Of Autobiographies

I ENJOY particularly in the Club the papers in which contributors sing the praises of their hobbies; and I made up my mind long ago that, when my turn came, I would cry up Autobiography, which is often the finest flower of Biography. This is especially true where the man who paints his own portrait interests us by his personality rather than by his participation in historical events. In general, public men have left memoirs of their historical acts and not of their private selves. Metternich, for instance, hurries over the record of his youth, to reach the days when he cut a great figure in European diplomacy, and could tell with undisguised relish of walking on the same level with Napoleon,— or a little above him. To Franklin, on the contrary, his personal development was the most interesting topic : although he too had mixed in great affairs and had been, as it now appears, hardly less important than Metternich as an agent of destiny. That autobiography of his discloses what he was, not what he did; and it will live on, from generation to generation, by virtue of its candor. “She proved to me a good and faithful companion,” he says, in recording his marriage to Deborah Read, “and contributed essentially to the success of my shop.” We hardly need to be told that the man who wrote that kept a cool head through the heats of the American Revolution, and never missed sight of the main chance for his country, whether amid the dust of Colonial Congresses or in the dazzling drawing-rooms of Paris.

Some autobiographies are even more private still, records of intellectual or spiritual unfolding, with the merest suggestion that an external world, peopled with living men and women, exists. We feel this somewhat in John Stuart Mill’s remarkable self-revelation, in which we watch the putting together, piece by piece, of an extraordinary intellectual mechanism. But Mill was far more than a thinking machine, —he had a rare emotional equipment besides, as whoever reads his pages sympathetically will see. Among recent autobiographies of the intimate sort, is any more strangely interesting than Richard Jefferies’s Story of my Heart? For him, too, the great concern was not to narrate mere happenings, but to describe his search for reality, and those few supreme moments when it seemed to him as if he were about to pierce the screen of sense and behold the Cause behind it. He was haunted by the belief that mankind are just on the eve of a revelation more wonderful than all that have been made, and he urges this so sincerely that the suggestion haunts his readers too.

Of Rousseau’s Confessions, with their ampler range, embracing his adventures, his intimate development, and his opinions, I need not speak: an essay devoted to them alone would be too scant. But contrast their fullness, their concreteness, with the brief statement which David Hume, Rousseau’s most powerful intellectual contemporary in Britain, wrote about himself — barely ten printed pages, reticent, impersonal, or at least impartial, as if he were summing up an historical personage dead and gone long ago. Let me quote a sentence or two: —

“I was, I say, a man of mild disposition, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions. Even my love of literary fame, my ruling passion, never soured my temper, notwithstanding my frequent disappointments. My company was not unacceptable to the young and careless, as well as to the studious and literary; and as I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.”

In tone, that reminds us of Hume’s brother philosopher and historian, Gibbon, who at his father’s bidding broke his engagement,— “sighed like a lover, but obeyed like a son,” — and has left one of the classical English autobiographies; not one, indeed, but six or seven, for he seems to have sketched at least so many versions of his life-story. But Rousseau, the reprobate, had the secret of self-revelation denied to the virtuous Hume and Gibbon : he regarded his book as his confessional, to which without shame he confided all his sins; and, since the world is mostly made up of sinners, it has accepted his confessions as genuine.

Equally frank was Benvenuto Cellini, whose life, however, lay all on the outside. He had nothing to confess, only experiences to narrate. Hating his enemies, he killed them if he could; he committed every crime without remorse and said his prayers fervently, sure that God helped him to slay his victims, and prevented assassins from slaying him. He had passion, almost frenzy, for his art, and to it he would sacrifice fortune or preferment rather than hurry or skimp. In his moral and spiritual nature, he had scarcely advanced beyond the tiger, but in his artistic nature he belonged among the masters of the Renaissance. His Life contains the stuff of a dozen Dumas romances, written in a manner so off-hand, so racy, so fresh, that age cannot wither it nor custom stale. Incidentally, too, it brings with it —as every external autobiography should — a large fragment of the life of his time, in which we see actual men and women loving and hating; we measure their ambitions, we hear their very words. Pepys, in his Diary, does much the same for Charles the Second’s London, but he is rather a reporter taking notes, than an autobiographer writing a romance, with himself as the hero. Goethe, in his Truth and Fiction, went to the other extreme from Cellini; and, selecting what he considered the vital facts in his career, he rearranged and embellished them and composed a symmetrical work of art. From this it is but a step to avowed fiction, in which the novelist weaves a part of his own experience into the story of his hero, as Dickens wove his into David Copperfield, or George Eliot hers into Maggie Tulliver.

But autobiography is too rich a theme for a brief paper. The charge which some persons lay to it, of vanity or self-consciousness, need not trouble us. I doubt whether anybody has succeeded in quite disguising his real nature in his memoirs, though he tried to make himself out better than he was, as most readers suspect, or worse than he was, Lord Byron’s rôle. Certain it is that we have more excellent autobiographies than biographies, enough to keep one entertained on a desert island through an exile as long as Robinson Crusoe’s.

Some wit has said that, “besides biographies and autobiographies, there are ought-not-to-be-ographies.” They have abounded especially of late. Any fool can create a sensation who chooses to run naked in the street: but it is his folly more than his nakedness that creates the sensation. And, as folly is prolific and perennial, one manifestation of it cannot long cause a stir.