Friday, May 8, 2009

Biographical Speculations

I read a fair amount of modern literary biography, particularly of favorite subjects, so that when a new life or two of Johnson appears, as was occasioned this year by his tercentenary, I can't help but want to have a go. So far as Johnson is concerned, of course, the contest is lost before the challenge is taken up. But this doesn't mean interesting facts might still not have come to light since Boswell & Mrs. Thrale separately, and competitively, immortalized and memorialized, respectively, their great, good friend. When the life is big enough, there's always room in it to accommodate new visitors. But the most satisfying recent books on Johnson have all been more modest, taking on some period or peculiarity of his life, rather than trying to address the man entire. When the standard life becomes, in its own right, a famous work of literature, or, as in the case of Boswell's Johnson, becomes better known than any individual work by the biographer's subject, then it seems to me obviously best to spare one's self comparison with a masterpiece and tell only the stories neglected or unknown at the time of the superior work's publication. Obviously, any number of Johnson biographers disagree with me on this. I can't imagine what would induce anyone to set his or her own Johnson next to Boswell's. Whatever his errors or failures of research, Boswell will always be better. And yet on the Johnson scholars go, and on I go reading the latest biographies, or bits of them anyway. Any life of Johnson, it seems, is likely to be nearly as big, if not as the man himself, then at least as big as Boswell. Biographers, at least modern ones, seem rather hopelessly intent, if not on displacing the "standard life,"then correcting it, though in Johnson's case particularly, this seems to me a rather silly ambition. Whatever Boswell's faults, and I understand there are many, it is none the less Boswell's Samuel Johnson who lives, talks, thunders, walks, ticks. To correct his greatest biographer seems almost an attempt to correct Johnson, and that, as Boswell only too often tells on himself, is not done. Boswell's Dr. Johnson simply is Dr. Johnson, as much as Johnson is his own man, in his own books. All other biographers will always be supplementary. I, for one, am content it should be so, though I am also content that his other, later biographers should please themselves, if no one else, except myself, by trying. And at least the new books now usually come with rather wonderful color illustration.

And I have learned from later biographers of Johnson. My only real problem with most of them, and with one of the latest specially, has been the insistence that Johnson's Boswell did him some disservice in writing the life he did. The most common complaints are always of what Boswell left out; knowing too little of Johnson's early life, Boswell gave too much emphasis to the period in which the biographer knew his subject personally, after Johnson's major work, on his dictionary, etc., was already behind him, Johnson's sexuality was too discreetly handled by both Boswell and Mrs. Thrale, and his masochistic devotion to the latter was not acknowledged, despite compelling evidence of the physical expression of their unusual devotion to one another, and so on. All of this is interesting, and if that last, for example, turns out to be a little more seamy than than steamy,
I was not put off by it. What is off-putting is the notion, for certainly it is no more than that, that Boswell somehow, intentionally or otherwise, missed his man by not including this detail or that, or put his emphasis wrong. That's nonsense. Johnson is words, written and spoken. That is what a writer's life is. Johnson's writing we have, in abundance, if too little in print. Boswell gave us Johnson's conversation, and that we would not have had without the little Scots lawyer. We certainly would not have had so much of it, and so much that is as good or better than anything the great man wrote.

When the subject of a new biography has been less well served by past efforts, then I'm always thrilled to find some new biographer's attempt to right that wrong. The two most recent books on Hazlitt might, either of them, have been better had not their authors been convinced that to write a new "standard" also meant including every scrap and notecard, mistaking comprehensive biography for good biography. Biographers needn't be the equals of their subjects, but the idea of a dull writer writing the life of an brilliant one makes me goggle. Impudence, is what it is. But then I suppose, no writer, even an academic biographer, likes to think himself dull. He knows that his subject isn't, and if the subject is interesting, then...

How an earlier generation saw their way 'round this problem was to use their subject's own writing, particularly letters, as well as quotation from any and every source that might bolster the story, move things along, and provide additional character. It was once, in a more modest age perhaps, understood, when writing the life of a great wit, if the biographer was without similar facility, that his subject ought, wherever possible, be let tell his story, if not in autobiography, then in letters and literature and the memories of friends, and when correction had to be made, find someone who knew the subject intimately, someone reliable and reliably recorded as doing so, do it. The best biographies of earlier times tend to be made up more of quotation than speculation, even more perhaps than of research and facts. The idea being that we were intending a more extensive acquaintance with the subject, not with the biographer. A dull man may write well of a witty and interesting one, but only if the dull man does not presume too much on the affection of his readers for anyone other than the name in the title, rather than the name under it.

I should think there must be some way for the good editor of a dull writer, if not to disabuse the biographer of his self-importance, -- in some cases so serious as to constitute delusions -- and force the writer to organize his facts according to their potential interest as well as relevance not to a theme or theory, but to the story, to the life, or failing that, then at least to reduce their size and weight, and so spare the reader both speculation and repetition, the two great drags on modern biography. Boswell may well be the progenitor of the all-inclusive, his book running to unprecedented length, but then Boswell had his own peculiar genius, for using even the most commonplace details, even the most seemingly irrelevant digressions and repetitions, to build always up, like a mason. Modern biographers tend to operate more like carpenters, or whittlers, and end up, often as not, with so much sawdust. Had Boswell had a better editor supervising his construction, he might not have overbuilt as badly as he did, though the whole structure might not have ended up as magnificent as it is. A modern editor is, if anything, far more necessary if for nothing else than to prevent the clutter that seems to come from chipping away at reputation in order to somehow get to something shaped to the biographer's purpose, however thin and brittle that premise might be under all that wasted energy and pulp. ( But then again, editors must be dull in about equal number to the population of dull if publishable biographers, based on the evidence of the vast number of dull books put out by respectable publishers per annum, presumably with the not unlikely hope of dull books finding their deserving small and dull readership. But really, this sort of thing ought to be kept within the confines of academia, where dull people may quite respectably entertain each other in journals, seminars and classrooms, leaving the writing of real books to better writers.)

It's a mystery to me, in this age of conservation and digital media, that any living tree should be cut down for the use of any living professor of literature at Yale, let alone The State University of West Kentucky, but let that pass.

I've found good reasons for choosing minor biography by a major author in preference to most new literary biography of long dead writers. Reading Irving's life of Goldsmith, for example, was a pleasure front to back. I was however well aware of Irving's own Dutch disapproval of Goldsmith's Irish profligacy, to use the antiquated terms of Irving's own time, and I saw that while Irving clearly loved and respected his subject, he did not approve of him. No matter. Irving was a funny and generous man, and a serious writer, if too often clownish, in the popular style of his day. And Irving was an accomplished biographer, and well suited to his subject. Goldsmith was a clownish man, likewise generous, if much more to a fault, utterly without thrift or guile, and ultimately bankrupted by extravagance and envy. Goldsmith was the more accomplished writer, but he was also a hack, a boaster and bit of a fraud. It takes a broad sympathy and a genuine humility to not find him completely exasperating as a biographical subject. Irving had the heart for the job. Irving understood his man and was large enough himself, as was Goldsmith's true friend, Johnson, to forgive Goldsmith his many faults, even to find them endearing, being compensated for by Goldsmith's considerable genius, and his own good heart. Goldsmith was funny. His biography had to be too, if not quite in the same way, and Irving had the sense to let Goldsmith's best, his own writing, show the readers of Irving's biography, why even the worst ought to be forgiven him, and his best celebrated. Irving had the sense to quote Boswell's Johnson, for example, for this famous exchange between the friends:

"Walking one day with Goldsmith, in Westminster Abbey, among the tombs of monarchs, warriors, and statesmen, they came to the sculptured mementos of literary worthies in Poets’ Corner. Casting his eye round upon these memorials of genius, Johnson muttered in a low tone to his companion,

'Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis.'*

Goldsmith treasured up the intimated hope, and shortly afterward, as they were passing by Temple bar, where the heads of Jacobite rebels, executed for treason, were mouldering aloft on spikes, pointed up to the grizzly mementos, and echoed the intimation,

'Forsitan et nostrum nomen miscebitur istis.'”

That's the kind of thing that makes good biography. I wish it was more imitated than the length of Boswell's book.

*" With my own rusty Latin, I'd say this is "Perhaps one day our names will be here," a joke on both men's ambition, and their politics.

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