Editor’s easy chair — From the October 1909 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
It would be an authority far bolder than this which would dare affirm that the Recollections of Seventy Years, by Mr. F. B. Sanborn, of Concord, were autobiography of a new sort; they are of the good old, personal sort, such as autobiographies have been from the beginning, now more intimate, now less, but always openly, and from their nature, confidential. We could not insistently say that they were even of a new shape, though we do not recall, offhand, another autobiography which divides itself quite so distinctly. When the reader comes to the two volumes of them he will see much better than we have said just what we mean, and will understand how the interesting man who tells himself in them had not only the right to speak of his past to a very actual and busy generation, but also the right to choose the manner of his speaking, and to devote one volume oftenest to his part in the national events of his time, and the other oftenest to his part in the ideals and motives of his place, which were universal in Emerson, and local in Emerson’s neighbors. Not that for the Fake of antithesis itself may one speak of Hawthorne and Thoreau as local; but it is a Concordian rather than an American sense of them which Mr. Sanborn imparts, and they seem not to transcend Concord as Emerson does. With Emerson to represent him in one sort, as John Brown represents him in another, the author need not feel dwarfed if the reader leaves his variously attractive book with the feeling that his life culminated in those two men. His relations with them and the great ideals and events which they typify form that side of his autobiography which may be distinguished as the impersonal side, almost as sharply as he has himself distinguished it in setting it apart in a separate volume, and treating it as if it were a separate story, In this he has perhaps obeyed, unconsciously, an instinct of human nature, in which there are at least always two selves seeking a respective expression. Usually they do not find it, if ever they find it, and the great objection to Mr. Sanborn’s plan is that it is apparently not the plan of life. Our natures may very well be duplex, but when it comes to our experiences it is only a one and indivisible personality that things happen to and from.
Perhaps, however, we are treating as a matter of forethought what may have been a matter of afterthought; for the man who had stood so near to Emerson in the ideal and to Brown in the real may have found that when he told himself fully in that relation, he had left himself out in the humaner, or at least commoner, relations of life which his readers would not have willingly joined him in ignoring. He may have realized also that they had the right to know not only him, but those minor neighbors of his in Concord who would have been major neighbors anywhere out of Emerson’s vicinity. The Alcotts, father and two daughters, the poet Channing, the Hoars, Mr. Ripley, with occasions of Margaret Fuller — only by odious comparison with Emerson and Hawthorne and Thoreau, can these be named as minor neighbors in a community which was as Greek in quality as it was in quantity. In any case, and from whatever cause, whether from forethought or afterthought, this dual autobiography forms a temptation to discursiveness in the direction of autobiography generally which the Easy Chair is not going to resist.
Autobiography is almost as modern a thing in letters as music in the arts, and it is perhaps still more modern in its development. If any ancient wrote his autobiography, as unnumbered moderns have done, the book has not come down to us with the classic poems and plays and histories, or even with the music. We say as much under correction of those who ought to know better; and if any more instructed reader will refer us to a Greek or Roman, or even an Egyptian or Assyrian autobiography, we will thank him, and will lose no time in reading it.
Why with the revival of learning this agreeable species of literature should have sprung up, and since flourished so vigorously, with such richness of flower and fruit, in almost every modern language, it would be curious to inquire, but such an inquiry would lead our wandering steps too far. It seems to have risen from that nascent sense of the importance of each to all which the antique world apparently ignored; and perhaps the wonder should be that we have not ourselves more abounded in it. Autobiography seems supremely the Christian contribution to the forms of literaturing. As the special charge and care of the Almighty, every anxious soul has doubtless had the impulse to record its aspirations and experiences; and many, we know, have done so, the weaker souls keeping to the narrative of their sins and sufferings, and the stronger souls involuntarily glancing, if only askance, at the manners and customs of the provisional world they were born into. One of the most charming in this involuntary humanness is the brief, too brief, autobiography of the great Jonathan Edwards, the mighty theologue who first gave our poor American provinciality world-standing, and did for us in one way almost as much as Franklin in another. Edwards’s sketch of his own life is very slight, and Franklin’s is more lamentably slight. Yet Franklin’s is one of the greatest autobiographies in literature, and towers over other autobiographies as Franklin towered over other men. It is about as long as Goethe’s autobiography, and goes about as far as that in the story of the author’s life. If either had gone farther, the record might have come to things of less real value to the reader, to impersonal things, to the things that history is made of; but in a region of literature rich in masterpieces they remain alike monumental, and exalt forever the memories of geniuses equally great; for the sage whose make was pure prose was not inferior to the sage whose make was of poetry and prose a good deal mixed.
If one praises them out of proportion, one is brought back to a sense of excess by the thought of the other great autobiographies, which challenge their superiority along the line of that most delightful of all reading. What are we to answer Benvenuto Cellini, if he questions the supremacy of those two? If we know him from his own report, he would like to have it out with one who set his life story lower than any other autobiography; and what should we say to the other Italians who have written of themselves so entrancingly. To name no others, what should we say to Goldoni and Alfieri, who remain after Cellini the greatest of the Italian autobiographers as securely as they remain the greatest of the Italian dramatists?
Together with challenge like this the question suggests itself as to whether such stories do not owe their charm to the fact that the literary or the artistic life is the most interesting of all lives, or has only the trick of making itself seem so. Certainly in the measure that the authors have been of aesthetic callings their stories enthrall us; some witchery of their invention steals into their narrative, and makes us read the delight of their fiction into their fact. Possibly they do not really keep the two separate, but are always more or less giving us romance. This indeed cannot be hinted of the autobiography of Anthony Trollope, one of the most entertaining ever written, which we cannot instance in support of our theory that it is not the great novelists who are the best autobiographers. Otherwise we should have said that it is some minor novelist like Marmontel who has supremely excelled; but even he has not excelled the Margravine of Baireuth, who only set up for a royal princess, unless, as Carlyle will have it, she was always more or less involuntarily making believe, like any professional fictionist. To be sure, she was of a very literary house in a very literary age.
Apparently the poets have been better autobiographers than the novelists, if we may judge from the unsurpassed if not unsurpassable autobiography of Leigh Hunt. He was not a great poet, and we might suppose that minor poets like minor novelists make the best autobiographers; but what we may more safely hold to is that the aesthetic life is the soil most favorable to the growth of this precious flower, and we must not be very arrogant even as to that. The most popular autobiography of our time, out-circulating and outselling any fiction, was the story of a soldier, as nearly pure and simple as could be; and though the world will not put the narrative of Ulysses S. Grant with the literary masterpieces, it will not forget that wonderful book as long as it renews its youth and virtue in the patriotic generations which have not yet failed to succeed one another. Having allowed so much as this, we are tempted to abandon our thesis altogether, or to admit to its damage that other women besides the poor Margravine of Baireuth have written autobiographies as fascinating as those of any author or artist. There is no end to the memoirs of Frenchwomen, but if we cite only two, those of the Duchesse d’ Abrantes and those of Madame de Remusat, we feel that we prove more than enough; and though it may be contended that these ladies wrote rather of their times than of their lives, we may convincingly answer that all autobiographers have done this: Marmontel conspicuously did it. We have from the beginning had in mind to say, however, that the more strictly the authors of their own lives wrote of themselves, the better autobiographers they were, yet having come to the point we are not as sure of it as we were at the outset. The difficulty is that everyone in this world is circumstanced, and that no one can sequester himself from his circumstance without losing something of his “own peculiar difference.” An autobiography that dealt with the author as exclusively as we had imagined might he very cloying, and might make us long to know something of his friends and neighbors and the events that concerned him as a citizen. Still, there may profitably be a measure of restriction, and we have seen that Mr. Sanborn in giving himself at first so wholly to his public life felt his autobiography incomplete without a second volume devoted to those personal relations which are really the universal.
Because women have the gift of getting at the personal — that is, the universal — in the most public and civic lives, they can better impart the charm of the intimate, in their dealings with political and social affairs, and so may really write autobiography when they seem to be writing history of their direct knowledge. We leave the question to those who have long since conferred epistolary supremacy on their sex, and who may wish to identify letters with autobiography. We shall ourselves go no farther than to express the wish that more women would write their own lives, and be entirely frank about them. We shall not require that they shall always make them as interesting and as important as Mrs. Julia Ward Howe made hers. That is indeed one of the best of recent autobiographies, and not merely because it is the story of a life nobly lived, hut because it is that story told with a sense as gentle and a taste as sweet as has ever been brought to the criticism of experience and observation. It should rank with the rarest of its sort when Time comes to make his selection of the best ten thousand autobiographies.
We could not promise the ladies whom we are urging to write their autobiographies that they can always be in such elect company, or can ever choose their company. Autobiography is a strange world, and there are many sorts of people in it whom the socially or morally sensitive would not like to consort with if they were to meet them in the flesh. Some of the ladies themselves have not been above reproach, though the worst of them seem above self-reproach. Not every actress who has written her life has been of the quality of Frances Anne Kemble; we cannot think just now of any other who has written of herself so admirably and entertainingly; and there are other ladies who darkle off into shades where no self-respecting autobiographer of their sex would care to find herself with them. We will not more than name the dreadful Madame du Barry, for it is not certain that she really wrote the memoir attributed to her pen; and we leave the dangerous ground with the admission that some of the men who have written their own lives would have done as well not to have lived them. They are of all sorts and conditions, and if we name James Vaux the Thief and Vidocq the Detective is with no invidious purpose of pairing them together, of mentioning them as extraordinary instances among autobiographers. Bad as the worst of these may be, his story, if he honestly tells it, may deter rather than tempt, and Morality can save her face by abhorring the facts which she reads with interest. The wickedest stories, however, are not the honest ones; such a wretch, for instance, as Casanova cannot be trusted at his vilest, and as an awful example must as often be doubted as dreaded.
We have set ten thousand as the exemplary number of the best autobiographies, yet we would not limit the best to this figure. As we have implied, all autobiographies are good, for one reason or other. The very longest are good in their way, though not so good as if shorter; they are at least better than none, and we would not restrict autobiography to any age or sex, creed, class, or color. What better book have we had in the last ten years, manlier, wiser, truer, than Mr. Booker Washington’s story of his rise from slavery? But it is not necessary for us to open the career to the talents in this direction; it is already open, and we will only intimate to any hesitating autobiographer that he need not forbear because he does not seem to meet the ordinary specifications for authorship. Let him be ever so obscure or humble, it needs but the sincere relation of what he has been and done and felt and thought to give him a place with any other in this most democratic province of the republic of letters. In fact, we should like to have some entirely unknown person come out with his autobiography and try if it will not eclipse the fiction of the novelist whose work we sometimes see commended by its advertiser because it is new. For once we should like to have such an autobiographer wreak himself upon the very truth, and we should not join any detective force in compelling him to put off his mask, if he chose to remain anonymous. He need not be afraid to do his worst; only a measure of truth will be possible to him, and though he should endeavor to tell the worst of himself as Rousseau sometimes does, he will not be able to do it. His book would not be one that could be put into all hands, and we should not desire general circulation for it; but for the student of man, in and out of one’s self, it would be a manual such as has never yet been supplied. Very likely it would be impossible of realization.
A perfectly candid and complete autobiography would take the dimensions of a library, a literature, and though we might wish it to have no limit, yet we venture to warn the ordinary autobiographer against quantity. The elder autobiographers, the masters of the art, kept themselves much more in bounds than most of their more recent followers. Lord Herbert of Cher bury, Edward Gibbon the historian, and Thomas Elwood the Quaker are masters in brevity; they all make you wish they had not been so brief. It will not do, since they are alive to suffer by the insinuation, to say that we cannot have the same grievance with Mr. Sanborn, or with Mr. J. T. Trowbridge, who have written with equal expansiveness of their experiences, and with equal attractiveness; but we may confess it of the late M. D. Conway’s two large volumes of autobiography, otherwise so admirable. The trouble seems to be that most autobiographers put off the delivery of their age to posterity till with age comes an insensibility to values, and everything that has happened seems of the same worth as every other thing. Here it appears as if Dr. Osler’s time limit might very well be applied, and no man over forty-five be allowed to write his own life. Goethe’s and Franklin’s records do not much pass their adolescence; possibly a man’s marriage might be chosen as the extreme point at which he should be allowed to tell of himself, for then he must begin to tell of another also in that unconscious loss of individuality which is said to result from happy marriage. We are uncertain whether the same rule could be applied to women; it has been imagined that they become even more individual after marriage, and are liberated by it to a sense of self unknown to them before.