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WashingtoN, 27 Dec., 1845,
sition only of the current literature of the
J. Q. ADAMS.
LITTELL’S LIVING AGE.-No. 282–13 OCTOBER, 1849.
From Blackwood's Magazine.
Autobiography, when skilfully and judiciously done, is one of the most delightful species of composition of which literature can boast. There is a strong desire in every intelligent and well-informed mind to be made acquainted with the private thoughts, and secret motives of action, of those who have filled the world with their renown. We long to learn their early history, to be made acquainted with their first aspirations—to learn how they became so great as they afterwards turned out. Perhaps literature has sustained no greater loss than that of the memoirs which Hannibal wrote of his life and campaigns. From the few fragments of his sayings which Roman admiration or terror has preserved, his reach of thought and statesman-like sagacity would appear to have been equal to his military talents. Caesar's Commentaries have always been admired; but there are some doubts whether they really were written by the dictator; and, supposing they were, they relate almost entirely to military movements and public events, without giving much insight into private character. It is that which we desire in autobiography: we hope to find in it a window by which we may look into a great man's mind. Plutarch's Lives owe their vast and enduring popularity to the insight into private character which the innumerable anecdotes he has collected, of the heroes and statesmen of antiquity, afford.
Gibbon's autobiography is the most perfect account of an eminent man's life, from his own hand, which exists in any language. Independent of the interest which naturally belongs to it as the record of the studies, and the picture of the growth of the mind of the greatest historian of modern times, it possesses a peculiar charm from the simplicity with which it is written, and the judgment it displays, conspicuous alike in what is revealed and what is withheld in the narrative. It steers the middle channel so difficult to find, so invaluable when found, between ridiculous vanity on the one side, and affected modesty on the other. We see, from many passages in it, that the author was fully aware of the vast contribution he had made to literature, and the firm basis on which he had built his colossal fame. But he had good sense enough to see that those great qualities were never so likely to impress the reader as when only cautiously alluded to by the author. He knew that vanity and ostentation never fail to make the character in which they predominate ridiculous—
* Mémoires d’Outre Tombe. Par M. le Vicom TE DE CharEAveniaNd. 4 vols. Paris, 1846-49. CCLXXXII. LIVING AGE. vol. xxiii. 4
if excessive, contemptible ; and that, although the world would thankfully receive all the details, how minute soever, connected with his immortal work, they would not take off his hands any symptom of his own entertaining the opinion of it which all others have formed. It is the consummate judgment with which Gibbon has given enough of the details connected with the preparation of his works to be interesting, and not enough to be ridiculous, which constitutes the great charm, and has occasioned the marked success, of his autobiography. There are few passages in the English language so popular as the well-known ones in which he has recounted the first conception, and final completion of his history, which, as models of the kind, as well as passages of exquisite beauty, we cannot refuse ourselves the pleasure of transcribing, the more especially as they will set off, by way of contrast, the faults in some parallel passages attempted by Chateaubriand and Lamartine.
At the distance of twenty-five years, I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum. Each memorable spot—where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell—was at once present to my eyes; and several days of intoxication were lost, or enjoyed, before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation. It was at Rome, on the 15th October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing this Decline and Fall of the city first started to my mind. But my original plan was circumscribed to the decay of the city, rather than of the empire; and though my reading and reflections began to point towards that object, some years elapsed, and several avocations intervened, before I was seriously engaged in the execution of that laborious work.-(Life, p. 198, 8vo edition.)
Again, the well-known description of the conclusion of his labors:—
I have presumed to mark the moment of conception ; I shall now commemorate the hour of my final deliverance. It was on the day, or rather night, of the 27th June, 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page, in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias, which commands a prospect of the country, the lake, and mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all nature was silent. I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on recovery of my freedom, and perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind, by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion ; and that, whatever might be the future fate of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.-(Life, p. 255, 8vo edition.) Hume's account of his own life is a model of perspicuity, modesty, and good sense, but it is so brief that it scarcely can be called a biography. It is not fifty pages long. The wary Scotch author was well aware how vanity in such compositions defeats its own object; he had too much good sense to let it appear in his pages. Perhaps, however, the existence of such a feeling in the recesses of his breast may be detected in the prominent manner in which he brings forward the discouragement he experienced when the first volume of his history was published, and the extremely limited sale it met with for some time after its first appearance. He knew well how these humble beginnings would be contrasted with its subsequent triumphant success. Amidst his great and good qualities, there is none for which Sir Walter Scott was more admirable than the unaffected simplicity and good sense of his character, which led him to continue through life utterly unspotted by vanity, and unchanged by an amount of adulation from the most fascinating quarters, which would probably have turned the head of any other man. Among the many causes of regret which the world has for the catastrophes which overshadowed his later years, it is not the least that it prevented the completion of that autobiography with which Mr. Lockhart has commenced his Life. His simplicity of character, and the vast number of eminent men with whom he was intimate, as well as the merit of that fragment itself, leave no room for doubt that he would have made a most charming memoir, if he had lived to complete it. This observation does not detract in the slightest degree from the credit justly due to Mr. Lockhart, for his admirable Life of his illustrious father-in-law; on the contrary, it forms its highest encomium. The charm of that work is mainly owing to its being so embued with the spirit of the subject, that it may almost be regarded as an autobiography. Continental writers of note have, more than English ones, fallen into that error which is of all others the most fatal in autobiography—inordinate vanity. At the head of all the delinquents of this class we must place Rousseau, whose celebrated Confessions contain a revelation of folly so extreme, vanity so excessive, and baseness so disgraceful, that it would pass for incredible if not proved by the book itself, which is to be found in every library. Not content with affirming, when past fifty, that there was no woman of fashion of whom he might not have made the conquest if he chose to set about it," he thought fit to entertain the world with all the private details of his life, which the greater prudence of his most indiscreet biographers would have consigned to oblivion. No one who wishes to discredit the Genevese philoso
pher, need seek in the works of others for the grounds of doing so. Enough is to be found in his own to consign him to eternal execration and contempt. He has told us equally in detail, and with the same air of infantine simplicity, how he committed a theft when in service as a lackey, and permitted an innocent girl, his fellow-servant, to bear the penalty of it; how he alternately drank the wine in his master's cellars, and made love to his wife; how he corrupted one female benefactress who had sheltered him in extremity of want, and afterwards made a boast of her disgrace ; and abandoned a male benefactor who fell down in a fit of apoplexy on the streets of Lyons, and left him lying on the pavement, deserted by the only friend whom he had in the world. The author of so many eloquent declamations against mothers neglecting their children, on his own admission, when in easy circumstances, and impelled by no necessity, consigned five of his natural children to a foundling hospital, with such precautions against their being known that he never did or could hear of them again . Such was his vanity, that he thought the world would gladly feed on the crumbs of this sort which fell from the table of the man rich in genius. His grand theory was that the human mind is born innocent, with dispositions only to good, and that all the evils of society arise from the follies of education or the oppression of government. Judging from the picture he has presented of himself, albeit debased by no education but what he himself had afforded, we should say his disposition was more corrupt than has even been imagined by the most dark-minded and bigoted Calvinist that ever existed. Alfieri was probably as vain in reality as Rousseau ; but he knew better how to conceal it. He had not the folly of supposing that he could entertain women by the boastful detail of his conquests over them. He judged wisely, and more like a man who had met with bonnes fortunes, that he would attain more effectually the object of interesting their feelings, by painting their conquests over him. He has done this so fully, so sincerely, and with such eloquence, that he has made one of the most powerful pieces of biography in any language. Its charm consists in the picture he has drawn, with equal truth and art, of a man of the most impetuous and ardent temperament, alternately impelled by the strongest passions which can agitate the breast—love and ambition. Born of a noble family, inheriting a great fortune, he exhibited an uncommon combination of patrician tastes and feelings with republican principles and aspirations. He was a democrat because he knew the great by whom he was surrounded, and did not know the humble who were removed to a distance. He said this himself, after witnessing at Paris the horrors of the 10th August.—“Je connais bien les grands, mais je ne connais pas les petits.” He drew the vices of the former from observation, he painted the virtues of the latter from imagination. Hence the absurdity and unnatural character of many of his dramas, which, to the inhabitant of our free country, who is familiar with the real working of popular institutions, renders them, despite their genius, quite ridiculous. But, in the delineation of what passed in his own breast, he is open to no such reproach. His picture of his own feelings is as forcible and dramatic as that of any he has drawn in his tragedies; and it is far more truthful, for it is taken from nature, not an imaginary world of his own creation, having little resemblance to that we see around us. His character and life were singularly calculated to make such a narrative interesting, for never was one more completely tossed about by vehement passions, and abounding with melodramatic incidents. Alternately dreaming over the most passionate attachments, and laboring of his own accord at Dante fourteen hours a-day ; at one time making love to an English nobleman's wife, and fighting him in the Park, at another driving through France with fourteen blood horses in harness ; now stealing from the Pretender his queen, now striving to emulate Sophocles in the energy of his picture of the passions, he was himself a living example of the intensity of those feelings which he has so powerfully portrayed in his dramas. It is this variety joined to the simplicity and candor of the confessions, which constitutes the charm of this very remarkable autobiography. It could have been written by no one but himself; for an ordinary biographer would only have described the incidents of his life, none else could have painted the vehement passions, the ardent aspirations, from which they sprang. From the sketches of Gočthe's life which have been preserved, it is evident that, though probably not less vain than the French philosopher or the Italian poet, his vanity took a different direction from either of theirs. He was neither vain of his turpitudes, like Rousseau, nor of his passions, like Alfieri. His self-love was more of a domestic kind ; it partook more of the home-scenes of the Fatherland. No one will question the depth of Goethe's knowledge of the heart, or the sagacity of the light which his genius has thrown on the most profound feelings of human nature. But his private life partook of the domestic affections and unobtrusive rest in which it was passed, exempt alike from the grinding poverty which too often impelled the Genevese watchmaker's son into disgraceful actions, or the vehement passions which drove the Italian nobleman" into brilliant crimes. Hence his biography exhibits an extraordinary mixture of lofty feelings with puerile simplicity, of depth of views with childishness, of divine philosophy with homely inclinations. Amidst all his enthusiasm and effusions of sentiment, he was as much under the influence as any man of creature comforts; and never hesitated to leave the most lofty efforts of the muse, to participate in the substantial advantages of rich preserves or sweet cakes. This singular mixture arose in a great measure from the habits of his life, and the limited circle by which, during the greater part of it, he was surrounded. Living with a few friends in the
quiet seclusion of a small German town, the object of almost superstitious admiration to a few females by whom he was surrounded, he became at once a little god of his own and their idolatry, and warmly inclined, like monks all over the world, to the innocent but not very elevating pleasures of breakfast and dinner. Mahomet said that he experienced more difficulty in persuading his four wives of his divine mission, than all the rest of the world besides; and this, says Gibbon, was not surprising, for they knew best his weaknesses as a man. Goëthe thought, on the same principle, his fame was secure, when he was worshipped as a god by his female coterie. He had the highest opinion of his own powers, and of the lofty mission on which he was sent to mankind ; but his selflove was less offensive than that of Rousseau, because it was more unobtrusive. It was allied rather to pride than to vanity—and though pride may often be hateful, it is never contemptible. From the Life of Lord Byron which Moore has published, it may be inferred that the latter acted wisely in consigning the original manuscript of the noble poet's autobiography to the flames. Assuming that a considerable part of that biography is taken from what the noble bard had left of himself, it is evident that a more complete detail of his feelings and motives of action would have done anything rather than have added to his reputation. In fact, Moore's Life has done, more than anything else to lower it. The poetical biographer had thought and sung so much of the passions, that he had forgotten in what light they are viewed by the generality of men : he was so deeply imbued with the spirit of his hero, that he had come to regard his errors and vices as not the least interesting part of his life. That they may be so to that class of readers, unhappily too extensive, who are engaged in similar pursuits, is probably true; but how small a portion do these constitute of the human race, and how weak and inaudible is their applause when compared to the voice of ages What has become of the innumerable licentious works whose existence in antiquity has become known from the specimens disinterred in the ruins of Herculaneum ! Is there one of them which has taken its place beside the Lives of Plutarch 2 Whatever is fetid, however much prized at the moment, is speedily sunk in the waves of time. Nothing permanently floats down its stream but what is buoyant from its elevating tendency. Boswell's Life of Johnson is so replete with the sayings and thoughts of the intellectual giant, whom it was so much his object to elevate, even above his natural Patagonian stature, that it may be regarded as a sort of autobiography, dictated by the sage in his moments of abandon to his devout worshipper. It is hardly going too far to say that it is the most popular book in the English language. Johnson's reputation now mainly rests on that biography. No one now reads the Rambler or the Idler—few the Lives of the Poets, interesting as they are, and admirable as are the criticisms on our greatest authors which they contain. But Boswell's Life of Johnson is in everybody's hands; you will hear the pithy sayings, the admirable reflections, the sagacious remarks it contains, from one end of the world to the other. The secret of this astonishing success is to be found in the caustic tone, sententious brevity, and sterling good sense of Johnson, and the inimitable accuracy, faithful memory, and almost infantine simplicity of his biographer. From the unbounded admiration with which he was inspired for the sage, and the faithful memory with which he was gifted, he was enabled to commit to paper, almost as they were delivered, those admirable sayings which have ever since been the delight and admiration of the world. We almost live with the members of the Literary Club ; we hear their divers sentiments, and can almost conceive their tones of voice. We see the gigantic form of the sage towering above his intellectual compeers. Burke said that Johnson was greater in conversation than writing ; and greater in Boswell than either ; and it is easy to conceive that this must have been the case. The Life contains all the admirable sayings, verbatim as they were delivered, and without the asperity of tone and manner which formed so great a blot in the original deliverer. Johnson's sayings were of a kind which were susceptible of being accurately transferred, and with full effect, to paper, because they were almost all reflections on morals, men, or manners, which are of universal application, and come home to the senses of mankind in every age. In this respect they were much more likely to produce an impression in biography than the conversation of Sir Walter Scott, which, however charming to those who heard it, consisted chiefly of anecdotes and stories, great part of the charm of which consisted in the mode of telling and expression of the countenance, which, of course, could not be transferred to paper. But it is not every eminent man who is so fortunate as to find a biographer like Boswell, who, totally forgetful of self, recorded for posterity with inimitable fidelity all the sayings of his hero. Nor is it many men who would bear so faithful and searching an exposure. Johnson, like every other man, had his failings; but they were those of prejudice or manner, rather than morals or conduct. We wish we could say that every other eminent literary man was equally immaculate, or that an entire disclosure of character would in every case reveal no more weaknesses or failings than have been brought to light by Boswell's faithful chronicle. We know that every one is liable to err, and that no man is a hero to his valet-dechambre. But being aware of all this, we were not prepared for the immense mass of weaknesses, follies, and errors, which have been brought to light by the indiscreet zeal of biographers, in the character of many of our ablest literary, poetical, and philosophical characters. Certainly, if we look at the details of their private lives, these men of literary celebrity have had little title to set up as the instructors, or to call themselves the benefactors, of mankind. From the days of Milton,
whose divine genius was so deeply tarnished by the asperity of his feelings, and the unpardonable license in controversy which he permitted to his tongue, to those of Lord Byron, who scandalized his country and the world by the undisguised profligacy of his private life, the biography of literary men, with a few brilliant exceptions—in the foremost of which we must place Sir Walter Scott—consists in great part of a series of follies, weaknesses, or faults, which it would be well for their memory could they be buried in oblivion. We will not say that tile labors of their biographers have been the Massacre of the Innocents, for truly there were very few innocents to massacre ; but we will say that they have, in general, done more to degrade those they intended to elewate, than the envenomed hostility of their worst enemies. We forbear to mention names, which might give pain to many respectable persons still alive. The persons alluded to, and the truth of the observation, will be at once understood and admitted by every person acquainted with the literary history of France and England during the last century. Vanity and jealousy—vanity of themselves, jealousy of others—are the great failings which have hitherto tarnished the character and disfigured the biography of literary men. We fear it is destined to continue the same to the end of the world. The qualities which contribute to their greatness, which occasion their usefulness, which insure their fame, are closely allied to failings which too often disfigure their private lives, and form a blot on their memory, when indiscreetly revealed in biography, either by themselves or others. Genius is almost invariably united to susceptibility; and this temperament is unhappily too apt to run into irritability. No one can read D'Israeli's essay on The Literary Character, the most admirable of his many admirable works, without being convinced of that. Celebrity of any sort is the natural parent of vanity, and this weakness is in a peculiar manner fostered in poets and romance writers, because their writings interest so warmly the fair, who form the great dispensers of general fame, and convey it in the most flattering form to the author. It would perhaps be unjust to women to say that poets and novelists share in their weaknesses; but it is certain that their disposition is, in general, essentially feminine ; and that, as they attract the admiration of the other sex more strongly than any other class of writers, so they are liable in a peculiar degree to the failings, as well as distinguished by the excellencies, by which their female admirers are characterized. We may regret that it is so; we may lament that we cannot find poets and romancers, who to the genius of Byron, or the fancy of Moore, unite the sturdy sense of Johnson, or the simplicity of character of Scott; but it is to be feared such a combination is as rare, and as little to be looked for in general life, as the union of the strength of the war-horse to the fleetness of the racer, or the courage of the mastiff to the