The Inaccuracy of Accuracy

Now that the Dictionary of National Biography is at last completed, reports of inaccuracies are in order. “ Mistakes may have been made,” said John Morley, at the meeting celebrating the completion of the work. Now, by the law of averages applied to the percentage of inaccuracies in dictionary-making, is there not somebody to tell us just how many will be discovered ? Is it possible for accuracy at its best to bring forth aught that will not be inaccurate in a greater or less degree ? One of the most accurate of copyists — his specialty, facsimile reproductions of old annals like the Jesuit Relations — tells me that in his best moods he is sure to make one error in ten pages ; it may be only an accent mark, the omission of a comma, but there it is sure to be, once in so often. The average copyist, he says, makes one error in six pages. The publishers of the Oxford Bible, it is said, still offer a guinea for the detection of an error, and at least five a year are reported. All this cannot fail to be consolatory to those who, strive as they may to be faultlessly accurate, — say in writing history or in making a statistical report, anything that should be accurate before all else, — stand confounded by at least one blunder, the very one they would not have made for worlds. Great and famous is the company with which they stand, — the blunders of old masters the most amusing of all. “ I wish I could be as cocksure of anything as Macaulay is of everything,” said Lord Melbourne; and it was of his accuracy that Macaulay was proudest, — and then, under all the laurel that his History heaped upon him was that stinging charge of inaccuracy. Brilliant in style, marvelous in research, but inaccurate ! And that not alone in petty details, like the statement that the Duke of Schomberg was buried at Westminster, when he lay in St. Patrick’s, Dublin ; that Loftum’s men at the battle of Malplaquet were on the left of the Prince of Orange, when they were on his right; and that Marlborough dined, on some memorable occasion, at one, when it was at half past two. But more serious and proved inaccuracies were charged to the partisanship and exuberant imagination of the writer, “ making his statements in a great part deceptive.”

Why has no one ever given us a full compilation of the inaccuracies of Shakespeare ? I may as well divulge at once that I am making a collection of the Inaccuracies of the Famous, and would save myself as much labor as I can. I know of nothing so soothing, in the time of blunder, as turning over my collection. Shakespeare’s sending Hamlet to study at the University of Wittenberg long before Wittenberg was in existence ; giving seaports to Bohemia, lions to the Forest of Ardennes ; and the taking off of Richard Cœur de Lion by the Duke of Austria, — how comforting all this for a humble pen-driver in a historical way, when confronted in cold type by a mistake that cannot be laid to the printer !

“ Now that was a case of a vicious brain cell, of automatic cerebral degeneracy,” said my psychological friend, looking over my embryo collection, and reading what Keats wrote after spending a night with Chapman’s Homer : —

“ Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken ;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

No doubt it was a trick of a vicious brain cell that had trapped Keats into writing Cortez when he meant Balboa, suggesting an interesting classification for my collection. But it is among the autobiographies that I expect to find rare treasures, — in those statements, for instance, concerning the precocity of the writer’s childhood ; one prodigy asserting that he memorized the whole of Plutarch’s Lives before he was seven. It surely will be a formidable undertaking, — sifting the Inaccuracies from what should come under another head. “ In genuine autobiography,” says Mark Twain, “ it is impossible for a man to tell the truth.” He once induced the most accurate of men to write his autobiography, just to see if he would turn out a liar ; “ and he did,” the result pure romance.

For accuracy’s sake I have a niche for the Lies of Literature, and am greatly Interested just now in what I call “ the blessed lies of fiction,” — striking illustrations of what a lie may achieve when told from divine compassion, like that one of the bishop in Les Misérables, and that still more merciful lie in Kipling’s Thrown Away. The Lies of History, and its proved inaccuracies, I shall never dream of undertaking without the aid of some one skilled in historical research ; and such aid, they tell me, it will be impossible to secure, so frivolous is the end to be attained. And yet I believe that my collection may be in time quite as valuable as much now catalogued as indispensable for accurate research.