The Business of a Biographer
Biographer, musician, and a member of the famous Drinker clan of Philadelphia, CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN has scored a progressive success with what Ferris Greenslet calls her “interpretive biographies” — three of which have been chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Beloved Friend (1937) was the well-documented life of Tchaikovsky as disclosed in his letters to his wealthy patroness, Madame von Meck. In Yankee from Olympus (1944), Mrs. Bowen showed us the decisiveness of that great Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes. The paper that follows is based on a talk she gave on Justice Holmes’s birthday, in which she told of the detail, the detective work, and the discernment which were called for in the preparation of her latest book, John Adams and the American Revolution.
by CATHERINE DRINKER BOWEN
GERTRUDE STEIN once gave a talk before oddly enough — the boys of Choate School. “It is the business of an artist,” she told them, “to be exciting.”
It is the business also of an historian. History is, in its essence, exciting; to present it as dull is to my mind, stark and unforgivable misrepresentation. And if history be, as Webster has it, the story of nations, biography the story of men — then by that same token, biography should prove, intrinsically, more exciting even than history. Biography is more immediately comprehensible; it is something our experience lets us know, in the Keatsian phrase, upon our pulses.
Choice of subject is, for the biographer, a vital part of the total creative effort. Sometimes it is not even an individual that lights the biographical spark, but only a period in history. Such was, for example, my own experience with my last book, John Adams and the American Revolution. I had published three biographies set in the nineteenth century, and each of them had spilled over, at its outset, into an earlier period. With each I had been given a glimpse, tantalizing, provocative, into the Century of Enlightenment, that Century of Reason — extraordinary and vivid time when our American world was young and yeasty, when men ol faith, men of intellect and staunchest character, threw down a king and fashioned a government to their very liking. “When, before the present epocha,” wrote John Adams to his friend Wythe in 1775, “had three millions of people full power and fair opportunity to form and establish the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive? ”
Reading those words, I had felt a stirring at the roots of my hair. Exciting? . . . I remembered a young historian, the ink yet damp upon his doctoral thesis, who had said to me with all the vigor and confidence of his twenty-odd years, “Now I have my training, I’m going to write and make some money. I’m not going to teach. I plan to take — well, some period of history, and hop it up the way you biographers do.”
Hopping up, I learned, is done with morphine, marihuana. But we biographers do not hop up history! — I told my young friend quickly. Does one hop up the Rocky Mountains, or a hibiscus flower? On the contrary, we ourselves are moved by this astonishment of height, this redness of red; we desire to reproduce this astonishment, this good news granted by earth or sky. So it is with history, if one be history-minded, and so it was with me when first I read John Adams’s letters, his essay On the Canon and Feudal Law. his legal brief in defense of the British soldiers on trial for their lives after the Boston Massacre. The life of any active man reflects his times, and with Adams this is peculiarly, startlingly true. Nothing that he said, nothing he did could have been said or done in any other era.
Adams’s philosophy, moreover, was extraordinarily pertinent to the times in which I found myself living at the moment. This was February. 1945, and America was fighting a war. To our deeply troubled minds there had already been introduced, that spring, ideological problems which were to come after the war: problems of government, of federation. What, we had begun to ask ourselves, is the meaning of sovereignty? I wanted to study history through the eyes of a man interested in these problems, a man conscious of the word federation — a word that may well bring states or nations from the constant fear of war to the joyful practice of peace.
John Adams from his twentieth year was a student of law, a student of governments past and present. He was a constitution maker. Even before Independence was declared, he taught the various colonies how to compose their several state governments. Adams put, in short, a canvas bottom under the American Revolution, so that when the guy ropes to Britain were cast off, the colonies did not fall through to chaos, bloodshed, and a new paternalism.
Casting about, before my choice was fully made, I read the published biographies of Adams. There are not many, only five or six. I looked up Adams in the biographical dictionaries; I paged through the nine large volumes called Life andWorks of John Adams, edited in the 1850s by John’s grandson, Charles Francis Adams, our Minister to England during the Civil War. I read such published letters as I could find, notably those to Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, to John Winthrop of Massachusetts who was Adams’s teacher of mathematics at Harvard in the 1750s. I read the superb correspondence with Thomas Jefferson when the two were old men, living in retirement. I lingered long over the little volume called Familiar Letters of John Adams and his Wife,during the Revolution. I read also the letters of John’s daughter Abigail and the later letters of John’s wife, written during John’s presidency. I went through most of the books written by John’s descendants — and the Adamses of Massachusetts were a writing triba. The Education of Henry Adams tells much about Braintree, where John’s boyhood was spent; so do the biographies and autobiographies of the various Charles Francises and the eight-volume Memoirs written by John’s eldest son, John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States.
All doubts fled. I had chosen my hero — or more exactly, he had chosen me. I knew by now the basic facts of Adams’s life; it would be for me as biographer to make the facts live. Should this high aim be achieved, I was aware it would be due not alone to the manner of presentation but to the manner of research. Reading hundreds of books and manuscripts, how does the biographer know which passages to copy down? He doesn’t know, he guesses, and the instinct behind his guess can make or mar the finished product. It is laborious work, this copying in research libraries, hour after hour and day after day, using a soft pencil for the sake of one’s wrist and begging the librarian for a table by the daylight.
In this process of research, I employ no helpers, no apprentices, no Ph.D. students to do my reading for me, nor even the subsequent filing and crossfiling of notes. It would be dangerous; something vital might be overlooked. Painting a portrait, does the artist hire an apprentice to choose his colors, decide the pose in which the subject will sit or the texture of the frame in which the portrait will hang? This copying in libraries, this eventual choice of incident is half the biographical battle, perhaps more than half. While the biographer reads, he is actually in process of composition; he recites passages to his friends on the telephone, he talks continually of his great discoveries.
Selection of material depends, of course, on the type of biography one intends to write. The choice here is plain. Either one desires to dig out and reveal hitherto unpublished material, thereby gaining kudos in the academic world (with a likely raise from assistant professor of history to a full professorship)
— or one desires to write a book that will be bought and read. My ambition, quite frankly, was to introduce John Adams to as many people as I could. Repeatedly, during research, I reminded myself of this aim. Otherwise, I might be tempted into following false clues, spend precious hours copying some incident which, while it may have been historically “new,” was patently not biographical news — a matter altogether different. Whatever did not stand as illustration of Adams’s character or Adams’s part in forming the American States, must be thrown out. There were times indeed, when I almost wept with vexation, putting broken manuscripts, faded newspaper columns from me on the library table, or turning them face down against templation.
So strongly did I hold to this purpose that in my first year of reading I wrote it out, filing it in the folder marked Preface to Look: “The facts on which my narrative is based are available to everyone. I do not scorn what the academic historian calls secondary material, or tertiary or septuagenary — so long as it is proven authentic. I aim not to startle with new material but to persuade with old, and I shall use a narrative form because for me it is the most persuasive. Fictionalized biography is the current label; I myself do not admit a phrase which besides being doubtful English, does not express what I am trying to do. Call this book, rather, a ‘portrait’ of John Adams. I shall draw a portrait, and like Saint-Mémin with his profiles, I shall use the physionotrace: I shall find instruments with which to measure, and then go ahead and paint. In brief, I shall study the available evidence and on the basis of it, build pictures which to me are consistent with the evidence. All my reading, all my research will be directed toward two goals; the understanding of John Adams’s character, and the understanding of how it fell to be a citizen of the Eighteenth Century.”
THE contract with my publishers allowed me five years; I sat down and portioned carefully the time that remained. I would give myself two full reading years, then twelve months to write out what I call the chronology of my narrative — that is, a straight, unvarnished succession of facts, names, dates which trace my hero’s movement from place to place. Knowing where one’s hero is at each given week — if not each day — is the first necessity in biography, and by no means easy to achieve. There would be, I knew, gaps of weeks and even months when I should lose John Adams between Braintree and Boston as dismally as though he had journeyed to Samarcand.
So much for three years. The remaining two, I could devote to brooding about John Adams. I could think of him as walking, talking, studying, riding circuit, arguing cases in court, or resting at Braintree with his family. I could determine upon those scenes which best would illustrate character and times; I could cease collecting facts and begin visualizing my subject in terms of action. My story would have a protagonist as well as a hero: the United States of America was my protagonist. Its birth, its growth moved parallel with Adams’s own coming of age. I must weave and interweave, move from Adams to history, from history to Adams. . . . To accomplish this, twenty-four months seemed all too short — twenty-four months to write my book.
My schedule determined, I ploughed into the second year of research, traveling about the country to interview Adamses when they would permit it, and to interview historians for the exchange of ideas concerning government practical and theoretical. In the end, I found myself the possessor of hundreds of slips of yellow paper, cut to half the size of ordinary typewriter paper and covered with writing, the source carefully copied on the upper left-hand corner. My first files were chronological, with the exception of certain large subjects such as Boston, streets and buildings . . . or, Washington, George . . . or,Philadelphia, appearance of . . . or,Statistics of Population, 1700-1776. Or, simply and quite terrifyingly, the file marked IDEAS.
I began to cross-file again, narrowing my chronology from decades to years, then to months, weeks, days, meanwhile committing to memory as many facts as I could, in the hope they would pop up at the needed moment. (In 1774, the Province of New York ordered Liberty and Prudence as the watermark for its official letter paper. In 1745, New England men sent 9000 cannon balls into Louishurg before the fortress surrendered.) The work fell of itself into three divisions: (1) Research about things. That is, how did the streets of Braintree look in 1745, in ‘65, in ‘74? How did John Adams’s mother dress, what did Harvard students of the mid-Eighteenth Century eat and drink, what outdoor games did they play? (2) Research about people, their characters, affiliations, actions, beliefs. And (3) research about ideas, those philosophies and principles by which the Eighteenth Century lived, wrote its books, and created its governments.
For the physical scene I found it necessary to visit Braintree in all four seasons. In the small tidy farmhouse where John was born, I went up narrow stairs, looked out a boy’s dormer window onto February snow. I walked by Black’s Creek when November held the salt grass stiff. John’s greatgreat-granddaughter walked with me to show how she too had gone smelting in childhood between those marshy banks. I climbed Penns Hill in June as Abigail Adams had climbed it to see the Battle of Bunker Hill across the Bay. In Boston, the old State House still stands, and in Philadelphia, Independence Hall. All the bustle of the twentieth century cannot efface the spirits that walk within these walls.
BUT I spent far less time on the physical scene than on that other, harder quest. The Eighteenth Century is not to be trifled with. What made that century different from our own was not man’s clothing but his outlook, his view of body and sold — a view so altered by time that only deepest immersion, a deliberate, disciplined shutting of the eyes would bring it back. Later, I was to say so, in an essay on Sources and Methods that was included in my bibliography. I mailed it to my publishers with the completed manuscript. Back, in due time, came my galley proofs from Boston, with an editorial query on the margin, “Author: Don’t you mean opening of the eyes?”
I did not mean opening, and said so by return mail. I meant a closing of the eyes, a shutting out of our boasted scientific “progress.” . . . In John Adams’s day, Galen’s four fluid humours still governed the body — the sanguine, the phlegmatic, the choleric, the melancholic. Harvard in 1751 debated the truth of Copernicus’s theory. The narrowing of one’s mind to this strange constriction is a struggle painful, almost impossible. The Age of Enlightenment has tales to tell that wash our world away. Gone are Pasteur, Lister, and the germ theory of disease. Gone is Darwin. Special creation, spontaneous generation rule the universe. Newton, Descartes, Bacon, Harvey have not yet obliterated the long medieval darkness. Over our shoulders peer Ramus, Abélard and the schoolmen, with Fra Castoreus and Meister Eckhart.
It is another world, and the biographer must somehow enter it. To help on that awful journey, I sought every avenue that offered, spending hours in the map rooms of libraries, to familiarize myself with old Braintree, old Boston, old Worcester, with the great Plymouth highway running down from the north and with the Connecticut River that divided Massachusetts of 1750 almost as the Mississippi divides our country today. Searching for the faces, the authentic features of my subjects, I combed museums, art reference libraries, print rooms, comparing an Adams nose by Copley with an Adams nose by Stuart and deciding, in the end, that Saint-Mémin’s physionotrace was more trustworthy than the draughtsmanship of the masters. As for Eighteenth Century newspapers, that gossipy sheet called The Boston Gazette became more recognizable to me than the New York Times for 1950. I could even distinguish between the anonymous gentlemen who wrote for the newspapers (most of whom turned out to be Sam Adams).
In the Boston Public Library, I found some three thousand volumes from John Adams’s own collection. I took them from the shelves, read John’s inked marginal notes, and what I read made me laugh aloud. An impudent scholar surely, this Adams, of the sort that Carlyle calls “original men, the first peculiarity of which is that they in some measure converse with the universe at first hand.”
Taking stock, I saw that I was done with the period of intensive reading; it was time to give shape to what I had found. Nevertheless I was troubled; it is a crisis which every writer longs for and every scholar fears. I wanted to read more, learn more, even copy more; the file marked Things to do was not exhausted by half. The temptation was great and insidious; I had witnessed historians who went on digging up facts until they grew too old to write their books at all. In a New England library I had met two learned professors, deep in manuscript and notebooks — beautiful, lined notebooks, with Category A and Category B traced in red ink and black. Each professor took me out to lunch, kindly showed me his notes, and confided with a sigh, “How I dread the day when I finish reading in libraries and have to put all this material together and write my book!”
It is indeed, a common occupational disease of historians. When I feel it stealing over me, I remind myself of what Justice Holmes told one of his secretaries: “There comes a time, young feller, when a book has to be written!”
For me the time had come.
FOR the actual writing of my tale, modern biography offered two literary forms: the critical and the narrative. In the first, the author remains eternally present, telling the reader what to think and bolstering all pronouncements with quotations from the original source, or leaving a shrewd margin for error by employing such phrases as, “We consider . . . the records tell us . . . it is probable that . . .”
The bulk of my biography would have no such handy props. Choice of the narrative form had set upon me an extra burden, an extra technical procedure; I must make my characters three-dimensional instead of two. It was the artist’s task as distinct from the scholar’s — and it is the business of an artist to be exciting. The words went over in my mind, and there were hours when the cold hand of fear lay on me.
I could not, for instance, employ the frank critical statement that my hero in youth was shy, nor quote a reminiscent Adams acquaintance in proof of shyness. The reminiscence was penned thirty years later, when Adams had become the reverse of shy. To quote it would destroy utterly the illusion of reality, the hard-won empathy, immediacy, the sense of being there. How then, could I convey to my reader the fact that John was shy? Only in one way: I must show him being shy. From John’s Autobiography, written half a century after the event, I had learned briefly of that fateful day when the boy, at sixteen, journeyed ten miles from Braintree to take his examinations for Harvard College. Quite obviously, those were, for John, fearful and significant hours. I must transcribe them; I must translate them from reminiscence to reality. I must let my reader travel to Cambridge with John, walk invisible beside his pony, trudge with him across Harvard Yard and up the steps to face his four examiners and that large, handsome, distinguished, and terrifying individual, President Holyoke of Harvard College. It was not for me to write, “We can therefore imagine John’s feelings as he confronted the President of Harvard.” I must do more than that,
I must stand with my reader before that polished desk; with John I must answer the questions put in Latin, with John freeze to paralysis when he cannot recall the Latin word for morality.
And in my method will be no deception. The reader knows I am not God, knows I cannot actually be inside John’s mind — and knows by now, I sincerely trust, that behind my narrative is historical source and historical evidence without which I would not presume to take young Adams to Harvard Hall or anywhere else. Should the evidence anywhere conflict, I shall sacrifice my narrative. Experience tells me I must forever be prepared for such sacrifice, not in large thingsthe facts of our Revolutionary history are by now well ascertained—but in those small descriptive details that bring a scene alive. When first I wrote of young Adams’s journey to Cambridge, for instance, I had him walk the ten miles on foot, alone and frightened. The very act of walking seemed characteristic of his mood. When I discovered he had a pony, it altered somehow the very climate of the journey.
In this connection, when five of my Adams chapters appeared serially in the Atlantic, I received a letter from a distinguished college professor, himself a biographer. He approved my chapters, he said cordially. “I wish,” he went on, “to take advantage of your research. But I am puzzled. You have written Adams’s conversation in such a manner that I cannot tell which words he actually spoke. In the published volume, will your documentation support these conversations?”
I told the professor that it would be for him rather than for me to say if my published bibliography proved adequate. My own conscience was clear. Each public utterance of John’s, whether a speech in Congress, an essay in the Boston Gazette, or a legal brief used in court, was historical, actual, directly from source even if paraphrased. My ambition had been to persuade people to read historic documents such as Adams’s essay On the Canon and Feudal Law, his Instructions to the Braintree Representatives in 1765. It was, indeed, more than an ambition with me; it was an obsession. Americans must know these glorious pages, these inspired paragraphs.
Unfortunately for the biographer, readers will not suffer lengthy quotations. At sight of set-in paragraphs, readers flee; they are gone, lost, the book is closed. The thought was awful to me. I must devise ways, I must lend a hand to my readers. . . . Could not James Otis, sitting in the Gazette office, read aloud the best lines from some long-drawn page? Or John himself, riding down from circuit court in Falmouth, rehearse his forthcoming essay on the Canon and Feudal Law? Or Sam Adams, journeying with John in the coach to Philadelphia, could quote Hawley’s shrewd letter of advice to the Congressional delegates from Massachusetts.
So much for Adams’s historical utterances. His private conversations were another matter. The sense of them, the emotional or critical content, I took from Adams’s Diary or letters, then paraphrased into dialogue, taking care to have the sentences as brief as possible. Over even these insignificant phrases I labored long, testing words with the Oxford English Dictionary to make sure I fell into no anachronism. (Readers have demurred at my putting the word propaganda into Adams’s mouth, yet the Oxford English Dictionary gives 1718 as the first date of use. Readers of Yankee from Olympus objected to my using sabotage in our Civil War era; it came direct from a Boston newspaper of 1861.)
To reproduce the speech of a past era is impossible. Attempting to catch even the echo of a rhythm that is gone, I took to bed with me each night for years, some seventeenth or eighteenth century book and read myself to sleep . . . Burton, John Selden, Isaak Walton, Sir Thomas Browne, John Bunyan; I chose chatty, facile writers who were at home in the vernacular and who wrote, I felt sure, as they talked. The Letters of George Third were a treasury of conversational idiom, John Aubrey’s Brief Lives (1680) a very mine of phrases: “They culled out their greatest shillings to lay in the scale against the tobacco.” . . . Or, “He addicted himself but little to the study of the law, being a great waster.”
The device even of private conversation I used as sparingly as possible and never for any purpose but one — to reveal character, emotion, the state of being of my subjects. In real life, people do talk, and had not Plutarch, Heroditus, Thucydides, Tacitus used dialogue to illuminate history?
Academic historians, accustomed to write only in the critical form, are slow to recognize the difficulties of the straight narrative method. They are apt to call it “popularization,” and their implication is not flattering. Yet among classic historians are those who acknowledge not only the difficulties but the value of historical narrative. In his brilliant essay, “The Muse of History,” George Macaulay Trevelyan says: —
“It is in narrative that modern historical writing is weakest, and to my thinking it is a very serious weakness — spinal in fact. Some writers would seem never to have studied the art of telling a story. There is no ‘flow’ to their events, which stand like ponds instead of running like streams. Yet history is, in its unchangeable essence, ‘a tale.’ Round the story, as flesh and blood round the bone, should be gathered many different things — character drawing, study of social and intellectual movements, speculations as to probable causes and effects, and whatever else the historian can bring to illustrate the past. But the art of history remains always the art of narrative. That is the bed rock.”
ACCEPTANCE of the narrative form was my first biographical step. But it was after all only an artistic decision, not a piece of writing. I had worked for three years; I had done my research, I had set down my chronology. Yet no character or place had actually been introduced to the reader. How then should the tale be opened, how closed? Was I to open with birth and close with death? It was at about this time that a novelist, a writer of detective stories, remarked to me, “What an easy time you biographers have, compared with us fiction writers! The shape of your book is laid out ready to hand, before you even begin to write.”
I said, “What shape, exactly?” The novelist told me it was self-evident: — “Birth, education, marriage, death.”
He could not have been more mistaken. Life has no shape, artistically speaking, any more than grief has a shape, or jealousy, or love, or any of those large angry things. It is for the writer to find a shape, find boundaries, a circumference within which he may freely move according to his abilities. If he tries to encompass the universe within his book, he will surely get lost, and getting lost is a sin the experienced writer can never permit himself. Nothing will repel the reader more quickly than an author who wanders from his tale. . . . John Adams lived for ninety years. Was I to tell the full story of those years? Should I write of Adams as lawyer, as political philosopher, as diplomat to France and Holland, as President? What particular bias would guide me? Why, in short, was I writing this book?
Once more I asked myself the vital question — a question elementary, yet it would seem, neglected by writers of history. For my beginning, John Adams himself gave the philosophic clue; his story must open, not at his birth but when Adams was ten — the year, he told Dr. Rush much later, when he “first became a politician.” This was 1745, the famous year of the Louisburg victory, a moment of great significance both for hero and protagonist, for Adams and history.
I went on, yet as I proceeded, it became plain my story was sickening from surfeit of material; I was not creating a living character as I had hoped to do. I was setting down a mere list of events, an Adams calendar, with no space to explain why things happened or how the men felt who brought these things to pass.
In much perturbation of spirit, I made the decision to end in the year 1776, with the Declaration of Independence, when Adams was only forty. To sacrifice the Old John Adams was no easy decision. This was a glorious old man, as appealing at eighty as he was at thirty. I had looked forward to describing those years of retirement at Quincy, when an ex-President of the United States signed his letters so cheerfully, “The Farmer of Stony Fields.” To end in 1776 would be to sacrifice the wonderful correspondence with Jefferson — above all, to sacrifice the most dramatic death scene in American history. What climax could possibly substitute for dying on the Fourth of July? Moreover, I am suspicious of a biography that skimps the death scene of its hero. “It imports us to know how great men die as to know how they live.”
History came to my rescue. The Declaration of Independence was itself a kind of death; it marked the end of an empire. There were Americans who recognized this fact in all its significance, and who greatly mourned, even as they rejoiced. The Fourth of July, 1776, would be an ending and — for America, my protagonist — a beginning. The Fourth of July was a death and a resurrection, the very Easter of our national spirit.
Within my circle, within my stated circumference, I had room now to move, room to paint a scene or two, describe an incident to the full. I could let John Adams sit by his farmhouse window and think. Sitting and thinking was characteristic of Adams; again and again his Diary records, “At home, without company, thinking.” I had space, now, to describe the room where John sat, describe the old Plymouth Road beyond his window, the hardpacked snow, the squeak of sled runners as neighbors hauled their wood by oxcart to the town. And when my “big” scenes fell due, such as for instance, the Boston Massacre, I could allow three entire chapters to Adams’s defense of the British soldiers involved on that fateful night of March Fifth. I could print Adams’s legal brief in its entirety, using every device in the calendar of biographical technique — describe the courtroom, the rain against long windows on those cold autumn days of 1770. I could have the sound of military bugles drift up from where British frigates lay armed and watchful in Boston Harbor down the hill.
My circle was closed, my boundaries defined; I knew what my first scene would be and my last. My book had now an end and a beginning — but then so, for example, has Wednesday. On Wednesday the sun rises and sets. Yet if the world is to be interested in what one does on Wednesday, one has to meet with trouble on Wednesday meet an obstacle and conquer it. Or we can let the obstacle conquer, choosing tragedy for our Wednesday story.
Conflict, the book trade calls it. Suspense. As biographer, I could not scorn this technique of the craft. My story needed it. John Adams was, all in all, a happy man. “Les homines heureux,” say ihe French, “n’ont pas d’histoires.” I myself do not hold with such cynicism. Surely, Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior is the truly happy man? And to be a warrior, a man must have fought for something, fought with something — perhaps with the devil, perhaps with his own soul. Life that possesses no conflict possesses no victory.
What then, was the conflict in John Adams’s first forty years? What made those years exciting for him? What, in short, was my over-all plot? Once more, history herself gave answer and plot: How John Adams brought America to Independence.
Herein lay personal conflict in plenty, though John Adams never carried a gun. When he took sides with the revolutionists, Adams sacrificed, or so he thought, every material thing that made life worth while. By 1770, he was the leading lawyer of Massachusetts; he was offered many more cases than he could handle. The law courts were royal courts, their judges crown-appointed. When they closed, John’s means of livelihood was gone. John was greatly ambitious for his three sons, especially for the eldest, John Quincy, who, John wrote his wife, “has genius.” It was Adams’s ambition to send John Quincy to Harvard, then to London to study law at the Inner Temple. He desired John Quincy to know the world, not grow to manhood in the narrow atmosphere of farm and township. When Adams chose the patriot side, he took as it were his vow of poverty, relinquished consciously and with sadness all ambition for his son. There was no way he could know this same son would one day be President of the United States. “I am melancholy for the public,” he wrote his wife Abigail in the summer of ‘74, “and anxious for my family. I go mourning in my heart all the day long, though I say nothing.”
I had now my conflict, my “plot.” It was my hope that this general plot would suggest a separate, specialized plot for every one of my thirty-two chapters. I desired each chapter to be an entity, a tale that might be read aloud and the book laid down until next evening. I hoped to devise chapter endings that would lead the reader on. I had a writing motto: Will the reader turn the page? Traced on yellow cardboard the words hung over my desk, a terrible warning.
Somebody asked Charles Dickens about his rules of composition, the artistic principles by which he proceeded. “I have only one artistic principle,” he said. “That is, to rouse the emotions of my readers.”
Between novelist and biographer the difference is profound. The one invents situations that will rouse a reader’s emotions; the other brings out the significance of situations that already exist. Both are concerned with la recherche du temps perdu, both wish to uncover the nature or motivations of man. “It is the business of an artist to be exciting.” A large order, an ambition high and difficult. Will the reader turn the page? Ours is a vocation which carries great hazard; Justice Holmes used to say that no author could become truly conceited because every two years or so he exposes himself anew to the ridicule of the public.
There is no art that does not demand virt uosity. “If you own a hundred thousand francs’ worth of craftsmanship,” Degas told a pupil, “spend five sous to buy more.” It is t he business of a biographer to know his subject. And then, summoning such techniques as he has mastered through practice of his calling, he will settle upon literary form, upon circumference and plot — making it his business then to project his story with all the vigor his endowments will permit.