The Biographical Essay

[N]o species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition.—Samuel Johnson

Alexander Pope once said that “the proper study of mankind is man.” But is every man worth studying? In a review of a biography of Malcolm Muggeridge some years ago, columnist Digby Anderson answered in the negative:

We really can’t permit everybody and anybody having his life written up. Even now when, I don’t know, maybe one in a few hundred thousand chaps gets a biography, there are quite clearly too many biographies. Biography is becoming a producer-driven industry. A society that has lost the tacit discrimination needed to decide who should and who shouldn’t get a biography is in deep trouble. Muggeridge thought modern society had lost its values—that is, its priorities, its ability to discriminate between the great and the trivial.

This is basically true. Yet one could also say that the problem is not so much the quantity of biographies as the quantity of pages devoted to a given subject. Over the last half century, the sophisticated essay as an art form has been largely displaced by trendy journalism and turgid, full-length volumes. This is unfortunate because the biography in essay form has a venerable parentage, proving that the real measure of quality lies in interpretation. Many of the selections in Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets, for example, deal with writers who wouldn’t pass Anderson’s test of fame. But Johnson believed that “there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.”

Apropos of this topic is Robert Folkenflik’s interesting study Samuel Johnson, Biographer (1978). As the author explains, Johnson not only raised the profile of English biography, he brought to it a new level of research and precision. Gone were the superficial hagiographies of old. The London sage sought to humanize his subjects, especially through the use of “trifling” domestic anecdotes. (Yet he avoided the other extreme, seen in modern writing, of wallowing in sordid and marginal biographical evidence.) Johnson believed readers could learn most from the lives of others, even admirable men, if they were not held aloof as superhuman characters. Folkenflick describes Johnson’s sensibilities as an eloquent moralist:

To a large extent the Christian ethic behind so much of his work gives his biographies their breadth. He finds value in many of those incidents in a man’s life which do not display an exalted purpose or issue in great deeds…. Throughout Johnson’s biographies the men he praises most, like Boerhaave or Watts, carry out their tasks, whether great or small, with a sense of their own humble dignity.

Readers can do no better than refer to Johnson’s Rambler essay No. 60 for a perfect exposition on the subject.

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