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Biography and the Human Spirit

ISSUE:  Summer 1930

Thorns Killigmv, Cavalier Dramatist, 1612-1683. By Alfred Harbage. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. $3.00. Brawiy Wychcrlcy, Pirst Master of English Modern Comedy. By Willard Connely. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $3.00. Horace Walpole and Madame du Deffand, An Eighteenth Century Friendship. By Anna de Koven. New York: D. Apple-ton and Company. $3.00. Byron. By Andre Maurois. New York: D. Apple-ton and Company. $5.00. The Life of John Keats. By Albert Erlande, New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $3.00. Cardinal Newman. By J. Lewis May. New York: Lincoln MacVeagh, The Dial Press. $3.50.


To what purpose, this astonishing vogue of biography? Professor Frederick P. Mayer offered one keen answer to the oft-repeated question in a recent number of The Virginia Quarterly Review. According to Mr, Mayer, the increased interest in biography reflects the bankruptcy of the novel. “The modern novel, and I speak now in general terms, has reiterated the same barren facts of sex life and drab realities of average living until it has lost its audience through its own dullness. A tale which used to open magic casements now lets rusted screen doors flap and admit a few sickly flies.” For this reason, the ordinary man, the general reader—who must somehow believe in life as long as he is going to continue to live it—turns away from the futilitarian novelists in the direction of those biographers “whose books recount with romantic glamour the tales of heroic effort exerted successfully by the great men and women of the past.” As one who is immensely interested in biographical art, both as a student and—in a modest way—as a practitioner thereof, may I remark that as I read these words, a somewhat uncomfortable feeling runs over me. Mr. Mayer would seem to impose a rather serious responsibility upon those of us who seek in any way to chronicle the story of our fellows’ lives. It may be that this last sentence sounds disgustingly evangelical, but I cannot help it. And I am glad to call to my aid the testimony of M. Andre Maurois who, being a Frenchman, may perhaps be permitted to talk sense in this connection without hearing our feeble-minded latitudi-narians call him a Miss Nancy, if indeed they do not go further and suggest that his preoccupation with purity proves clearly enough that there are frightful hidden depths of sensuality in his nature. (Mr. W. L. Renwick remarks, in his “Edmund Spenser,” that fortunately Spenser “lived in days before it was necessary to gain a reputation as a moralist by, showing that unchastity is chastity or that purity of soul is best manifested in a Russian debauch.”) In M. Maurois’s “Aspects of Biography,” a disarmiingly frank and winning study of the art he so sedulously practices, he warns us very solemnly lest in telling the story of the lives of great men we make their vices more attractive than their virtues. He quotes Pascal: “The example of Alexander’s chastity has not made as many chaste men as his drunkenness has made drunkards.” And in his own person he declares: “Just as it behooves us to avoid linking ourselves to friends whose lives are reprehensible, since, as we say, ‘the example is contagious,’ so I believe we ought, in our reading, to avoid association with dangerous characters.”

May I attempt to illustrate the importance of this by going, apparently, pretty far afield. In a characteristic review of “Humanism and America,” Mr. H. L. Mencken remarked recently that there was nothing original about the doctrines preached by Messrs. More, Babbitt, and their confreres, that in fact they simply represented a variation of the stuff being doled out in countless Little Bethels the world over. It is comforting to know that Mr. Mencken reads Dickens, even though one may never have observed that he has derived any particular benefit from it. But I wonder if, his charge being true, the doctrines in question would really be very much the worse for that. There is no reverence in Mr. Mencken: he has studied the human spirit principally in his own particular incarnation, and so he can hardly be blamed if he does not feel any particular respect for it. But is it not somewhat significant that Professor Babbitt, whose intelligence is at least as far superior to Mr. Mencken’s as Mr. Mencken’s is to, say, Mr. Maurice Chevalier’s, should, in this connection, seem so much closer to Little Bethel than Mr. Mencken is? And may it not mean that the Little Bethels, distressing as they often are, have yet kept themselves firmly in possession of something that Mr. Mencken and his tribe have lost?

That something is, it seems to me, a certain fineness and purity of character, a certain reverence, and a certain honesty. Conduct may or may not be, as Matthew Arnold declared, three-fourths of life, but it certainly is a considerably larger percentage “than there is today a tendency in certain quarters towards regarding it. One may grant, freely and without cavil, that the Ten Commandments alone can only take us through the elementary grades in the school of life. But one has noticed also and very often that those who attempt to attend the university without having first mastered these primary kindergarten lessons often fail lamentably in their work there. In short, I venture to suggest that in spite of all the hypocrites and cowards who frequent Little Bethel, there are still thousands and thousands of men and women there who, so far as all essential matters of character are concerned, and so far as a real understanding of life is concerned, have left a large majority of our unchurched, unwashed, self-styled intelligentsia so far behind in the running that they haven’t even yet caught up with the year before last. And I am ready to go further yet, to assert that if you eliminate Little Bethel from your life—and fail to replace it with something better, something which can give you, on your higher level, the spiritual stamina, the moral sensitiveness that Little Bethel, with all its crudeness, does give to simple souls—you will lastingly impoverish yourself, and you will leave a hollow in the centre of your life that not all the pretty pictures ever painted and all the gay songs ever sung can hope to fill up. If that be Puritanism, make the most of it!

In any case, it is this sort of Puritanism to which M. Mau-rois would call us: he would have us use the vogue of biography to build men’s characters and lives. It seems to me a sane and a reasonable suggestion, and now that so many of the old sanctions and the old agencies have broken down all around us, surely we cannot afford to neglect any means to this end which may lie at our disposal. I have an idea that the biographer can do a good deal more than many along this line. May I once more travel afield for an illustration.

Only a few weeks ago, I heard an able, eminently sincere, idealistic college professor explain to an audience of modern, liberal Christians, in a Sunday evening open forum meeting, why he was an agnostic. I think he made no impression whatever upon them, able as his address was, and he may have gone away with the feeling that he had been hammering in vain against the walls of prejudice. Myself, I do not feel that he had been doing anything of the sort. He admitted, to begin with, that he himself had never had a religious experience. (I do not mean now an “experience” in the Little Bethel sense. I am using the words in the broad, general sense that has attached to them clear down from the days of Enoch.) After his address, another college professor—a member of the audience—put this question to him: “According to your own statement, you have never had a religious experience. As a scientific man, can you honestly claim that your opinions on the subject of religion are then of any more value than, say, a treatise on physics written by a man who had been trained only in the arts, or a lecture on spectrum analysis composed by a writer who happened to be color-blind?” And the lecturer admitted the force of the question and declared that ‘all he was attempting was to judge of certain manifestations of the religious impulse as he perceived them in the lives of others! Which certainly sounds more than a little like a eunuch writing a column of advice to the lovelorn. Where in God’s name did this absurd heresy ever come from, that one can study the human spirit, as one studies bugs, from the outside? Chaucer knew better than that, six hundred years ago:

Men moste axe at seyntes if it is

Aught faire in hevene; why? for they conne telle;

And axen fendes, is it foul in helle.

Surely if we are to know anything of the life of the spirit, that is of human character in its higher manifestations, it is absurd to attempt to generalize on the basis of the commonplace happenings that are going on every day all around us: we must go to the lives of the great artists, the great mystics, and the great saints. They only know. And it is just here that the biographer finds the opportunity, that M. Maurois would have him seize, the great chance to do something more than earn a living, something more than contribute to a literary fad, to do indeed the only thing really worth doing—to make a contribution to the improvement of life.


How do our six new biographies measure up to this standard? You would hardly expect to find much spiritual exaltation in the lives of Killigrew and Wycherley. And you don’t, although neither Mr. Harbage nor Mr. Connely exploits the sensational interest in any way. Mr. Harbage indeed is engaged in that most gallant of all biographical tasks, the rehabilitation of a damaged reputation. Killigrew, we learn in this first extended study of him, was not nearly so bad as he has been painted. His reputation has been due partly to the fact that he was often confused with his profligate son, and partly to the unhappy, circumstance that only the worst of his plays has been reprinted since Restoration days. When he was asked to leave Venice, it was not, as we have been taught, because his morals were so bad that he shocked the Venetians: it was simply a political move. All this is admirably done, and it is well done. But it hardly makes Killigrew a connoisseur of the spirit, any more than Wycherley is. Here is another man over whom it has been the fashion to shake one’s head. Even good scholars have assumed that while Congreve and Etherege and Vanbrugh could be reprinted in modern times, Wycherley quite clearly couldn’t be: he was beyond the pale. Professor David H. Stevens took just this attitude, for example, ! and Wycherley is conspicuous by, his absence in his otherwise excellent anthology, “Types of English Drama, 1660-1780.” Well, the principal difference between Congreve and Wycherley has always seemed to me to lie in the fact j that Wycherley had a moral sense and Congreve didn’t. I admit that he is somewhat more precise than Congreve is in describing the exact constituents of the dirt upon the proverbial spade, but the point is that Congreve doesn’t even see it. Mr, Connely is quite aware of this substratum of normality in Wycherley, and he has brought it out with exceptional sympathy.

Horace Walpole is far above the Killigrews and the Wycherleys, as far as general character is concerned, but he can hardly do much more for us in our present inquiry. When Gamaliel Bradford dissected Walpole, among his “Bare Souls,” a half dozen years ago, he took Walpole’s dilettantism as the keynote of his portrait. And he ended, severely but justly, with the observation that “it is a damnable reflection upon life, personal life, your life and my life, that the best thing to do with it is to forget it.” Persons like Horace Walpole, he charged, “trifle away existence and do not live at all.” Sir Andrew Undershaft would find him, in many respects, less admirable than the more sinful, but more earnest, Wycherleys. On the other hand, I think we can derive a good deal from Madame du Deffand. Through the excesses of her youth and the wearing ennui of her later years, she preserved at least one thing—an ear attuned to catch “the sad, sweet music of humanity.” Those idealists who ask so much of human nature that they, are bound to be disappointed, and embittered in their disappointment—they do not build a happy life for themselves, but they do teach the rest of us not to be too lightly satisfied with petty things.

And what of M. Maurois’ own hero, Byron? Can he give us anything? It seems to me he can give us a good deal, for Byron himself—much more than Madame du Deffand —is nothing but a disappointed idealist. Though he was a great libertine, he was also a great Puritan, and not all his sins were ever able to blot out the clean, honest man at the heart of him. That is what makes Byron such a perpetually enthralling problem and such a tragic figure: if he were merely the vulgar rounder that is all that his enemies see in ham, he would be much better forgotten. But as he is, he is not better forgotten, and he will never be forgotten. He will live always as a man who, thanks to an ideally unfortunate combination of circumstances in his inheritance and his environment alike, tried very hard to kill the God in him, and failed.

So it is clear, I think, that when M. Maurois asks us to write biographies that will make better men, he does not mean that we should all bring out new editions of the Elsie Dinsmore stories. So far, our biographers have shown much greater predilection for reviving the rogues than the saints, but I would not for a moment maintain that we have nothing to leara from the rogues in biography, any more than I would maintain a like proposition with regard to the novel or the drama. An excellent example of the sort of thing we do not need in this field is, I should say, Mr. C. J. Bulliet’s recent violently vulgar book, “The Courtesan Olympia.” I presume some of the denizens of Little Bethel might be shocked by the collection of nude women which Mr. Bulliet has gathered together in the magnificent illustrations of this volume. (One of them, by the way, is Titian’s “Venus Reposing,” the picture over which Mark Twain went into such amusing and uncalled-for hysterics of moral indignation in “A Tramp Abroad.”) I do not share this point of view at all. It is too bad that Eleonora Gonzaga, who posed for this study, was no better than she should have been. But her lust and all her transgressions are dead now—her magnificent beauty is still alive for us on Titian’s canvas. The sensible thing is to accept it gratefully, to be glad Titian painted her as he did, and to say no more about it. What I object to in Mr. Bulliet is his annoying adolescent smirking, his penchant for naughty words, his manifest determination to show us how wicked he can be, his ridiculous thesis—that sensuality is an element in all art of enduring vitality—and a style which would ; disgrace even Mr. Hearst’s incomparable newspapers. If you want to write about courtesans, I should suggest, read Mr. Bulliet’s book to learn how not to do it—(he is not fair even to them)—and then read Mr. Bradford’s portrait of Ninon de Lenclos, in his new “Daughters of Eve,” to learn how perfectly to approach and to handle the same type of theme.

There remain, then, Keats and Cardinal Newman, with the record of whose lives M. Erlande and Mr. May have undertaken the highest phase of the biographer’s work. Though Keats and Newman could hardly have understood each other’s language, it would be difficult to say in which of the two the glory of the spirit more magnificently shines forth. And how differently did the world deal with them, and what variant influences moulded their two lives! Newman made his approach through sacramental religion: how striking is his account of the unspeakable comfort that came to him through the presence in the house of the Lord’s bodyl To Keats, or so one suspects, the sacrament would have meant nothing but mummery and superstition.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

And through his worship of beauty—so long misunderstood, so long mis-labelled sensual—he achieved at last a nobility of character and a glorious acceptance of life not inferior even to that of Newman himself. For “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou nearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.”

In neither of these lives was worldly success at all in proportion to spiritual development. Newman found peace for his own soul in the Roman Church, but the record of the Church’s treatment of him—until well towards the end of his life—is hardly a story to encourage future converts. The trouble was that he was a man of genius, and the hierarchy, with good reason, mistrusted genius, as it always does. And as for Keats, his life came to an end in a poignant intensity of suffering that is well-nigh unendurable even to think of. What was left? What but the nothing that is everything? The hare, cold, thrilling fact that once more human nature had been shown to be carved out of the stuff of God.

When biography does that for us, it goes far to vindicate M. Maurois’ ideal and to justify the amount of time and interest that is being invested in it.


It would not be fair to leave these books without a few words as to method. The primary business of the biographer is the creation of character. When he fails here, he fails in the highest aspect of his calling, precisely as the novelist does. Only, unlike the novelist, his failure is not necessarily his fault: it may, be conditioned in advance by the presence or the absence of the necessary material. Neither for Killigrew nor for Wycherley are there enough personal data available for a really intimate and enthralling portrait. Mr. Connely is, accordingly, almost as much concerned with the fascinating background of Wycherley’s life as he is with the man himself, and some of his best work comes under the first rubric. Thus his description of Barbara Villiers is little short of marvelous, and the picture of life in Newgate Prison is almost equally good. Mr. Harbage’s book is only half a biographical study: the rest of it is a critical study of Killigrew’s work. Since this is a “first” biography, it must, of course, be judged on a somewhat different basis than if it were merely a portrait. Mr. Harbage’s primary business was to collect the facts. He has done it well, and the result is interesting.

The book on Newman and Miss de Koven’s book both suffer somewhat, I think, from the lack of any precisely defined method. I have no patience with those who urge the biographer to emancipate himself from formulae and methods: art cannot exist without pattern. Miss de Koven’s book is decidedly loose as to structure: the first half is devoted to a series of chapters sketching the background and the early lives of Walpole and Madame du Deffand; the last half deals with the record of their friendship itself. Though she has several new letters, and though her book is distinctly agreeable reading, I cannot feel that Miss de Koven has added anything to our understanding of this strange romance; nothing, for example, that is not brought out in Mr. Bradford’s three portraits: the Walpole in “Bare Souls,” the Madame du Deffand in “Portraits of Women,” and the Julie de Lespinasse in “Daughters of Eve.” I am sorry to be harking back to Mr. Bradford all the time. It is really not my fault if he writes biography better than anyone else can do it. Mr. May does not give us any very precise account of Newman’s life, nor does he make up for this by tracing, clearly and definitely, the development of his ideas. The most serious fault of his work is his uncritical attitude towards his subject. But the book has, perhaps for this very reason, a serenity„ a calm, an air of erudition that is very welcome in these hectic days.

M. Erlande’s book, a translation from the French, finds its raison d’etre in the author’s conviction that Miss Lowell’s “John Keats” being too long for general consumption, a good, brief life has become a necessity. The idea is not unreasonable, but I doubt whether the essential greatness of Keats could be revealed by M. Erlande alone to a reader who had known neither Miss Lowell nor Mr. Middleton Murry. When Miss Lowell used the chronological method in her huge book, she employed it very effectively. She gave us time really to get into her subject: we followed him day by day, lived ourselves into his life. Here the effect is distinctly of the skeleton variety. The life of Keats was too uneventful to be effectively, presented, in brief compass, in this way. He visited a friend, he took a walk, he wrote a poem. And, until the end, that is about all. Mr. Murry, in “Keats and Shakespeare,” chose the better way when he turned his back on external chronicle and gave himself instead to a minute study of the poet’s inner life.

I have said enough of M. Maurois already to show my sympathy with his aims: I must confess that, as far as method is concerned, his “Byron” has deeply disappointed me. I am afraid that M. Maurois takes his critics much too seriously. They denounced his “Ariel” because in it he mingled fact and fiction. He himself tells us that he no longer considers the “Ariel” good. Here he has gone to the other extreme: “Byron” is an old-fashioned, long-winded biography, nearly six hundred pages long, with dates at the head of each chapter, the whole thing painfully overloaded with detail. It is not a dull book because Byron cannot be a dull subject, but with all due respect to M. Maurois’s art, I fear that is the only reason. The essential Byron is there, no doubt, but the reader must take the trouble to dig him out: M. Maurois has buried him under a mass of externality. If only he might shake himself free of the burden of chronology, what a biographer he might be!


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