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Celebrities in Miniature

ISSUE:  Spring 1933

Appleton Biographies: Julius Caesar, by John Buchan; Queen Elisabeth, by Mona Wilson; John Ruskin, by David Larg; Voltaire, by Andre Maurois; Leonardo da Vinci, by Clifford Bax; Mark Twain, by Stephen Leacock. New York: D. Appleton and Company. $2.00 per volume.

The painting of personality, outwardly or inwardly, has been the professed aim of biographers from Plutarch to Strachey. Some have essayed to do this in two to four volumes, others in one or less. Ancient life-writing had the merit of brevity. Plutarch, assuming a knowledge of classical history on the part of his readers, featured his man in a relatively short narrative relieved by anecdotes. In some thirty thousand words be sketched Julius Caesar, for instance, without a preliminary essay on his times. John Buchan, in his recent short life of Caesar, which is only a little longer than Plutarch’s, prepares the reader, as he well may, by an introductory chapter on Roman society and politics in Caesar’s century and then sticks to his hero. Happily, we are getting back to Plutarchian proportions in these short-story days, but with a difference. The modern biographer subordinates narration to interpretation, and if he happens to be a novelist or something of a philosopher, he paints a soul by probing into it. But whether the artist be ancient or modern, the question inevitably arises, Whose image and superscription is this — Caesar’s or the biographer’s?

It is an old question which short biographies have particularly invited. Contemporary as well as later readers of Walton’s “Lives” have suspected that the saintly old fisherman, like the Deity, created men in his own image. South-ey’s hero Nelson became the model for all aspiring young seamen in the British navy. Carlyle’s Sterling is the idyllic incarnation of a youthful friendship. On the other hand, Strachey’s Victoria, as all the world knows, is a brilliant piece of humanizing, so different from the usual laudatory portraiture as to provoke both applause and censure. Some years ago when I asked an English churchman, who had been Queen Victoria’s chaplain, what he thought of Strachey’s book, he warmly replied that it was a malicious libel. Is it possible, then, for your biographer, whether he portrays his subject from life or documents, or from both, to reconstruct him for posterity in his mind and habit as he lived? Is biography merely a matter of selection and interpretation, a prolonged exercise in psycho-analysis? Is it in any real sense a creative art? Yes, so far as it is literature and philosophy. Biography is at least a re-creative art and quite as difficult in its way as the historical romancer’s. To evoke spirits long vanished and reclothe them in fleshly vesture demands poetic imagination. It is the biographer’s business so to manipulate his materials as to give the reader a clear sense of personality, the more intimate the better.

And this process is, at bottom, one of selection and emphasis. A biographer may lose his man in a two-volume jungle of raw material and he may do the same in a one-volume labyrinth of metaphysical abstraction. In either case the victim emerges wraithlike from chaos or mist. There is, of course, no formula for life-writing, though many recent biographers seem to have learned one from Strachey. But the bow of Ulysses has been wielded rather awkwardly by most of his followers. The debunking game usually lacks deftness and finesse. The Appleton biographers have not attempted this feat. They have no formula, for no two of their little books are similar in construction or style. The treatment of each subject has apparently been left to the sweet will and temperamental urge of an author who has attained distinction as a biographer, poet, novelist, artist, critic. Evidently there was imposed upon him only a spatial limitation. He might shape his stuff, tell his story, do his interpretation, as he saw fit, provided he got along and settled his hero, villain, or saint in twenty-five or thirty thousand words. Consequently, the method of treatment is very different. And it is noteworthy that straight eulogy is universally absent.

The subjects of the six handy volumes here considered vary from Julius Caesar to Mark Twain. Buchan’s Caesar is the realistic opportunist, dreamer, artist, imperialist, all in one. “He ensured that the legacy of both Greece and Rome should be so inwoven with the fabric of men’s minds that it could never perish.” Mona Wilson sketchily portrays Queen Elizabeth, emphasizing her practical, unimaginative nature, and her life-long wish to hold the confidence of her people and secure peace for her country. Larg’s John Ruskin is represented as the maternally suppressed art critic and reformer seeking relief in color and movement from early puritanical inhibitions and emerging at last as a prophet after frustration in love. Leacock, in his congenial effort to interpret another humorist, agrees with a previous biographer that Mark Twain’s literary life was a conflict between his Western freedom of speech and his family’s puritanical sense of propriety. Huck Finn’s indignant comment on his morning treatment—”They comb me all to hell”—was softened by Mrs. Clemens into: “They comb me all to thunder.” Maurois’ Voltaire is vividly conceived and portrayed as versatile, witty, and contradictory. And Clifford Bax tries to pluck out the heart of Leonardo da Vinci’s mystery by arguing that his cool intellectuality, his “arctic impersonality,” exempted him from amorous desire and even made him a mild misogynist. Mona Lisa the inscrutable is really his “hymn of hate”! Of all these diminutive biographies Andre Maurois’ “Voltaire” is the richest in matter, the most penetrating, the most distinguished in manner. The atmosphere of the eighteenth century subtly pervades this story of the French intellectual who built a church at Ferney for the pious and a theatre “for pleasant people.” Deo Erexit Vol-taire was inscribed on the church. “Two great names,” remarked the visitors. Only two of the little volumes are strictly “new” biography. David Larg has written a thesis-life of Ruskin, more ingenious than convincing; and Clifford Bax, in moderately Freudian fashion, psycho-analyzes the Italian painter and scientist.

All this leads one to ask whether the brief biography, with little or no documentation, is as essentially truthful as the full-dress one with its historical trappings and copious use of letters and journals. Is it analogous in life-writing to the short story in literature—a complete unit, or merely a phase? That depends, no doubt, upon the knowledge and skill of the artist. A miniature may be as good a likeness as a large portrait. Since life-writing today, like most prose fiction, has become a selective and interpretative performance, there is abundant justification for midget biographies, The older nineteenth-century life-and-letters or life-and-times species was a leisurely narrative, with digressions and diaries. Like the modern novel, the new biography is less of a story and more of a career seen through a temperament, Viewed merely as a condensation of longer histories of individuals famous and dead, the little “life” may also be justified. When, in addition, the biographer brings some fresh point of view, reintegrates with originality and charm an old story, his work is a genuine contribution to the literature of souls. The “Appleton Biographies” do this. They do not constitute a new type, but they illustrate virtually every variety of modern life-writing. They are admirable revaluations, all readable, some brilliant. As hand-mirrors of personality, glimpses of men whose features have grown dim in the haze of years, they furnish capital reflections of memorable scenes and actors in a vast and varied drama.


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