Epitaph and Biography

AFTER all, what is biography but extended epitaph ? Between the two, the obituary may be regarded as a sort of connecting link. But take the epitaph, pure and simple, as the seed of biography. Here are the dates of birth and death. If there is no more, surely it is sometimes because there is little more to say. If there is a list of the distinctions to which the dead attained, here, forsooth, is the framework for the biographer’s narrative. Append your text, “The memory of the just is blessed,” or whatever sentiment your fancy may prefer, and you have given the biographer the startingpoint for his eulogy, which nowadays he will possibly call an “appreciation.”

These seeds of biographic narrative and eulogy are sown, I admit, more sparingly in our later day than of old. The fashion of reserve has grown. So, too, has that leveling force which moulds men into one familiar pattern. If there is less diversity and individuality in epitaphs, so there is in men — and in biographies.

The analogy need not be pressed too hard to show that the epitaphs which men have written for themselves have the full flavor of autobiography as distinguished from biography. The honest man throws all his individuality into his epitaph. There is the true whimsical humor of Franklin in the colophon which the glorified printer proposed for the closing of his book of life. The pathos of Keats, with a name “writ in water,” rings clear in the phrase. Could anything be truer for Stevenson than his “This be the verse you grave for me ” ? Who more fitly than FitzGerald could have disclaimed every particle of responsibility, with his selection of “It is He that hath made us, and not we ourselves”?

These observations spring not from graves and worms, the usual associates in talks of epitaphs, but from a singularly vital book about a man of rare vitality, the Memoir of Colonel Henry Lee, by John T. Morse, Jr. The book contains many selections from Colonel Lee’s writings, and more than half of these, in bulk, are the little obituaries with which he was wont to celebrate the deaths of his contemporary Bostonians. Midway between epitaphs and biographies, let them take the blame for much of what has been said. Colonel Lee paid his obituary tributes with such discrimination and felicity that one feels the justice of his having fallen into such hands as those of his kinsman, Mr. Morse. Any member of this Club of Contributors — or of any other club, for that matter — to whom Colonel Lee is merely a name, or something less, should seek his acquaintance. In Mr. Morse’s book he will be found a person who would have been noticeable in any place at any time. Here he appears specifically for what he was, an essential product of the nineteenthcentury Boston. The Boston which in his person survived nearly till the century’s end was embodied perhaps no less distinctly in his uncle, Dr. James Jackson, whose memoir, by a grandson, Dr. James Jackson Putnam, has appeared almost simultaneously with the memoir of Colonel Lee. Dr. Jackson is the more serene, the less audacious figure, yet quite as truly typical of what the New England capital, albeit in an earlier generation, could produce. Each of these men could put his knowledge of his fellow-citizens to the best of practical uses, — Dr. Jackson by enriching the diagnosis of illness through his acquaintance with all the inheritances of a patient, Colonel Lee by telling Governor Andrew just what qualities of manhood and leadership might be expected from So-and-So’s son, seeking a commission in a Massachusetts war regiment. When the local can be turned to account so palpably approaching the universal, it commands a new respect, and quickens every villager of us with new possibilities.

It is inevitable to join the name of Dr. Holmes with these two fellow townsmen and kinsmen of his. The same biographer has dealt with him and with Colonel Lee. In his charmingly characteristic verses, “ The Morning Visit,” it was Dr. Jackson who stood, for the portrait of “the truest, noblest, wisest, kindest, best” of physicians. Thus linked together, Colonel Lee, the man of affairs, the lover of good plays, good books, and good society, the devoted son of his college; Dr. Jackson, the beloved physician, who asked no more than to be the best physician and friend of his friends and patients; and Dr. Holmes, the physician who was, besides, the Autocrat, with all the personal meaning the word has acquired, — these three represent the happy little Boston of the prenatal and juvenile days of the Atlantic. Has it all departed, — the spirit which distinguished the town before unlovely business blocks took the place of pleasant dwellings surrounded by flower gardens and fruit trees ? One cannot think so while this fledgeling century is producing and enjoying two such memorials of the older day as these two new biographies present.

The world does not outgrow its needs and desires. It wants just such epitaphs as the Miscuit Utile Dulci surmounting the tablet to the memory of Dr. Holmes in King’s Chapel. It wants obituaries as good as those which came from Colonel Lee — and it wants the men to provoke them. Most of all, perhaps, it wants just such intimate biographies as Mr. Morse’s Holmes and Lee, and Dr. Putnam’s loving record of his grandfather and all the Essex County worthies from whom he sprang. It is not for every good and clever man to be a national figure. The country is too big for that. But when all the local figures are drawn with the faithfulness and skill of the best local biographies, we shall have at least the materials for a national summary of biography, in which the local elements, justly proportioned, will blend in a true picture of the national life.