors, poets, men of affairs, the obscure and the conspicuous, have voluntarily opened a window for us. From Queen Victoria's "Leaves from a Journal," to Booker T. Washington's "Up from Slavery," what contrasts, what richness, what range!

And in other lands also many of the pithiest examples of human faculty are to be sought in autobiographies. To Benvenuto Cellini's life I have already referred. Alfieri, Pellico, Massimo d'Azeglio, Mazzini, Garibaldi are other Italians whose self-revelations endure. The French, each of whom seems to be more conscious than men of other races that he is an actor in a drama, have produced a libraryful of autobiographies. At their head stands Rousseau's "Confessions," in style a masterpiece, in substance absorbing, by one of the most despicable of men.


In the larger classification of literature, biography comes midway between history and fiction. One school of historians, indeed, unwilling to cramp their imaginations into so mean a space as a generation or a century, reckon by millenniums and lose sight of mere individuals. They are intent on discovering and formulating general laws of cosmic progress; on tracing the collective action of multitudes through long periods of time; on watching institutions evolve. In their eyes, even Napoleon is a "negligible quantity."

I would not for a moment disparage the efforts of these investigators. Most of us have felt the fascination of moving to and fro over vast reaches of time, as imperially as the astronomer moves through space. Such flights are exhilarating. They involve us in no peril; we begin and end them in our armchair; they attach to us no responsibility. The power of generalizing, which even the humblest and most ignorant exercise daily, sheds upon us a peculiar satisfaction; but we must not value the generalizations we arrive at by the pleasurableness of the process. Counting by the hundred thousand years, individual man dwindles beyond the recall of the most powerful microscope. So we may well disregard an aeon or two in speculating on the rate of progress between oligocene and neolithic conditions. But after mankind have plodded out of geology into history there is nothing more certain than that the masses have been pioneered by individuals. You can prove it wherever two or more persons meet—one inevitably leads.

As the race emerged from barbarism, the number and variety of individuals increased. Men in the mass are plastic; or, to change the figure, they are like reservoirs of latent energy, awaiting the leader who shall apply their force to a special work. In many cases the great man is far from being the product of his time, but he has some interior and unborrowed faculty for influencing, controlling, we may even say hypnotizing, his generation. It is idle to suppose that a Napoleon can be explained on the theory that he is the sum of a hundred, or ten thousand, of his average French contemporaries. He shared certain traits with them, just as he had organs and appetites common to all normal men; but it was precisely those uncommon attributes which were his and not theirs that made him Napoleon.

We may safely cultivate biography, therefore, not merely as an adjunct of history, but as one of history's mighty sources. In proportion as the materials concerning a given period or episode abound, it becomes easier to trace the significance of the great men who directed it—easier and most entrancing, for in this detective work we are shadowing Destiny itself. We see how some apparently trivial personal happening—Napoleon's lassitude due to a cold at Borodino, Frederick the Second's seasickness on starting on his crusade, McDowell's cholera morbus at the first battle of Bull Run—was the hazard on which Fate hung the issue of history. We see, further, that men and women are not abstractions—that what we regard as laws in human evolution are the result of the motives and deeds—motives and deeds—of human beings; and that a flaw or twist in a single individual may break the current of development or deflect it into an unexpected channel.

The lives of state builders and of state preservers and pilots offer, accordingly, a double attraction: they show us history at those moments when, ceasing to be abstract and impersonal, it turns upon us recognizable human features and works through the heart and brain of highly individualized genius. They show us also biography, when individual genius becomes so powerful that it diffuses itself through multitudes, yet is never more truly itself than in this diffusion.


On the other hand, biography touches fiction at many points. Novelists discovered long ago the allure which any period except the present—for the present has always been Time's black sheep—exerts over the imagination.

The three-legged stool was only that and nothing more to our Puritan ancestors; now it is a piece of old Plymouth or old Salem, glorified by that association, and by the possibility that Governor Bradford or Priscilla Mullens may have sat on it. There lies the spell which historical novelists have cast with stupendous effect; and, having the environment, they introduce into it the historical personages who once belonged there.

The novelist, by his trade, may take or reject what he pleases; so that, if he finds the facts of history intractable, he may change or omit them. Or, since his deepest interest, like the biographer's, is in persons and the unfolding of character, he may achieve a lifelike portrait. At best, however, historical personages, as they appear in fiction, can never escape from the suspicion of being so far modified by the novelist that they are no longer real.

As to the larger question of the relative value of fiction and biography, we would not dogmatize. We would no more promote biography by abolishing fiction—if it were possible—than we would magnify sculpture by dwarfing painting. And yet, if talents equal to those of the foremost novelists had been or were devoted to writing biography, the popularity—at least among cultivated readers—of the two branches of literature might be reversed. As I have said, the utmost achievement for the novelist is to create an illusion so perfect that the characters in his books shall seem to be real.

In other words, so far as concerns reality, the novelist leaves off where the biographer begins. And if the novelist has an apparent advantage in dealing with unruly facts, he is under the immense disadvantage of being restricted in his choice of characters. So true is this that, if all other records except the novels of the past century were to be destroyed, posterity five hundred years hence would have slight means of knowing the men and women through whom human evolution has really operated in our age. In no art has the process of vulgarization gone so far as in fiction. The novelist to-day dares not paint goodness or greatness; his upper limit is mediocrity; his lower is depravity, and he tends more and more to exploit the lower. An art which, pretending to mirror life, instinctively shuts out a large province of life—an art which boasts that it alone can display human personality in all its varieties and yet becomes dumb before the highest manifestations of personality—has no right to rank among the truly universal arts—painting and sculpture, the Elizabethan drama and biography.

All the myriad novelists writing in English since 1850 have not created one character comparable to Abraham Lincoln or to Cavour, nor have the romances imagined any hero to match Garibaldi. Or, to take contemporary examples, what novelist would venture to depict, even if his imagination could have conceived, a Theodore Roosevelt or a J. P. Morgan? For myself, if it were necessary, in a shipwreck, to choose between saving the Georgian novelists and Boswell's "Life of Johnson," I would unhesitatingly take Boswell.


Before concluding, let me recur to biography as an art. You cannot read far in this field without being struck by the great differences in the ability of biographers. One makes a brilliant subject dull, or a juicy subject dry; while a biographer of other quality holds you spellbound over the life story of some relatively unimportant person. Gradually you come to study the laws of the art; to determine how much depends upon the biographer and how much on the biographee; above all, to define just what portion of a given subject's life should be described. Remember that not a hundredth part of any life can be recorded. The biographer must select. But what? The significant, the individual, the revealing. How shall those be settled? By the judgment of the biographer. Selection and perspective are the sun and moon of all art, and unless they shine for him, his portrait will be out of drawing. When, for instance, the writer on Havelock devotes almost as much space to his piety as to his military achievement, you recognize the faulty selection; or when another describes General Grant's later misfortune as the dupe of a financial sharper as amply as his Vicksburg campaign, you have a fine example of bungled perspective. With practice, you will learn how to recover some of the true features of the victims of such distortions.

Comparison, the mother of Criticism, will help you to ampler pleasures. I have already suggested comparing Woolman's, Franklin's and Mill's autobiographies; but the process can be carried forward in many directions. You can investigate what matters were regarded as essential for a biographer to tell at any period. Plutarch, for instance, has left a gallery of portraits of ancient statesmen and soldiers.[5] Wherein would the method and results of a modern Plutarch differ from his? If Boswell, and not Xenophon, had written the familiar life of Socrates, what would he have added? What do you miss in quaint Izaak Walton's lives of Wotton and Donne and Herbert?[6] Do we really know Napoleon better, for all the thousands of books about him, than we know Caesar? How far does sameness of treatment in Vasari's "Lives" blur their individuality?

These and many other questions will stimulate you in any comparative reading of biography. They all refer to three deeper matters: differences in the skill of biographers; changes in the angle of curiosity from which the public regard celebrities; and, finally, the variation, slowly effectuated, in human Personality itself.

The outlook for biography never was brighter. Its votaries will practice it with a constantly increasing skill. The demand for veracity will not slacken. The public, grown more discerning, will read it with greater relish.

The fact that the persons and events whom the biographer depicts were real will lend to them an additional attractiveness.

Given life, the first impulse of life, the incessant, triumphant impulse, is to manifest itself in individuals. From the beginning there has never been a moment, or the fraction of a second, when the universe, or the tiniest part of it, became abstract. In the world of matter, not less than in the organic world of animals and plants, always and everywhere and forever—individuals! from atom to Sirius, nothing but individuals! Even in the protean transmutation of one thing into another, of life into death and death into life, individuality keeps pace with each changing stage.

Since the process of individualization is from lower to higher, from simple to complex, the acknowledged great men in history, or the persons who stand out from any mass, are endowed with unusual qualities, or with common qualities in an uncommon degree—an endowment which gives them more points of contact, more power, more interest, more charm. These are the men and women whom biography perpetuates. The master creations of fiction spring from the human brain; the subjects of biography are the very creations of God himself: the realities of God must forever transcend the fictions of man.

  1. Harvard Classics, xxxi; and cf. Lecture III, below.
  2. H. C., i; and cf. Lecture IV, below.
  3. H. C., xxv; and cf. Lecture V, below.
  4. H. C., i, 169ff.
  5. H. C., xii, and Cf. Lecture II, below.
  6. H. C., xv, 323, 373ff.