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The Biographical Mania

ISSUE:  Spring 1929

Life of Matthew Arnold. By Hugh Kingsmill. New York: Lincoln McVeagh, The Dial Press. $4.00. Life of Bach. By C. Sanford Terry. New York: Oxford University Press. $7.50. The Development of English Biography. By Harold Nicolson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $1.25. Henry Ford, By J. G. De Rouhlac Hamilton. New York: Henry Holt and Company. $2.00. Goethe. By J. G. Robertson. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $2.50. Goethe. By Emil Ludwig. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $5.00. Meet General Grant. By W. E. Woodward. New York: Horace Liveright. $5.00. Great Short Biographies of the World. Edited by Barrett H. Clark. New York: Robert M. McBride and Company. $5.00. Life of Moses. By Edmund Fleg. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company. $3.00.

A useful name for the last decade in literature would be “The Years of Biography.” So early as the closing of the War the signs of “personality,” analyzed and synthesized, were being raised in the book markets. Mr. Lytton Strachey, with his “Queen Victoria” (1921), may be said to date all else that followed, but it is true that preparations for what he so signally accomplished were apparent in the two or three years preceding his distinguished book. He, however, represents a tendency rather than a generating force: it is apparent that today’s biographies would have come, somehow, without “Queen Victoria”; yet it is equally true that he, in himself, stands for the highest point of creative art that the new books have reached. He is almost an excuse for his kind. No one, not even the prolific and excited Ludwig, writes so surely or so beautifully in catching the essence of what was once a live man or woman.

Yet—perhaps because of magazine advertising—writing and reading biographies have become a modern mania, a fad, to be deprecated, I am sure, for good reasons, especially by the critic who hopes to see imaginative prose flourish rather than sicken. Biography—through the insinuating help of Book-of-the-Month Clubs—swept suddenly into popularity. Like marathon dancing, air-minded-ness, and home brewing, it became “the thing,” and, as such, I realize, deplored at once by the academic minded. But there is common sense in such distrust of popular things, more than we often understand. It takes good critical judgment to hold out against the excessive applause of the moment and to judge the object with at least attempted calm—to take the “fifty years from now” view. That is what literary criticism means. Sympathy, yes, but, at the same time, reserve and poise make the critic, for he holds aesthetic standards that are not to be thrown aside too easily, even by enthusiasm.

What, then, is the reservation to be made in greeting with affection this serious, sensible, and amusing product called “modern biography”?

The answer, for me, lies in the difference in creative ability necessary in the writing of a good novel and a good biography. I am one of those whose love of a good poem or fictitious prose tale forces them to believe that a supremely written novel is always many steps ahead of the supremely written biography. (I use “supremely” for overstatement and emphasis.) Writing a biography is nearer science than it is to art, or, at any rate, nearer science than a novel is. Of the two sorts of biographies, analytic and synthetic, both partake of the nature of the scientific process. Both are exposition of character; so long as they are true they are scientific and biographic—once they are untrue (even in detail) they become fiction and change their category.

It is not to be denied, to be sure, that a biographer whose feeling for a good yarn, whose sense of a dramatic climax, whose descriptive flavoring are full of literary, taste makes a superior biographer, or that biography is a noble and honest kind of literature. But it shades from creative art towards analytic science, and to be useful biography, it must be strong in qualities of scientific intelligence, else its literary flavor gives, no salvation.

Now, in the reading of biography, a reader gets many returns, many of them not literary rewards alone. He reads a story which amuses him, appeals to his taste for the scandalous, for peeping into the intimacies of the great, for becoming a friend of geniuses. He reads a story—and if he is like so many men trained in the “improvement” theory of literature, he quiets his sense of “wasting time” by knowing (or thinking he knows) that “this is true.” He knows, too, that the lives of the great are supposed to enlighten, instruct, make men succeed by emulation, and all those salutary spiritual influences which come from a finely conceived fiction are killed before they, are born. This is not the biographer’s fault, but it is unfortunate.

The monotony of fiction must be directly responsible for the turn of popular opinion to biography. The lack of ideal, of idealization, the futility of characters’ lives in fiction, the drab insistence upon stupid and even vicious people, the whole lack of beauty, variety, and charm, have given biography its grand chance. There men are men, the hero amounts to something, he has traits not unlike those demanded of the old “hero” of a tale or play, even in Aristotelian terms. Grant starts out a poor boy and becomes a General. Ford grows into a money king. Goethe develops into a world figure. Why not read biography?

But there is more to all this. The drabness of fiction may be a sign that we do not know how to write novels any more—that the machine age has killed off our creative and intuitive love of character and has made us psychological analysts. Biography, is a sort of second-hand fiction, about the best we can manage to produce. It is scientific in origin and spirit—I have mentioned that before. It is analytic, like Krutch’s “Poe,” or synthetic, like Terry’s “Life of Bach.” But in the first case the method is not far from that of a qualitative analysis in chemistry, and in the second it is construction work like the building of a bridge or an automobile.

I look at biography today as a substitute for inspired story telling, good though that biography may be, and high in literary quality. Yet, we have turned our story telling into biography, because today we think that way. We are —as well as air-minded—chart-minded and clinical-minded and document-minded. We have turned our pipes of Pan into stethoscopes and our Ancient Mariner’s glittering eye into a psychological abnormality. We could not tell a story for its own sake if the Devil, on a wager, were to run off with our Faust-like souls. There has always seemed to me something peculiarly modern in Macbeth’s plight when he cried, after Duncan’s death, “Wherefore can I not pray?” —or words to that effect. We cannot pray. In the first place, we don’t know whether we wholly believe in prayer. We recognize it as a psychological aid in cases of mental depression. Prayer would help, if you were guileless enough. . . Writing a poem or a great novel takes that intuitive reach, that grasp on intangibles, that lift of the spirit, that zest or emotion which lies back of a thing like prayer. And so, temperamentally, we write—and read—biographies.


The most intelligent and direct—not to say sparkling— criticism of biography as an art and as a branch of English literature which I have read in a good while is one of the small volumes in the Hogarth Lecture series. The book is “The Development of English Biography,” by Harold Nicolson.

Mr. Nicolson makes the very practical distinction between what he calls “pure” and “impure” biography. (It is diverting to speculate on the amount of “impure” biography in the world if we use the word in a different sense.) But Mr. Nicolson means by “pure” biography “the truthful and deliberate record of an individual’s life written as a work of intelligence.” By “impure” Mr. Nicolson means any turning from what is simply defined above and for any reason. Impure biography can come from a desire to commemorate the dead or from a desire to use a man’s life to prove a thesis or a philosophy. Or it can come from too much subjectivity in the author—which will change the book from biography of the central figure to more or less autobiography of the writer. All this is Mr. Nicolson’s and I owe him much for putting this down so cleanly.

What amuses me in reflecting on the paragraph just formulated from Mr. Nicolson is the nearly impossible Platonic ideal which is set for biography. (I believe that Mr. Nicolson is best satisfied with Strachey’s book as a possible example of “pure” biography—and not without cause.) Certainly the fun of our recent biographies lies in the fact that they are anything but pure and are not meant to be. Biography as we write it today offers a brilliant and opinionated author a chance to shine—at the expense of the often great man who is chosen as the victim. Mr. Kingsmill’s “Life of Matthew Arnold” is an adequate example. The complete personality of Arnold, great and powerful as a force in English letters in his own time and in ours, is never permitted in Kingsmill’s whimsical and brilliant book to pass before our eyes. We get only the silly poses of the man, his Victorianisms, while the bear-baiting author pokes at his victim and calls him “Matt” in a sort of flippant schoolboy nicknaming of his betters. I do not know when I have enjoyed a book more than Mr. Kingsmill’s, nor have I seen many more discriminating bits of literary criticism than those moments when the critic tears down into evident ridiculousness the pomposity of Arnold’s most pious and tearful moods. But the book has no right to be called “Matthew Arnold” and sold—according to its title—as biography. It is no more biography than G. D. Eaton’s once notorious essays in the New York Morning Telegram were biographies of Christ. It is a decent book and a keen one; as a literary critic Kingsmill has rare gifts and an audacity that lets his own mind work, but it is just those qualities which make him in no sense a biographer of Arnold but a commentator. It is an excellent example of “impure” biography done well. I do not imply that the book should have been something other than what it was. I merely want to object to its inclusion under the doubtful heading of “biography.”

Ludwig’s “Goethe” has had so many reviews analytic of its content and point of view that I cannot add to the list. But in the light of “pure” biography it will not do. It is an example of subjectivity, making the work a study of what Herr Ludwig asks of a great man of letters rather than a rounded, complete re-creation of its subject. There are jumps of time and place, sudden introduction of unknown characters, a persistent formlessness and lack of proportion, and a rapturous philosophizing (with miserably gushing translations) over some of Goethe’s windiest verse. (Why, I often wonder, does German poetry look so wretched in translation? What seems gentle and deep in feeling in the original so often turns out silly and vacuous in English. Example: Heine.) Ludwig knows how to keep his narrative moving, however, and he has an artist’s feeling for a mood of place and a stage setting that lends concrete color to a scene. Life and vigor and enthusiasm: these are great gifts in a biographer, and Ludwig has all three. There is good reason for his popularity, for he writes with excitement and he is interesting enough himself to make his subjective pictures of Goethe entertaining, even when his theory of Goethe’s contrary spirit drags.

It is an old idea, that one, of the devil in each of us, and dressing it up in new words makes it no more unique in Goethe’s character than in our own.

Far more pedestrian, and yet more endurable because of its simplicity, was Robertson’s “Goethe.” I am not sure about its pureness, but it had less eccentricity than many another biography and was not so determined to catch the public eye. The thesis of the book is much the same as Ludwig’s but more simply put. It has, probably, less color and concrete narration. It is more old fashioned, resembling a critical retelling of the facts about the man and his work, a method more common twenty years ago.

A nearly perfect job of scholarly documented biography is Terry’s “Life of Bach.” It has the old-fashioned plan of first the ancestors, then the man, his works, his death, bibliographies and appendices. But it is beautifully done, comprehensive, printed royally, and illustrated with a charming series of full-page photographs in the rear. I do not know anything about the problems of Bach scholarship and biographical research, but I am sure that if I did the value of the book would be enduringly enhanced. I read with delight—and am still reading, for it is a long book, full of detail, and has much to think on. But Mr. Terry can write vividly when he pleases. Pictures like these and sentences like these are charming because they do not seem too obviously, stuck in for color smashing.

Modern Wechmar is a straggling village . . . lying some three English miles along the dusty road that threads the ploughlands between Gotha and Arnstadt. It is a cluster of red-gabled houses grouped in tortuous streets round the church whose patron gave Veit his name, a circular building, whose star-spangled ceiling covers white walls, an unpretentious altar, and the curtained pulpit above it. The east window adds a note of color to whitewashed monotony. Within it Luther stands defiant at Wittenberg, and in an upper panel St. Vitus with attendant fowl is vigilant over his foundation.

I ought to add that although the book is full of musical criticism it is primarily centered on Bach himself, because Mr. Terry indicates the lamentable need for such a work.

“Meet General Grant,” of which a weary postman said he delivered some fifty-four copies to one downtown office building—in one mail delivery—comes, to my mind, as near “pure” biography as any of the books on my list, if my, idea of Mr. Nicolson’s definition is correct, unless Mr. Woodward’s talk about Grant’s tendencies as a zoophile may spoil it for some readers—as it has, according to correspondence I have seen. But Grant comes to life in the book, the facts are there in good abundance, and it sounds like the truth. Not knowing Grant—or Grant-iana—I can’t say. But the book is literature, by my tests of re-, creation and style and shape and purpose, at least. And, being written in the modern “picture album” style, it never loses interest. No wonder it is a popular book. It is full of scenes and experiences like this.

First, Grant’s father’s house:

In the winter the wind thrust its sharp knives through the rattling window frames and under the doors. Snow came early and stayed late. Cold corners and the smell of cooking. Rather cheerless, it seems, but Jesse and his wife had the tough vitality of youth; and besides, the hardest winter would pass in time, and then the bare forest, quivering with new life, would dress itself in shimmering green. In the woods there was the metallic ring of axes on the far-speaking air. Birds with flashing wings and the lazy gray smoke of brushwood fires. The house, so gloomy during the months of snow, lay in a crystalline sea of sunshine. The warm odors of the reviving earth drifted through the open doors and windows. Along the road came wagons creaking heavily, with dusty horses and sleepy, drivers.

Second, Grant on a sleigh ride:

. . . One may see him . . . hunched over in the front seat, the reins in his hands, clad in his heavy coat and with a fur cap pulled down over his ears. The keen wind plays with the girls’ curls and wraps. As the sleigh swings the corners the girls and boys are jumbled together, and there is bucolic jesting and laughter. Ulysses looks straight ahead, flicking the horses now and then, and replying briefly to some occasional bantering remark. This was as close as he ever got in those early days, so it seems, to the golden heart of romance.

And in the book there is sound abstract comment which gives philosophy, and depth to the concretenesses and even alleviates the tiresome fragmentary sentences!

Fleg’s “Life of Moses” is a good addition to those reverent books of modern religious reinterpretation best represented by Murry’s “Jesus, Man of Genius.” The style is direct and poetic and evidently sincere; the old stories and the assembly by the author fuse into a fluent narrative that gives spiritual power to the—to many—already mythical figure of Hebrew leadership. There is no cheap modernizing here, no dressing of Moses in too modern clothes and trying to feel his reality by making a state governor out of him—or a business man! Neither is there obvious allegory or parable to make only a symbol of the vigorous man of God whom most of us knew once, many years ago.

The volume on Henry Ford surprised me in one way. I came not much liking the idea of a book devoted to a mind of such limited mental horizons, and I stayed to marvel at Ford’s mechanical genius and common sense and—even though paternalistic—his kindliness. The style of the book is undistinguished; the philosophy not much but a desire to show Ford’s achievement to an already—or nearly so—believing world. My interest in the book is another tribute to that irritating literary axiom that your material in itself may be solid enough or fresh enough to gain you an audience. Many a writer, now “arrived,” could testify to the fact, were he honest enough, that his material took itself in hand and “succeeded.” By this I do not mean that the Ford book was badly written; I mean only that the extraordinary rise of Ford to such dizzy financial heights as his takes academic reason captive.

Barrett Clarke’s “Great Short Biographies of the World” has, I am told, some 700,000 words and some 1,000 or 2,000 pages. I know by dipping into it and getting interested in Peacock’s “Shelley” that it stretches on endlessly from early Greece to our modern biographic era of Herr Ludwig. It is, despite its size, a delightful book, a bag of surprises, and a fine place to test out theories of “pure” and “impure” biography. I feel grateful for having read in it and finding how much there is still to read whenever my zest for flat fiction makes me withdraw to the more serene heights of accomplishment. Then how the heroes shine! And how thankful grows the reader in having around him today books so lively, so fresh, so thoughtful, as these modern biographies can become—thankful, yes, even though the old days of stories for their own sake are regretted, and even though the flash of intuitive experience seems, in these days, to come less and less easily. Let the day bring its own fruit!


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