The Boswell Nation
ONE of my chief troubles in life is my inability to rejoice with them that do rejoice, at just the psychological moment. A week or two after they have got all through with their happiness and have stopped talking about it, I appear on the scene, thrilled with out-of-date enthusiasm. The question then comes to be, whether one’s chief duty is to synchronize his happiness with that of others or to take it when he can. At the risk of being utterly unavailable by speaking on a subject to which nobody seems to be paying any particular attention just now, let me out with it while the feeling is at its height and hope that here and there some old-fashioned soul experiences my own delight in British biography.
Of course, just as I was about to put my delight into words it was fated that I should run across Miss Repplier’s discouraging remarks on the subject, in which she tries to dampen one’s ardor by saying that “the English memoirs have little that is joyous or beautiful or inspiring.” With the reflection that one’s literary faith ought to expect to meet with manifold temptations, like any other operation of that faculty, I console myself by answering that perhaps Miss Repplier did not sufficiently take into account the fact that it rained almost the whole time the English memoirs were being written. This will sufficiently account for any superficial lack of gayety in them.
Now what I like about English biography is what I would call the muchness of it. It is the only region I know of in which I appreciate the feeling of the old woman whose first impression of the ocean was that for the first time in her life she was seeing enough of anything. A critical friend of mine has a favorite theory that one ought not to linger long either with men or books, but just sip or taste and then pass along. His practice is quite consistent with his theory; hence it goes without saying that he is not one with whom are possible the pleasures of sitting up late. Of a thorough-going three-volume Life and Letters he would be constitutionally incapable, for this is no proper field for the sipper and taster.
What these biographies invite and encourage is that we saturate ourselves with them until our mental scenery is quite transfigured. A week or so afterward we find ourselves almost thinking that we are ourselves the people we have been reading about, just as Charles Lamb after a day or two at Oxford would find himself proceeding Master of Arts. For days at a time I have innocuously strutted Dean of Westminster in my neighborhood, without anybody knowing anything about it. And this is something which I think no French memoir will ever make it possible for one to do.
If at any house I find upon the table a long and venerable row of the best English biographies I feel at once that this is a place where they are prepared to have you slop a while, and take your ease. These are volumes which nobody will ever possess because he thinks he ought to possess them. They betoken affinity. Fashion might dictate a shelf of French memoirs, and one might have them for any one of a dozen reasons, but nobody will ever collect these English favorites for any other reason than that they are really wanted.
In this country we have hardly a great biography to our credit. We have a timid, practical way of writing it, as if half in doubt as to whether any man is worth so much notice. In a big, believing sort of a way the Englishman goes ahead with his hero and makes him worth it. That portly three-volume way of going out to meet oblivion, and simply falling upon it and smashing it, is the only way for him. And after that there is usually a volume of letters a year or so later as a relay to the reputation. The English appetite for these things is frank and enormous. The national mind is a sort of Westminster Abbey, and Boswell is its irremovable dean. Other people can think in a vacuum; but the Briton must have ideas precipitated into persons before he can get hold of them with any sort of grip.
If a man be of the outstanding sort, they never think of such a thing as not using him twice. It is a part of the mental thrift of the nation. The actual deeds of Thomas Arnold which he did in the flesh were probably never of half the use to England that he has been since his countrymen began to use him through one of the best biographies of the last century. Then, too, with all their love of dignitaries it is not half so essential over there as it is here that a name should be a great one in order to be thus celebrated. To call the attention of the whole country to some obscure country parson is a perfectly regular proceeding. People expect it. That Hawker, Vicar of Morwenstone, will have his biography is as much a matter of course as that Stanley will. We are much too sane for such a memoir.
The Englishman furthermore has not fallen a victim to that unhappy chemical experiment of reducing all our sustenance to tablet form. He does not try to give you the concentrated extract of a personality, but prefers rather to give you the whole person and let you make your own extract. He brings his hero along, with all his belongings,—unwieldly, elbowing, incongruous the result may be, but he is sure to be all there. And doing things thus, he never descends to naming one of his histories The Real Oliver Cromwell, because to his mind this would seem tautology. When he is through with anybody one has perhaps as complete a sense of possession of another personality as it is possible for us to obtain.
Of all people in the world the Englishman is the last one for us to try to compact into a phrase or two. The sipper or taster will just as likely as not get the wrong taste and make a false report. You may be with him six months and he will not do the typical thing; only a Boswell with plenty of time and memory, forever hanging around, will be in at the right moment, when he does something that sums himself up and lets out his whole great heart. By endless visitings and much sitting up late, by taking plenty of time for letter-writing and thinking it well spent, and considering a journey across the country for a little conversation’s sake entirely legitimate, the Englishman seems to be in habitual readiness for the writing of biography. We are apt to get ready when it is too late, but they seem to meet and visit together as if they might possibly want to write each other’s biographies some day, or at least contribute toward them.