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Six More Biographies

ISSUE:  Spring 1930

The Man Charles Dickens. By Edward Wagenknccht. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. $4.00. Alexander Pope. By Edith Sitwell. New York: Cosmopolitan Book Corporation. $5.00. The Life and Strange Adventures of Daniel De Poe. By Paul Dottin. New York: The Macaulay Co. $3.50. Prancois Rabelais, Man of the Renaissance. By Samuel Putnam. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith. $3.50. Victor Hugo. By Raymond Esch-olier. New York: Payson and Clarke. $5.00. Emerson. By Phillips Russell. New York: Brentano’s. $5.00.

Over 3,000 biographies, I am told, deluged the English speaking world last year. Of these, less than five won any place of merit among the fifty best books chosen for librarians’ lists. Something must be wrong.

The publishers did not print 3,000 biographies (the figures do not matter—”a great many” would be exact enough for the truth) without a well assured market. Nearly, all these sold far above the average price for a modern novel, many of them at three and four times the cost. Biographies —good or bad—evidently fill a place that novels at present do not. The literary merit of these lives of the famous and infamous has no apparent effect on their sale, except in certain cases where (vide “Queen Victoria”) the knowledge of a fine book filters down to the avid readers of the “right” books. These literary hangers-on not infrequently act as a cheering section or critical bleacher where like sophomores of belles lettres they, shout approval.

All this, so far, is obvious. But I want to present the case from its beginnings, where most discussions ought to start. Again, obviously, let me admit that the existence of the fad for biographies is one reason for their momentary popularity. Such fleeting praise, coming from the thin minds of those who read only to be in fashion can do nothing but shame a good cause, and biography needs to be ashamed of its advocates, at times, for they are often silly climbers in the world of books. But having admitted the fad for biographies— and the prevalence of a group of pale “intellectuals” who devour pages without a taste for them—I can move on.

To my mind, biography has grown in favor in inverse proportions to the value of new fiction. The modem 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. The great province of the novel—to illuminate experience—and to inspire by the beauty, of life nobly endured and nobly portrayed is a barren country over which the weeds are sending a new growth and around which rotting fences mark off sterile soil.

Readers of books, the ordinary literate readers who make up the vast audience for a man who represents character in written words, turn their faces and offer their purses to biographers whose books recount with romantic glamour the tales of heroic effort exerted successfully by the great men and women of the past. This is what the growth in biography signifies to me, and it is an ominous thing. It indicates that the life has gone out of our fiction, for it was not beyond Richardson and Fielding and Dickens to enthrall the readers of their own day by books that were not only entertaining but enduring. The novelist may sneer at the American audience which asks for hope and spirituality and moral vigor in its fiction, but he cannot sneer for long. He is bound more to his public than he knows—and he ought to know, for he professes an ability to read the common heart. . . . He should see that foolish optimism, hope unfounded, and aspiration are not false but facts which exist as the only real explanation of ordinary life and endurance by ordinary people of evils which they, make no pretense at understanding. Fiction, fettered by an unnatural inaction and despair and checked by a devitalizing disbelief, has handed over to biography the spirited task of speaking to the world’s old idealism and sustaining its own faith in itself. Upon such a firm foundation rests the superstructure of modern biography, which offers its reader faith in himself, the satisfaction of achievement, the romance of moving in worlds and times not his own, and the adventure of courageous heroes who pass on to him vicariously dangerous battles grandly won.

Here lies the reason for the number of biographies and the number of poor ones. Once publishers saw with what pathetic eagerness buyers paid for lives that held the spark of genius and the color of heroism, they set their presses humming. So came much bad and a little good. It is not to be expected in this age when more people can buy books than have the taste to read them that the production of biography would reach a level of composition higher than that generally of other current forms. It seems only wonderful that more bad writing has not filled our shelves.

And here starts the quarrel with the professional historian who believes, generally, that biography is badly done and ought not to be praised on any ground whatever. Modern biography, for the professional historian, is an affront to the scholarly process. It is an intrusion upon the sacred grove by bumpkins. It is a production by literary amateurs who have more daring than intelligence. To him, biographies written by journalists or men of literary interests only are a dangerous tampering with truth, and truth, to be seen, needs to be revealed by a different way.

Only a pedant can hold such views of biography, for any slight knowledge of the means by which we comprehend or rebuild the character of the dead ought to show us the futility of hoping to arrive at the truth about the great.

Once a man is dead, nobody coming after really knows him or can tell the truth about him, unless he knew him while he lived. Documents are useful; letters are good, and reports about a man by, the diaries of friends or by the records of law courts are helpful, but they can only be used in a reconstruction by disjointed pieces. To remake a man out of the fragmentary rags of his earthly shell is, to my mind, more of a creative task than a scientific one, more of an artistic work than a scholarly one. (The scholarly ability may help, but unaided by the artistic imagination it can do nothing but parody itself.)

There is no truth about a dead man, only a variety of truths as they can be variously seen and presented. The most skillful array, of facts reassembled about a poet or king or courtesan can miss the whole center of the character’s essence because the intuitive grasp of the spiritual significance was lacking, which would have given meaning to the picture. (I am about to be attacked for my vague phrase, “spiritual significance,” which shields me as I scurry to cover beneath my unscientific speech; yet, anybody who has ever understood a child or friend when the facts, misunderstood, looked black, can know perfectly what I mean if he allows himself the rare privilege of common sense.)

And so, I do not expect of any biography, scientific, historical, journalistic, the truth about a famous character. My enjoyment in the book will not be my belief in the discovery of truth, but it will be the enjoyment of one illuminating interpretation out of a possible dozen. And I shall look, too, for the truth, that truth about men and women which we all see so variously and yet so accurately because our hearts are all different and our own characters and experiences, which make us see with a special angle and a single color. . . . But all of us see the truth as God gives us the power to know it.

(This paragraph is in parentheses. I have evaded the question of intuitive interpretation based upon a faulty reading of the facts. All I can say is that a man ought to be careful in any work he undertakes. But he does not need to run away from something he can do—run away like a small boy afraid to jump a creek lest he land in the water. The worst we can do in this dull world is to take our scholar-clerks at their own serious estimates of themselves.)

What do styles in criticism and morals and poetiy and politics do to our pictures of the dead? Everything. And the historian swings right along with the prejudices and affections of his times, like all the rest of us. So, the meaning of heroes changes. Their lives are fluid, shapes traced in the running water of existence, which the suns and shadows of different days remake with each new dawn. Out of the past the present! Yes, but out of the present the past. . . . In the image of a man now we create God then. The dead years have changed their garments and their guise as man, learning, told himself they must have looked. As he learned more, he revised his opinions. He makes himself a fool whenever he sits down for a quiet moment in his race with death and says solemnly, “Thus the world began. Thus it grew in the past. Thus it will be when I am gone.”

There is now printed, in Edward Wagenknecht’s “The Man Charles Dickens,” an exceptional example of the combination of intuitive or sympathetic insight with the scholarly faculty. I know of no other biography which seems to me to steer the way around the shoal of popular novelizing and yet hold interest as does this one, unless it be another book in this list, Edith Sitwell’s “Pope.” (I must recall, too, the fine “Bach,” by Terry, one of the great biographies of last year’s printing.)

“The Man Charles Dickens” comes close to an interpretation which is comprehensive enough to be tlw interpretation. It is carefully planned, accurate in the light of recent Dickens findings and in scholarly opinion. It adds to its author’s scholarship that rare thing in scholars, a subtle literary taste and an appreciation of Dickens’ accomplishment as an artist. Few critics have so fairly balanced the bad with the good in Dickens; none has done so well rounded a study with a use of modern material. Forster’s “Life” is, of course, old, and, in some ways, inadequate. Mr. Wagen-knecht evidently set out with no determination to wring from readers enthusiasm for Dickens; he willingly admits the defects. (Consider, for example, Mr. Wagenknecht’s delightful and nevertheless keen analysis of the lack of good taste in Dickens and in Dickensian humor.) Yet, there is the chapter on Dickens as an artist, where without fearful apologies, Mr. Wagenknecht shows the fullness of Dickens as an interpreter and the emotional Tightness of the deep feeling which lies behind every, Dickens book. No one who enjoys able literary criticism or vital biography can miss “The Man Charles Dickens” without a loss of pleasure.

Like a series of lovely pictures, Edith Sitwell’s “Alexander Pope” recreates the life of the most misunderstood of English poets. Her recreation is intuitive as a poet’s always is; her pictures are lyrical in phrasing and in effect; and her bitter-sweet thrusts at pedantry in literary matters are as instinctively right as they are devastating. Her aim is not to popularize Pope, but she does that for those intelligent readers whose hours with Pope’s less poetic moments failed to show the subtle rhythms and melodies and colors of his formally shaped verse. I am tempted to quote too freely because the book is a wonderful storehouse of ideas and sensations. Consider the cool bite of this passage in which Miss Sitwell regrets the fact that criticism of poetry is composed by men who are in no way poets: For this reason, among many, others, the task I have given myself is a dangerous and formidable one; since whatever I say must of its very nature injure the personal susceptibilities and make evident the lack of sensibility towards poetry, of some of our more eminent bores.

Or this:

At this time and in our age it has become the fashion for a poet not to be regarded as a poet unless he attempts to cure human ills, to comfort the dying world unless he preaches sermons, or becomes a photographer, telling human nature to look pleasant; unless he produces panaceas for all ills as the conjuror produces rabbits out of his hat, though the magic and the illusion surrounding the conjuror must be absent. In short, the poet must not be a poet, he must be some sort of moral quack doctor.

Then, there is the lyrical mood of Miss Sitwell’s prose:

The childhood of a poet is in nearly all cases a strange weaving together of the ecstasy that the poet knows and the helpless misery that is known by a child who is lost in the unfamiliar street of a slum. He is in a foreign place, and the faces around him are dark and strange. Even if they try to speak to him kindly, their language is one that is unknown to him. He must suffer within his heart the mad tempests of love for the beauty of the world of sight, sense and sound, and the mad tempests of rage against the cruelty and blindness that is in the world. But he must suffer these dumbly, for among the tall strangers there is none to understand him, and among the small strangers there is nothing but noise and buffeting. The children are terrifying to him; their eyes are on a level with his own, but they are like the blind and beautiful eyes of statues—they see nothing. He loves them and longs to be loved in return, but he knows that they, too, see him as some statue throwing some long strange shadow, or as a little foreigner dressed in mourning for someone they have never known, or playing an unknown game he has learned in far-off gardens.

Or this:

Pope was a strange little boy even at that time. There was no bee-winged glittering light of summer, buzzing drowsily in the garden, whose wings did not bring him the strange airs of poetry. And the snow, falling softly and suddenly as the first shadow of age upon some golden cheek, brought him its. cold air of remote and unattainable beauty.

Miss Sitwell is frankly an apologist for Pope, but he has never had a better, nor a more understanding reader of those tricks of boyish badness that Pope kept all through life— those petty streaks of mean jealousy, those sly deceptions of his letters take on the shape of pitiful barriers which a great poet, encased in a mean body, built round himself for his own peace- Surely this “Alexander Pope” will take its place as a discriminating interpretation of a man difficult to understand but rare in genius.

Paul Dottin’s “Daniel De Foe” has a fine robustness about it that suggests the sweep and zest of the times as well as the nervous energy of the great Englishman it portrays. Here are the political excitement, the journalistic flair of De Foe, and the curiosity of De Foe in capturing the essence of London life, high and low, good and bad, decent and vile. M. Dottin’s book gave me the delight which nearly all French literary studies give—the utilization of factual research for the purposes of adaptation to true criticism. The documentation never weighs down the narrative, never submerges the man or experiences to which it is related, as German literary study and American scholarly research often do.

“Daniel De Foe” is a believable recreation of the man and a lively study of the times. London of the plague, London of the great storm, London shaken by Harley, and politics, London where the De Foes of the world were made to serve the trivial ends of statesmen and deals—they come back in this book and set the creator of “Moll Flanders” in his right place and show “Moll Flanders” itself in a true but vivid historical light.

“Francois Rabelais” is unique in this list. Here is an excursion into comparative literature, into the Renaissance world where France and Rome, where the medieval world and the ancient, where the Germans and the French, are all caught in an incandescent glow and fused so that the poets talk with a universal tongue, with an almost timeless speech, and where the prose writers seem to catch fire from the stir and heat around them, and while politically busy with affairs of the times, have a great grasp upon universals, a knowledge of life which has ever since marked the Renaissance off from our modern and spiritually narrow sight.

I do not see how any reader who cares about great books of the past can fail to enjoy Samuel Putnam’s book. Rabelais is a hard man to understand, and Mr. Putnam has seriously tried to present a picture of Rabelais in his times, not in ours, as we usually read him. There is a danger, it seems to me, in reading too much subtlety into Rabelais or into Renaissance satire, just as we moderns read far too much into Shakespeare’s often tedious comedy, which was aimed, and ought to be remembered so, at the comic streak of an ordinary movie crowd.

“Victor Hugo” is built upon the novelized style of biography now so popular, as this paragraph will show:

Eighteen hundred nineteen: a cold February night at number 18 of the rue des Petits-Augustins hard by, the museum in which Lenoir had collected the treasures of Gothic France. A bedroom with a vaulted ceiling; a fire of branches crackling; a modest apartment. In an alcove stands a four-poster bed, and in it lies a woman no longer young, breathing with difficulty. An adolescent watches over her, his hair gilded by the vacillating lamp-light, his left hand supporting a pensive head. Under his right hand lie sheets of paper covered with small, round, curling, pretty handwriting. A respectful and obedient son.

Yet the method is effective, despite its brittle series of sentence fragments and its excited, somewhat too worshipful tone in every critical phrase. The book contains much new Hugo material; it is evidently a thorough piece of biographical research, and, like the rest in my list, has an obvious fineness of purpose and remarkable knowledge of the entire field of Hugo material. It is not thin; it is not a superficial skimming of sources which builds this literary study but an exploration of a vast body of material that few men have ever covered. The Hugo bibliography is like the Shakespearian; it grows so fast that nobody but a specialist can learn the new and work back carefully to the old. For some reason, although the method is vastly different, this book makes me think of the Sidney Lee “Shakespeare.” Perhaps it is like the English volume because its author’s admiration is so complete, so humble, that the tone of worship before a great writer infiltrates even the most casual— or minute—critical reference.

Phillips Russell has been writing fiction-like stories of Americans for the past few years, and his “Benjamin Franklin” achieved a large sale, not only because of Franklin’s popular following among the not too literary Americans of our time but as well because Mr. Russell is peculiarly capable of building smooth narrative out of more formal records of his subjects’ lives. This “Emerson” does not go into many of the subtle discriminations and distinctions which usually accompany treatments of his philosophy. But for a clear, readable story of Emerson’s life, for a good picture of New England as it may have been, for a characterization of Emerson that will show his native kindliness, his audacity of mind, his intellectual vigor, his sensitiveness, Mr. Russell’s biography is an accomplishment that deserves sincere praise. In these days of self-conscious exploitation of things American, it is a gratification to the judicious to find an American author like Emerson presented in a popular way that does no violence to his essential profundity.


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